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Bill Kirby Jr.: A promise to keep....


Pardon me, if you will, for bending the traditional rules of journalism. Not that I haven’t skirted the boundaries before, with stories of my mother, and not to forget my Ugly Aunt Ethel. This one is special.

“I thanked Ronnie Smith and told him how honored I was,” Virginia Thompson Oliver was telling me about the call from Smith, president of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, informing her that she would be inducted into the association’s hall of fame on Aug. 14 at the NCACC 114th annual conference at the Wilmington Convention Center. “But, with my bad back it would be nearly impossible for me to be there.”

Call him back, I urged Virginia.

“You should be there,” I said. “To be inducted into the N.C. Association of County Commissioners’ hall of fame is a great honor, and a testament to your three terms as a county commissioner to Cumberland County. You were a chairwoman of the Cumberland County commissioners and president of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.
“Call Mr. Smith back.

“You should be there, Virginia,” I said. “Either in person or by video.”

Virginia McLester was a Rockingham girl who grew up in a red-brick, two-story home, attended Greensboro College and caught the eye of Larry Thompson, a Fayetteville boy who was studying law at nearby Wake Forest University.

They married and eventually moved along Amigo Drive behind the Thompson home place off Raeford Road. He practiced law. She taught the arts at Alexander Graham Junior High School, and they raised three children.

Larry Thompson had an interest in politics, too, and became a Cumberland County commissioner in the mid 1970s, with an eye one day of perhaps becoming governor.

Life was good, until Feb. 20, 1978, when a heart attack at age 40 took Larry Adam Thompson’s life and left a wife and a community in stunned disbelief.

“Heman Clark, the county district attorney, wanted me to fill his term,” Virginia says. “He would not take no for an answer.”

April 3, 1978
Virginia Thompson took her oath on April 3, 1978, with the late Tommy Griffin, clerk of court, administering the oath of office.
She held the family Bible.
She was solemn.
You could see the sadness in her eyes.
But Virginia Thompson was determined to make Larry Thompson and their children and this community proud, and Virginia Thompson’s promise was a promise to keep.

“J. McNatt Gillis took me under his wing,” she always has said about the longtime commissioner. “One of the first things he did was give me an apron for the Massey Hill Lions Club’s annual oyster roast, and it had a pocket with an oyster tool. He said I would be attending a lot of political events, and eating a lot of chicken … and oysters. He was very good to me, and Mr. Mac taught me how to be a commissioner.”

She would serve out Larry Thompson’s term, and three times win elected terms of her own, including being named the first chairwoman of the board in 1981. You will find Virginia Thompson Oliver’s fingerprints throughout this county – from Cape Fear Valley Medical Center to the Cumberland County Public Library & Information Center to the 1980s merger of the city and county school systems.

She could chair a meeting with authority.

Never talk to her in governmental acronyms. Tell it straight. Tell it true, and Virginia Thompson Oliver would lead in a way of her own alongside fellow commissioners to include Billy Horne, E.J.

Edge, W.E. (Bill) Tyson, J. McN. Gillis, M.M. Beard, Mary McAllister, Morris Bedsole, Charles Speegle, Johnnie Evans and Robert C. Lewis Jr.

Her political career came to an end in the late 1980s with a loss for the N.C. House of Representatives. She remains a yellow-dog Democrat, and it’s best not to get involved in a political debate with Virginia, else it could turn in to a long evening.

Aside from politics, she remains active in this community with generous and selfless ways, from serving as co-chair of fundraising for the Medical Education Center & Neuroscience Institute under construction at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center to supporting the Cumberland Community Foundation, the Cape Fear Botanical Garden, the Cape Fear Regional Theatre, Methodist University and any cause that would make Fayetteville and Cumberland County a better place.

‘She Wanted Better For Her Community’

After her husband's death, Virginia Thompson took her oath as Cumberland County Commissioner on April 3, 1978

“I’m not sure the Democrat leadership knew that putting Mom in Dad’s office after he died would become a career,” Claire Thompson Tuttle says. “I think they thought she was a housewife without ambition and drive. But she truly cared about Fayetteville and Cumberland County and had high expectations for the community. She wanted a thriving downtown in 1978. She wanted arts and culture. She knew Fayetteville and Cumberland County deserved it, and it would make the quality of life better. She knew the importance of quality education, libraries, community gathering spots and outdoor recreation. She always wanted more and better for her community.

“She was a public servant, which requires sacrifice. She gave up time with family. She gave up privacy. She had her heart broken when projects didn’t succeed and cheered with victory with the many that did succeed. She didn’t have career ambition. She had ambition for her community.
“For me, she showed me how important it was to give a part of your life to making your community better…for everyone,” Tuttle says. “It is a civic duty we all have…not an option. She was tough and smart and never apologized for that.”

Rebecca Thompson Byrd says memories of her mother as a county commissioner seem like a lifetime ago.
“I always remember growing up with local politics in the air,” she says. “It felt like mom jumped right in. I’m sure to deal with the grief. I laughed with Claire and said Mom’s service as a county commissioner meant many a night of TV dinners. I remember her getting her degree in political science and studying at night wanting to prove her place at the table.
“Mom worked hard at the job. It wasn’t just something to add to her resume. She wasn’t looking for accolades, but she truly wanted to make her home of Fayetteville and Cumberland County a better place for everyone. I was always proud of her work on the board. We would travel with her from time to time to conventions. It was great to see her in her work environment. Her wanting to know more about how she could help her community, especially revitalizing downtown.

“We worked the polls for her during the elections,” Byrd says. “I remember vividly working one voting poll. Handing a man a flyer and asking him to consider voting for my mother Virginia Thompson. He looked straight at me and said. ‘I’d never vote for a woman.’ I had never imagined someone would not vote for someone purely because they were a woman and not a man. Some 40 years later, and we have just elected the first female to the office of vice president. I would hope we would be further along. I am proud of Mother and the path she forged for so many women and her contribution to her home of Fayetteville and Cumberland County.
Be assured, there was a tear in Frank Thompson’s deep blue eyes when a mother was inducted in to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners hall of fame. Tears, too, from daughters Claire Thompson Tuttle and Rebecca Thompson Byrd.
And mine.
“Being inducted into the N.C. Association of County Commissioners Hall of Fame is an outstanding honor and testament to your terms as a commissioner for Cumberland County,” I would write Virginia the day she was notified of her nomination. “Before I knew you, I knew you were a sound and solid county commissioner. Heman Clark was right to push you to serve out Larry Thompson’s term, and you had Mr. Mac to help you along the way.
“I am proud of you. I am proud for you.

“But no one, Virginia, would be more proud of you,” I couldn’t help but remind, “than Larry Thompson.”
Hers was a promise made long ago.
Hers was a promise to keep.
And for Virginia Thompson Oliver, hers was a faithful promise kept to Cumberland County.

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at bkirby@cityviewnc.com, billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961. Read more of his columns in our weekly Insider newsletter. Subscribe at cityviewnc.com or text CityView to 22999