Former mayor George Kaufman governed Jonestown with his heart

6 min read1,095 views and 601 shares Posted June 25, 2020

So many times those with big hearts for service are also people-persons.

The caring, commitment-to-service aspect can usually be traced to nurture: primary caregivers and upbringings. The extrovert personality is more a product of nature.

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George Kaufman checks a lot of these boxes. In fact, he fits the profile to a tee.

Kaufman is ten years removed from his time as Jonestown’s influential mayor. His recollection of that era remains vivid, because it so much reflected who he really is as a person.

“It probably came from my dad, and mother,” said Kaufman of his heart for service. “I was a charter member of the Northern Lebanon Rotary Club. Their motto is ‘service above self.’ I try to live by that. There are so many people who don’t want to get involved.

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“I loved people,” Kaufman continued. “I loved working with people. I liked to see people happy. So many people complain about local government and don’t do anything about it.”

A Lebanon County transplant, Kaufman served as Jonestown’s mayor from 1994 until his retirement in 2010. He served four terms, each time running unopposed.

At first, he was paid a stipend of $50 per month. Later, the borough insisted on raising it to $100 per month.

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“It was an old town,” said Kaufman, who now resides in Palmyra. “It was founded in 1761. I think Jonestown has a little niche to itself. Once we got the park developed, it became an attraction. I think it helped the image of Jonestown.” (Kaufman was referring of course to the Jonestown Community Park, which today bears Kaufman’s name. More about that in a minute.)

“When I took over, the population was 1,000 people and everyone knew everyone,” added Kaufman. “It was a close-knit community. I think that’s what I liked about it. When we had projects, everybody got involved. Small towns have their advantages and disadvantages.”

“George is probably one of the most honest, straight-forward persons you will ever meet,” said Dennis Houser, who served on Jonestown Borough Council during the time Kaufman was mayor. “He made many friends during his time in Jonestown, and had a lot of political friends in Harrisburg as well.” Kaufman was able to translate those connections into advancements for the community, Houser said.

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Lebanon Daily News archival coverage showing former State Rep. Peter Zug on a slide at Jonestown Community Park commemorating a $30,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development that was awarded in 2003.

Surrounded by Swatara and Union Townships and geographically nestled near the top of Lebanon County’s northwest corner, Jonestown is one of the county’s seven boroughs. Originally called Williamsburg, Jonestown’s population had nearly doubled in 2010, to 1,905 residents.

Read More: Here’s what you missed at the first-ever Spirits of Jonestown Cemetery tour

“It grew on me,” said Kaufman of Jonestown. “I’m from western Pennsylvania, Somerset County. With my tenure in the [National] Parks Service, I was moved all over the place. In 1974, I was transferred to Swatara State Park and Memorial Lake State Park. Eventually, we moved to Jonestown and we lived there for 45 years. That little town had some character. I fell in love with it. We have lots of memories there. Our children grew up there. I love Jonestown.

“After 35 years in parks and recreation, I first served on the planning board,” continued Kaufman. “In 1991, I moved from that position to borough council. I saw things weren’t going the way they should, so I decided to run for mayor. I thought I did well. I got a lot done.”

“I don’t think anyone loved Jonestown as much as George — nobody,” said Houser. “Although the park was his real pride and joy, George always had the best interest of the entire borough at heart, not just one particular area or neighborhood or street — the entire community.”

Richard Houser (left) and George Kaufman (right) during the renaming of Jonestown Community Park, a park rejuvenation project spearheaded by Kaufman. (Dennis Houser)

Kaufman’s ultimate goal was to make Jonestown a better place to live. But his pride and joy was rejuvenating the Jonestown Community Park founded by Richard Houser, that now bears his name.

“The primary mission was to get it up and running,” said Kaufman of the park, which he said was in a distressed state at the time he took office. “I worked very hard. I got thousands of dollars in grants, because I knew how to get it done. But I did other things, too. The sidewalks were falling apart, and now they’re great. But my greatest joy as mayor was working at [Jonestown Elementary]. I used to go and read stories to the students. I judged contests there. I worked with the school very closely.”

Lebanon Daily News archival coverage of a 2005 contest to get ideas for a borough logo from students at Jonestown Elementary School.

“When I started in 1994, I didn’t have a secretary,” added Kaufman. “My phone used to ring off the hook. I was it. I was very open. My wife ended up being the secretary. People would have problems and I’d try to solve them. Barking dogs were a major problem in Jonestown.”

“George was a hard worker for his community,” said Houser. “George was a fantastic PR person for Jonestown. Most of the time when there was a problem, people would call George. George knew how to handle people — never confrontational — deal with them and the problem, and find a resolution everyone could live with. That was his strength.”

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Ultimately, putting one’s heart and soul into everything you do can ultimately take its toll. In 2010, at the age of 75, Kaufman decided the time was right for the next phase of his life.

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“I sometimes think the same thing,” said Kaufman. “I think I should’ve run for a fifth term. But I thought 16 years was enough. The town needed a different influence. I was tired and I thought it was time to move on.

“I miss Jonestown terribly,” Kaufman continued. “My wife doesn’t. I’ve adjusted here, but it’s not like it used to be.”

The population in Jonestown has nearly doubled since Kaufman began his first term. (Falk)

“George’s professional background was in parks and mine was in IT, so we didn’t really have a professional relationship,” said Houser. “He simply worked tirelessly for the benefit of Jonestown. In my 20 years on council — most of which while George was mayor — I don’t believe he ever missed one meeting. He was always extremely prepared for whatever topic anyone wanted to discuss with him. And if he didn’t know the answer, he would find out.”

Kaufman’s excellence was recognized outside of the community as well. In 2009, he was named Outstanding Mayor of Pennsylvania, and in 2012, he and six other mayors were honored at the White House for service to their communities.

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“I think it takes a commitment to what you think needs to be done,” said Kaufman. “It takes loyalty and commitment to the job. Whatever needs to be done, you do it.

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“I think the main change in Jonestown over the years was the closeness of the people,” added Kaufman. “The old part of Jonestown hasn’t changed. It’s just like it was. But some of the old-timers are gone.”

“Our relationship grew around borough business throughout the years,” said Houser. “But we developed a good friendship as well. He also became interested in how both my grandsons did while playing baseball, and if one of them would be playing at one of the fields in Jonestown, George would be in attendance. Although he no longer lives in the borough, we still stay in touch, and as soon as dine-in seating is allowed again, we plan on having lunch together.”

And, almost certainly, the topic of Jonestown will come up in conversation.

Read More: What exactly is the “Jonestown Volcano”?


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