Leading the Way
Mayor Richard Tonini Talks Background, Inspirations
Mayor Richard Tonini grew up in an environment that inspired him to change his hometown for the better. To this day, he works with many members of his community to bring his childhood aspirations to life. It started when he was a young boy, looking up to this friend Bernie Bowling’s father, who served as the mayor of St. Matthews for 24 years.
“When I was young, Mayor Bowling Sr. lived in the neighborhood – there were a bunch of boys and we all grew up together,” Tonini says. “We played football and basketball in their yard and I was pretty close to the family. Mayor Bowling Sr. is the one that was out there making miracles happen. He would watch for ponding in the roads when we would have a heavy rain. When a storm would blow through, branches would clog up the catch basins in the street. Mayor Bowling Sr. would supervise the water-filled streets, and send me and some other neighborhood kids to help unclog the drains. He was an inspiration, and everyone looked up to him.”
Bowling Sr. had begun a legacy that his son Bernie Jr., and Tonini, would preserve long after his death while serving as mayor.
At one point the city lost their garbage contractor. Tonini was a young boy at the time, but he remembers Bowling Sr. starting a garbage collection department for the city in order to restore cleanliness.
“He went to downtown Louisville and bought some used garbage trucks, hired a few folks and started collecting garbage,” Tonini says. “Some of the neighborhood kids and I worked collecting garbage around St. Matthews.”
When Tonini had matured into a young adult, he decided to buy a house in St. Matthews before he was married. Bowling Sr. came to him with an offer to participate in some projects at the local level. This led to Tonini’s appointment to the property tax assessment board, and a role as city treasurer.
Tonini remembers Bowling Sr. calling him to offer various volunteer positions over the years.
“Mayor Bowling Sr. was a wonderful guy and the people of the community loved him,” Tonini says. “St. Matthews is a flat area – let’s say he put a lot of pipe in the ground. Quite often you would see him down in the ditches giving work instructions on how to lay the next pipe. He worked with many council members over the years in order to improve drainage in this city.”
When Bowling Jr. chose to run for council member instead of mayor in 2014, then-council member Tonini decided to run for mayor. He won and began his first term in January of 2015. He is currently in his fifth year as mayor after winning a second term in 2018.
There are many positive aspects of St. Matthews that Tonini has been involved in. St. Matthews residents can be proud of their beautiful parks – several million dollars have been spent in the last few years on vibrant trees and shrubs, beautiful landscaping, walking paths and enjoyable playgrounds for children.
A couple of years ago, Tonini and Bowling Jr. met with representatives of the Louisville Free Public Library (LFPL), who suggested fresh paint and new shelves for the Eline Branch. The City of St. Matthews has long provided rent-free space to the LFPL. Tonini asked what the branch’s biggest problem was, and representatives eventually expressed that it needed more space and resources for the general public. Tonini then made a proposal along with other local leaders for a branch upgrade. The result is a gorgeous, 18,500-square-foot building, which opened to the public in May of 2019 after careful planning and construction.
Tonini works alongside other leaders in St. Matthews to lay a foundation for the future of the city.
“It’s just stuff I love to do,” Tonini says. “Let’s say you are a knitter. If it’s your hobby, you go for it. I work with people who love public service. We do what we love. It’s not for self. It is for the joy of helping people. You have to follow your passion. Whether it be the city council or childhood friends, we wouldn’t be where we are today without the daily effort of our city’s constituents. At the core of all of this is city employees working in the same direction as our citizens, trying to make things better.”