Political pioneer steps down

Published 9:00 am Thursday, December 28, 2017

AHOSKIE – When she addressed the Ahoskie Town Council for the last time on Dec. 12, Linda Blackburn called her time in municipal government “the greatest ride of my life.”

A 23-year resident of the town, she made her first foray into local politics the first time she ran for mayor of Ahoskie and won the office in 2003, becoming the female in the town’s history to hold that position.

“I was blessed, truly blessed, to have served with you,” she told her fellow Council members in an emotional farewell, just before she received a plaque recognizing her for her service. “Growing up in a military family we moved a lot – usually every four years. But after living here for the last 23 years, you are all now my family and I’m yours. I’ve had some great jobs in my life, but this one was the best. It’s not easy to sit in this chair, and we need to encourage people to step up.”

Speaking from Florida earlier this week, where she spent the holidays with close family, Blackburn said she leaves politics with a contented heart.

“There’s always more that I would’ve liked to have done, because I’m that type of person,” she maintained. “We had a super team when I was mayor, and I’ve never been a part of anything like that in my life. I was incredibly proud of all we’ve done.”

Blackburn says there are some regrets of her time in service to the people – but they are few.

“I regret that we could not get more done downtown; Ahoskie can be so much better,” she insisted. “I wouldn’t really point a finger at anything, but I just know that I would have loved to have seen some of the projects go through they we brought up for the downtown area. My follow-through for all of that is that maybe we were just ahead of our time and eventually some – or all – of that will happen.”

At the Town of Ahoskie’s Christmas dinner on Dec. 12 held at the Fire Department, Linda Blackburn receives a plaque from Mayor Pro Tem Rev. C. David Stackhouse honoring her years in municipal government. Staff Photo by Gene Motley

Born in Beaufort County and reared in the Sunshine State, she later received degrees in both nursing and social work. Blackburn came to Ahoskie in the mid-nineties from Greenville where her husband, Bob, was part of the ECU Medical School, and was being ‘recruited’ to join the staff of what was then Roanoke-Chowan Hospital (now Vidant R-CH).

“We couldn’t find Ahoskie on the map,” she humorously recalls. “We actually had a dinner date in Greenville that same evening of the interview, but we wanted to drive up, be gracious, and see what they’re talking about.”

It didn’t take long for the family to make a change of plans.

“After they spent the whole day driving us around the town and the area we ended up not leaving before 11:30 that night,” she continued. “On the trip back, we stopped near Oak City and assessed how we both felt, and he said, ‘I felt like I’ve just come home after being gone a long time’. I don’t know if there’s a better complement for Ahoskie than that.”

The Blackburns transitioned to Ahoskie and she assisted with the medical practice for several years. However, her husband fell ill a few years later and had to receive treatment back in Greenville. It was then that she saw the full appreciation of her now neighbors and friends.

“They stepped in and helped me with some of everything,” she remembers. “I knew then that this was home.”

Following her husband’s untimely passing, she closed the practice, took a job with the Hertford County Office of Aging, and settled into a quiet life continuing to live in her adopted home town.

“I said then that this was home, and I will never leave Ahoskie totally, ever,” she declared.

Blackburn says prior to her first run for public office she was a cheerleader for others who ventured into politics.

“I never was one who wanted to do it – never did,” she noted. “But I got to Ahoskie and joined the Rotary Club. One day I was talking with some of my fellow Rotarians, and the elections were upcoming. I was friends with (then-Ahoskie Mayor) Arthur Lee Wiggins, who was on the (Hertford County) Aging Board, worked with me at the Senior Center in Winton, and we discussed the idea of different opportunities for different people to run.

“I was, and am, a grant-writer, and I could find grants, and help with grants, and I think I was just being prepared by God,” she said.

With prodding from Wiggins and others, Blackburn says she then worked up the courage to give politics a try.

“I just sort of haphazardly said that I would run, and I couldn’t believe it, but they took me seriously,” she stated. “The next time at Rotary, they told me they’d like for me to run.”

She did, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Blackburn says since those early days, she has prodded others to take the political plunge – even if she has to personally carry them to the elections board to register. Each time she does, she says she has flashbacks to her own first steps.

“People must have seen something in me I didn’t see in myself at all,” she chuckled.

Blackburn leaves after serving four terms as Mayor, running and winning when the election was held every two years; and tasting her only defeat to Brien Lassiter when she ran in 2011 for a fifth mayoral term in what is now a four-year term.

As noted by Lassiter in replacing the former mayor, from 2003-11 he said Blackburn was instrumental in helping to guide the town in the building of a new police station, new wastewater treatment plant, and the Ahoskie Creek Recreation Complex, to include the Ahoskie Amphitheater; implementation of the Community Development Block Grant program; purchase of a new fire truck; annexation; Movie in the Park, the town’s annual Easter Egg Hunt; Ahoskie Heritage Day; and the annual Christmas Tree Lighting program.

After only 11 months away from local politics, she succeeded former Councilman O.S. “Buck” Suiter in the At-Large seat on Council in the fall of 2012 when Suiter resigned. It was Suiter that recommended his seat be filled by Blackburn for the remaining one year on his term. She ran for the seat during the 2013 municipal election cycle (a four-year term) and won.

As she leaves for other pursuits, Blackburn says in addition to raising her family, her other greatest accomplishment in Ahoskie would be in town government and the annexation of Colonial Acres.

“I know everyone would want me to say that it was that I got a wastewater treatment plant built, and I want to say for the record that I never wanted to raise the water rates; but I could recognize early on that it (the plant) was needed,” she said. “They (the state) threatened to impose moratoriums on us that we knew we couldn’t pay for very long if we didn’t do something soon.”

“The annexation was the hardest part, and elected officials get that in benefits and in curse,” Blackburn declared. “We can see both sides of a story. I understand how some of my friends in that area stopped talking to me, and didn’t like me very much because of it, but it had to happen. It was a hard decision, the hardest thing I’ve ever faced. But the fact that we got it through, we all survived it, and learned to accept it, and hopefully are happier with it. It was a team effort on the part of that Town Council and if we hadn’t had a good team I don’t think that ever would have happened.”

Blackburn says she applauds newly elected Councilwoman Jamie Burns, who succeeds her in the Council’s At-Large seat. She notes that she further appreciates all the comments – good and bad – and all the gestures people have made as she heads away from the Council table. At her farewell on Dec. 12, fellow Councilman Charles Freeman – with whom Blackburn has not always agreed – called her, “a top-flight person”.

As for whatever legacy she may leave behind, she summed that up in several words.

“I want it to be that I think I was fair,” she deadpanned. “I think that I was open-minded and I was fair. I hope people will believe that.”