Stephen HarrisBack in the Hometown
October 1, 2012
There’s a guy in my neighborhood who’s turned politician. He was the top vote-getter in his May primary contest, and now he is odds-on favorite to win election next month to his first term in a public office.
Well, there goes the neighborhood.
During my 20 years in newspapering I spent a lot of that time as a reporter of government and politics. I’ve had the privilege of talking to and reporting on a wide variety of politicians, from members of the town planning board up to the governor.
During that time I’ve said to myself more than once or twice how glad I was that I was the reporter and not on the other side of the pen and pad as the politician. There are easier ways to make a living in this world.
I had a buddy one time who confided to me that he once considered making a bid for election to the Elkin Town Council. When my buddy told a friend about the idea the friend quickly talked my buddy out of it.
“He said, ‘Now let’s take a minute and think this over,’” my buddy recalled the conversation. “You’re going to have people calling you at all hours of the night complaining about something the dogcatcher did.
“Do you really want that?”
Politician is a thankless job, that’s for sure, especially at the town and county level where elected office pays little but requires lots of time, energy, personal expense and not a little aggravation.
So was my buddy’s confidant correct?
I told that Elkin story one time to a cousin who was a county commissioner in another part of the state in the 1980s. My cousin said the phone calls he got at home at the time weren’t too bad.
“You get a butt chewin’ once in a while, but it was rare,” said Edgar Spicer, who grew up in Austin. A teacher by trade, Spicer described most of his experience as a part-time politician at the county level as positive, rewarding and educational.
But things can get weird sometimes for politicians.
One time in another part of the state I got late word that U.S. Senate candidate John Ingram was going to make a stop in town to meet with a group of supporters at dinnertime. The 1986 campaign was in full swing, so I went to get the story.
Ingram, who ended up losing to Terry Sanford in the primary, walked into the restaurant meeting room and started around the room shaking hands.
When he reached to shake one elderly lady’s hand she slipped a check into his hand.
“I know this is like urinating in the ocean,” said the lady, except she did not use the word urinating, “but I wanted you to have this.”
The suave and sophisticated Ingram turned his face to the side - in the direction of where I was sitting just a couple of chairs away - and while still pumping the lady’s hand tightly he broke into the biggest grin.
His face turned so red I thought he would bust an artery, and Ingram started bobbing his head up and down as he chuckled silently to himself and tried his best to keep his composure. There were lots of eyes and ears around, after all.
It was the only time I saw Ingram speechless.
But after all that I’ve seen from politicians both big- and small-time, I was the most impressed by one from right here in the greater hometown area.
I was at a Ronda Town Council meeting one time. A small crowd was on hand, which was unusual because most of the time there is no crowd at a Ronda town meeting.
Some issue, I forget what it was, came up and the meeting grew tense. The crowd did not like something and grew angry. The handful of people in the audience started raising their voices. I started envisioning the headline: “Deputies called to break up Ronda fight; all in hospital.”
But then a town council member called out for everyone’ s attention. He was the late Rev. Olin Barker. Barker was a Baptist preacher, and normally preachers and politics don’t mix well.
But Barker, who died in 2007, was a well-respected, long-time Ronda resident and had a long tenure in Ronda town government.
I was vaguely acquainted with Barker. Years earlier I had met him when I was a teenager. But quite frankly at the time I was more interested in one of Barker’s daughters than in him.
At the Ronda town board meeting Barker stood at his seat and took command.
First, Barker appealed to everyone and said that they were all friends and neighbors here, and everyone just wanted the best for the town. Then Barker asked for civility and respect for each other, and he assured the audience that if they took a calm approach everything would work out.
You could have heard a pin drop. I looked around and everyone was staring ahead at Barker raptly. And they did calm down, and by the end everything was fine.
I’ve observed presidents and governors in action, but I’ve never seen anything to rival that display of leadership by Olin Barker.
So in this campaign season here’s to our selfless public servants who, you must understand, may be a bit on edge right now during the heat of the election season.
I’m sure you politicians don’t hear this enough, but do know that we (well, many of us) do appreciate the good you do, and forgive us when we are not so easy to lead.
And for the record I’m looking forward to having a politician as a neighbor.
That is, until tax time. Eddie, I know where you live.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.