Ancient Roots, Modern Problems: Jouni Eho ’04 Elected Mayor of Town at the Top of the World

At Davidson, he had to outwit Wildcat basketball opponents and struggle to meet the standards of the Political Science Department. Now, Jouni Eho '04 fights to instill economic vitality while advocating for sustainable lifestyles in one of Finland's most ancient towns.

Eho took over in October as mayor of Pyhtää, a town of 5,200 about 45 minutes from the Russian border. Pyhtää's roots stretch to medieval times -- official documents trace its founding to 1347 -- but it confronts the most modern of problems.

Its rural nature means it faces a brain-drain of citizens drawn to urban centers like Helsinki, just an hour's drive away. Healthcare reform is sweeping Finland, meaning new roles for municipalities. And even in Pyhtää, where winter temperatures of -10 degrees Fahrenheit are common, climate change is a foremost concern.

While those seem like daunting challenges, Eho, 39, is plunging into them with confidence. After all, he played for Bob McKillop, and the coaching isn't over yet.

"He keeps sending me WhatsApp messages," Eho said, "the most recent one a week ago: 'Keep dreaming big dreams. TCC will make them happen,' referring to the code ‘Trust, Care and Commitment.' I graduated in 2004, and still -- 14 years later -- the guy keeps the relationship alive and still keeps coaching me."

Long Road to Davidson

Eho was born in Finland's northernmost village, Utsjoki, and grew up playing basketball in the city of Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle in the region known as Lapland. 

When McKillop got a tip that he should take a look at the 6-foot-6 Finn, he gave Eho a call.

"While we were talking for the first time," McKillop said, "I heard a bomb go off in the background. Turned out Jouni was in military training. I'll never forget that one."

McKillop flew to Vantaa, Finland, and watched Eho practice and play in a club game.

"He pretty much offered me a scholarship on the spot," Eho said. "I broke down in tears and called up my parents saying, ‘It's going to happen -- I am going to the United States to chase my dream!'"

Eho, a four-year letterwinner, played forward on Davidson's 2002 NCAA Tournament team and was captain his senior year. He was also on the roster of the Finnish national men's team while at Davidson. 

When McKillop recruited him, he told Eho that he attends all his players' weddings. Apparently that is not conditioned on distance. In 2005, McKillop was on the dance floor at Eho's wedding in Finland.

Service to Finland

After college, Eho played basketball professionally for a time in Finland while getting a masters' degree in sociology. He went on to leadership roles in management consulting and public service. In 2014, Eho accepted the Father of the Year Award from Finland's minister of social affairs for his advocacy of family-friendly workplaces while CEO of a consulting company focused on regional development.

In the past few years, he has focused on local industrial growth by helping create entrepreneurial and innovative ecosystems, assisting a startup accelerator and promoting student entrepreneurship. In September, he was chosen to be mayor of Pyhtää by its municipal council. It is a civil service post overseeing the city's administration and helping it prosper.

Finns live in a land of two realities, Eho said. Helsinki, with a metro area of more than a million and one of the highest standards of living in the world, is expected to grow by about 20 percent in the next decade or so. But, Eho said, most Finns would prefer a lifestyle closer to the countryside, an advantage he hopes to leverage.

Pyhtää, whose nights are enchanted by the flickering aurora borealis, is on a scenic archipelago, with about half the city's 300 square miles consisting of water, and is home to the Valkmusa National Park.   

"Our main challenge is turning the trend of losing inhabitants to winning them," he said. 

"Pyhtää is located in a sweet spot, along a highway near the rapidly growing capital region. We have many building blocks -- location, beautiful nature and quality of life with moderately low cost of living."

While Eho said his region still gets severe winters (yes, he still misses North Carolina's climate), he has noticed that they seem more moderate lately. 

"I don't think any mayor can escape the climate-change agenda," he said. 

Echos of Davidson

He considers his political science degree and basketball experience sharp instruments in his personal tool box. He was at Davidson at an exciting time for a student of international politics -- the Bush vs. Gore presidential race, the terrorist attack of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. 

But one of the most enduring lessons came when Professor Russell Crandall scolded him for turning a research paper in late after Eho had suffered a serious, season-ending foot injury.

"He said, ‘Do you think that in the real world someone will feel sorry for you for being sick or hurt? Well, they won't. And so won't I.' He went on referring to the great Nordic leaders, like Hans Blix of the United Nations, and said he saw a lot of potential in me and wasn't going to let me take the easy route," Eho said. "I am forever grateful for him for holding me accountable."

Another Davidson voice is never far from his mind, either.

"I can think of a million of Coach McKillop's one-liners, such as ‘Preparation is the key for success,' ‘First we will be best, then we will be first' or ‘When you help others, you help yourself.' Even though they relate to basketball, I still put them to work in my life."



Mark Washburn