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By JOSHUA COFFMAN firstname.lastname@example.org FORT KNOX — Friends and coworkers describe him as a connoisseur, a man who appreciates quality, well-prepared food, fine wine and fast sports cars. They say he is also an astute observer of detail. On a mere second meeting, without delay, he uncannily matches a name to a face. By the time he leaves Hardin County, he has proved he can recall names of an entire auditorium. Col. Mark Needham pays attention to the small things in order to understand the big picture. And officials on and off the military post say it allowed the outgoing garrison commander to spearhead the most comprehensive community-Army partnership in memory as the installation undergoes its most expansive transformation in more than a half century. The retiring Needham, whose change of command ceremony is at 10 a.m. today, arrived at Fort Knox in 2005 less than two months after the Pentagon’s base realignment plan was announced. BRAC will relocate the post’s Armor Center but shifted thousands of soldiers and jobs to the area. Col. Rick Schwartz volunteered for the assignment to succeed Needham. He arrives from duty at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pa. Many credit Needham for much of the planning and governmental lobbying that took place in the three years that followed the BRAC announcement. Those who have worked with Needham say his vision and people skills have left the Army post and its surrounding community better off as it faces future growth. However, he refuses to take the credit alone. At a dinner for civilian community leaders to say goodbye to him, the man of the hour redirected the spotlight, handing out awards and commemorative gold bars to those who also had participated in preparing for the BRAC changes. “If I had any success, it’s (from) building teams,” he said in an interview earlier this week. The footprint left behind looks large, considering it was left by the Army boots of a man who did not plan on becoming a career soldier. Needham attended West Point on scholarship “because I didn’t have the money to go anywhere else.” Hailing from Jefferson Township, N.J., he did not plan on serving beyond his five-year commitment. “And then I got to command a company,” Needham said. That changed everything. Afterward, he attended graduate school and taught at West Point. “All of a sudden, I’m past the 10-year mark,” he said. “The good jobs kept coming and I was having fun.” But none of the assignments in his 26-year career, Needham said, outranked his final duty at Fort Knox, where he could not wait to get to work each day. “What makes this area special (are) the people … better than any place I’ve ever been,” he said. And those of whom he speaks highly also speak highly of him. Brig. Gen. Donald Campbell, the post’s commander, calls Needham “the best garrison commander I’ve ever served with — bar none.” Local leaders credit his vision for bringing agencies from several surrounding counties closer during the BRAC road show, in which elected officials, school superintendents and other civic agencies’ representatives traveled to various Army sites, informing workers whose jobs were relocating to Fort Knox about the surrounding community. Brad Richardson, executive director at One Knox, said the program became a national benchmark for the Army. “The stage he has set for us and Col. Schwartz is just phenomenal,” he said. Keeping state leadership at the highest level, including former Gov. Ernie Fletcher and current Gov. Steve Beshear, clued in on the transformation has helped bring attention and $100 million in tax money to the area. Richardson also credited those achievements to the work of Needham. “He made all the right approaches and all the right pitches,” he said. In addition to the role as the Army’s BRAC ambassador to the community, those who work with him on post point out that Needham was a key figure in overseeing the post’s day-to-day operations. “He has done the work of two people,” said Emmet Holley, the post’s civilian deputy garrison commander and a former commander himself at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. “It seems like he’s done it effortlessly.” Many who know him have tales of Needham’s intellect, his ability to give a 45-minute speech without notes, complete with accurate and up-to-date statistics. However, Holley said it was the colonel’s second day on the job that let him know what the new garrison commander would be like. A veteran with cancer wrote a letter to the post, seeking help. Though it was well beyond the scope of his duty, Needham handed Holley the letter and told him to follow up. Needham then worked with his deputy to make sure it was resolved. “We’re all taught as officers to take care of our people,” Holley said. “But it’s not just his people. It’s all people.” Randy Moore, director of Morale Wellness and Recreation at Fort Knox, will remember cookouts at Needham’s home. He also will remember visits by Needham to his own house, where the colonel critiqued his beer selection. It resulted in Moore learning more about the ingredients used in each ale, lager and porter, and the history of each. And it resulted in him making wiser decisions when picking up a six pack. In turn, Moore taught the colonel more about fine bourbon. Approachable, down to Earth and knowledgeable, those who met Needham in his three years at Fort Knox say they learned from him. “He’s going to be a hard act to follow,” Moore said. Tim Asher, president of the Elizabethtown Chamber of Commerce, noted Needham’s open-door policy. The outgoing commander once took an hour-and-a-half from his busy schedule to personally lead one of the chamber’s leadership classes on a tour of Fort Knox. “Personally, to me, he kind of stood out,” Asher said. “He singularly had an intellect that was above most.” His decision to retire is a family decision, Needham said. “I’ve done everything I need to do.” He will have more time to devote to his wife Judy, with whom he bonds during early morning jogs, and his son, Craig, and daughter, Audrey, who both attend the University of Kentucky. Though he is unsure where he will end up calling home after the Army, Needham said, if pressed, he would choose this area. He also will have more time for woodworking and golf, as well as his Pontiac GTO “that’s obnoxiously loud and super fast. Let’s just say it’s had a little modification to it and leave it at that.” However, when Needham hangs up his uniform for the last time, he also will hang up part of his heart. “I will miss this job more than any job I’ve ever had,” he said. “(It) will leave an empty part inside of me for a while.” But Needham knows it’s been a job well done: “I feel like I’m going out on top.” Joshua Coffman can be reached at (270) 505-1740.