DODGE CITY — Dodge City has only had two mayors since it first incorporated in 1993. Both of them worked hard to help the interstate-adjacent town grow into a hub of commercial activity — and both of them maintained an unflinching faith in the businesses, the people, and the potential of the small, southern Cullman County community they called home.
On Tuesday, Dodge City lost the woman who’s been synonymous with almost every local milestone the town’s achieved since she first became mayor in 2009. Mayor Tawana Canada passed away at the age of 67, leaving behind a legacy of local growth — and, more importantly, community closeness — that friends and family say no successor in the vacant mayor’s seat will be able to replace.
Gathered Wednesday at the town’s senior center — a prized 2016 renovation project that Canada pushed for — local seniors laughed and cried together as they reminisced over Canada’s gentle nature, her often-unsung generosity, and her genuine love for Dodge City.
“She cared about the town and she cared about the seniors,” said Rubie Day, Tawana’s sister in-law. “She was just a caring person. It’s going to be very hard for us to go on without her. We just decided to come here today and all of us just kind of grieve together.”
Already a town council member at the time of her 2009 appointment to the mayor’s role, Canada succeeded the late Perry Ray as Dodge City’s second mayor. For the past few years, she had lived with a number of chronic health problems. But, said Day, she never let her own troubles diminish her commitment to improving her friends and neighbors’ quality of life.
“She didn’t complain. We never knew when she was really sick. She was here yesterday, right here at the senior center. We had dinner here,” said Day.
“She was a giving person,” added Gail Day, Canada’s older sister by 10 years. “If she knew of anybody in need, even if she needed something herself, she would still give what she had to someone in need. She didn’t always have the money to spend on people the way that she did. But if she knew someone was hungry, it wasn’t unusual for her to have 10 or 15 people over at her house for dinner.”
Canada was a lifelong Cullman County resident. She attended Good Hope High School and, as an adult, worked at a variety of restaurants, hotels, and other businesses alongside the Highway 69 corridor that’s since become a boom spot for businesses seeking to capitalize on the nearby interstate traffic.
Through it all, said longtime friend Eleanor Callan, Canada maintained a quiet resourcefulness and positive demeanor that always sought the optimistic view of how to solve a problem or achieve a difficult goal.
“Just ask anybody: Tawana was kind,” said Callan. “And she was smart — and not just the intelligent kind of smart, but people-smart too. She was a survivor. She didn’t sit around and let life pass her by. She hopped in with both feet and she worked for what she believed in. She always made her own way.”
“When Tawana was young, our dad and mom owned a store, just down the road from where we are here, called Beech Grove,” added her sister Gail. “Her business and restaurant work kind of ran in the family. She was 11 when our mother died. Tawana had a rough life when she was younger, which is why she knew how to work for things. She had to make do.”
The Dodge City town council was scheduled to hold its regular January meeting tonight, but that has been postponed by a week while the town mourns its longtime leader. The council will, of course, have to address the mayor’s vacancy sometime soon — but for now, that’s a topic that can wait.
Thanks to some enthusiastic recruiting on Canada’s part, TV weather personality James Spann was set to make an appearance at the town’s senior center next week. And, thanks to her friends’ knack for knowing what made her tick, he still is — even if Canada won’t be standing in the doorway to greet him.
“We decided not to cancel it, because she wanted it so bad,” said Rubie, her sister in-law. “She was really looking forward to it. She had met him at a book signing and invited him to come and speak to our seniors. We had planned to all wear our yellow T-shirts, so we all look like sunshine — and we’re still going to. That was Tawana’s idea.”
There’s an organ sitting along the wall of the senior center, an instrument that sees occasional use whenever someone’s in the mood for music. Canada wasn’t a pianist herself, but she had an intrinsic affinity for the solitary joy to be found in sitting down and quietly figuring out a tune.
“She said she came over here one day by herself this week and played the organ,” said Gail. “She played ‘Peace in the Valley.’ She figured it out just by kind of picking out the notes. She had a talent for doing things herself.”