Mel Poole has led a life of intriguing military service and success as a business leader. As for his vision for the future, he wants to ‘reflect change.’
Mel Poole has traveled the world. Now, he is bringing the world to Ocala and Marion County as the director of the Ocala Fiber Network (OFN).
Poole is a retired U.S. Air Force First Sergeant who served in the United States and abroad, including within the U.S. Special Operations Command and Special Missions Squadron. For the past nine years, he has served as director of the city of Ocala’s fiber optic utility, which provides high-speed broadband services to businesses, schools and some residential customers.
Poole was raised in Ocala by his parents, the late Eugene Poole and Selestine Washington-Poole. When Mel was in fifth grade, the family moved to the grounds of the Lowell Correctional Institution north of Ocala, where his father became the first Black assistant superintendent.
Mel graduated from North Marion High School in 1985. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Trident University International. In his teens, he says, he “did pretty good” in football and track at North Marion. “I was a running back and went to state on intermediate and high hurdles.”
“Mel went to school at Dr. N.H. Jones, Fessenden, North Marion Middle and graduated from North Marion High,” offers his mother, noting that, “he excelled in academics as well as sports.”
Poole attended what was then Central Florida Community College, now the College of Central Florida, for a while but “wanted something different.” Although his father had spent years in the Army Reserve, Poole says he was “fascinated with airplanes, so I joined the Air Force.”
In the beginning of his 25-year career in the military, Poole worked with the A-10 Thunderbolt.
“Some called it the warthog, some the tank buster,” he recalls. “That was in England. I spent my first three years in the Air Force living abroad. I was a hydraulic specialist, working with the landing gear, flight controls, brakes, in-flight refueling … From there, I went to California to work on the Skunk Works project, dealing with black ops, spy planes. I had some time on the U-2 spy plane and TR-1 they call it today.”
Poole was deployed to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield.
“I was appointed on the spy planes, the first time ever deploying spy planes for war,” he recalls. “We were the first to deploy the U-2 abroad. We were one of the first to get there, get set up, flying real war missions, taking surveillance, spying on them early in the game.”
From there, he spent some time in Korea before moving to special ops in Fort Walton Beach.
“I worked on gunships, special ops type aircraft, still doing hydraulics, but with progressive ranks,” he shares. “I started going into leadership roles early on and became the lead tech as far as hydraulics.”
He soon was assigned to duty in Hawaii, with a plane specially modified to transport a four-star general and a four-star admiral.
“One controlled the entire Pacific; one the Air Force Pacific arena,” Poole notes. “I was on Oahu, at Hickam Air Force Base. From there we flew around the world. That’s where I really got a lot of experiences. I’ve traveled the world, literally—Guam, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Australia seven times, New Zealand, it was part of the job. The two senior officers we carried were dignitaries and it was our job to get them there safely and on time every time.”
While in Hawaii, Poole switched from aircraft production superintendent to human resources.
“We dealt with all the personnel issues, advising the commander on discipline, to help with the welfare of the troops,” he says. “I then went to Little Rock AFB, where I had a communications squadron, which is similar to what we do here today. And I also had the wing staff and the personnel of the base.”
Poole’s time in the states was cut short when he was deployed to the United Arab Emirates in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“It was the same thing as taking care of troops back home, that was my deployment for the war effort,” he remembers. “From there, I came back and got orders to Italy, which was my last stop before I retired. I had an ammunition squadron. We had one of the largest bomb dumps in the Air Force and we maintained all the bombs, bullets and missiles from the European theatre.”
When he retired in 2011, Poole says he came home to Ocala to “get my feet on solid ground.”
“I had some irons in the fire and my mother said the city is hiring. I got hired in the electric department as a safety and training coordinator, in 2011,” he offers. “The assistant city manager asked if I wanted to open a telecom and see if we could move it to the next level. I accepted and here we are. We have really grown the operation to where it is today.”
The deputy city manager at that time was Sandra Wilson, who later became city manager.
“Mel was a pleasure to supervise. He was always the ultimate professional,” Wilson recalled. “He had great ideas on how to move OFN forward and had the tenacity to see them through. As a result of Mel’s leadership, OFN continues to thrive.”
As the director of OFN, Poole oversees more than 20 team members.
“We are the city’s phone company. We provide high-speed broadband internet to businesses and some residential areas. We offer free Wi-Fi in certain areas, to include city parks,” he shares. “I manage that team of professionals, who do a fantastic job. I oversee and make recommendations for the budget and direct the day-to-day operations.”
He says OFN has been around since about 1995 as part of the city’s electric department.
“Then we got into other government agencies, such as the Sheriff’s Office, the county, and started slowly connecting them and providing them a service. From there we kind of morphed into where we are today,” he explains. “This department is unique to the city. There are maybe four fiber optic departments relative to a municipality in the state. We’ve been successful since inception. We monitor a whole host of things. We’re a smart city from traffic light/traffic controllers, Wi-Fi , we do a lot of work with FDOT, other government agencies, the hospitals, CAIs (community anchor institutions), we provide service to all the schools in Marion County with the exception of Reddick-Collier. That is a big win-win for the city as we keep that money at home and take care of our up-and-coming future, meaning the students.”
He says that early during the pandemic, his team developed a plan to work with the school board so students at schools in rural areas could access Wi-Fi to receive instruction and upload homework. Students in town could access free Wi-Fi through locations such as city parks.
“That was when the game changed a little bit, where now fiber is the thing,” he recalls. “Before, it was broadband, now people were starting to work from home and the challenge was how do we keep this network up and running and people were wanting more bandwidth. So, we had to strategize and split the team up so we could keep the network up and running. It was an interesting time for all of us, and definitely put fiber on the map.
“We function as a business. There are no tax dollars involved in what we do,” he adds. “Everything we do is essentially with a contract and business dollars. We operate just as electric, just as water, just as public works. We had a visionary thought in how we designed and built, and how we continue to build the infrastructure from a futuristic standpoint. I tell the team all the time, look down the road 10, 15, 30 years so we have a solid infrastructure in place. Because now, connectivity is important, whether it’s a cellphone, tablet, water heater, smart houses, cars, everything is going that way. We like to build for capacity; build for the future. That’s we are today, building for the future.”
Under his leadership, the department has twice won the city’s “President’s Award” as well as the IDC Government Smart Cities North America Award for Digital Equality and Accessibility.
“Mel’s a relationship guy who genuinely cares about the well-being of the men and women who work for OFN,” said current City Manager Peter Lee. “Mel has worked hard to develop and retain his team. He is passionate about carrying out Ocala Fiber Network’s mission and focused on delivering high quality service to all of Ocala.”
Washington-Poole recalls when her son was a youngster roaming around West Ocala, where now he oversees OFN operations.
“When he was a little boy, we lived in the area near Dr. N.H. Jones [Elementary School] and he would sneak across the road to the fire station. The guys would spoil him there during the summertime,” she recalls. “Now, one of his hub stations is there for fiber optic. Just to think, he spent so much time there as a little kid and now he runs the program out of there to take care of the city. In the area where the Mary Sue Rich building [Mary Sue Rich Community Center at Reed Place] was built, he used to ride his bike to his grandmother’s house. Now, he was one of the ones who made sure the fiber optic was up to par in that new building. You never know from which you come to where you are today.”
As for his future, Poole says the travel bug still bites from time to time.
“I’ve traveled the world, I’ve been to all but about 10 states, but I haven’t visited our treasures, the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, so I want to do a little bit of travel,” he shares. “I like volunteering, giving back, helping people. I will probably—some have tossed out, would you run for office. I don’t know. Do I have that little flicker in me? I think so, it just hasn’t flamed up. Sometimes it flames up and then you think, uh, you know … So, in the next 10 years, there’s a lot of options on the table, but I do think giving back as far as volunteering and maybe a thought of something in politics. Just not sure yet.”
As for whether her son might run for office, Washington-Poole, who for years has been involved with voting efforts, offers, “He has always been around politics, and it piqued his curiosity. We’ll see once he gets his career behind him. I think he would be a great asset to Ocala and Marion County.”
Poole, who is on the boards of the Public Education Foundation and Ocala Community Credit Union, is the father of two girls and a son, all adults, and has five grandchildren. He enjoys playing golf and de-stressing through a top-down ride in his sports car, taking care of cattle with one of his brothers or just hanging out at home.
“I’m kind of private; do my own thing,” he offers. “But I do want to reflect change and I’m not quite sure how to do it. I think most people think change is a bad thing. Change is just another opportunity.” OS