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Bill Kirby Jr.: For Jesse Byrd, his was a promise fulfilled for cancer patients

Byrd’s impact will be felt by the cancer center and patients for years to come, says Mike Nagowski, CEO for Cape Fear Valley Health.


Oh, come now, Jesse Byrd would have wanted all of us to know Tuesday —  this day of farewell.

Heaven forbid, he would have us know.

No grief.

No tears.

No need for all of this fuss over him.

“I’ve lived a good life,” he was saying a month or so ago.

All is well with my soul, Jesse Byrd assured.

Still, more than 100 gathered at Lafayette Memorial Park on Tuesday for the last goodbye to this good and faithful servant who sought no plaudits or praise or accolades for his giving ways to this community, and most notably for his gift of $1 million to the Irene Thompson Byrd Cancer Care Endowment at the Friends of the Cancer Center in memory of the wife he cherished.

He loved her with every beat of his heart.

She loved him with every beat of her heart until lung cancer took her at age 55 on Sept. 11, 1991. Jesse Byrd was by her side for every treatment.

“He was amazing,” Pam Clark once said about her stepfather.

“Any treatment and he was right there. He could not have been more loving and caring.”

Jesse Byrd was devoted to the marital vows he pledged on a Christmas weekend in 1974, and Jesse Byrd never wavered.

“He would do anything for her,” stepdaughter Susan Tollesfen once said.

Caring was Jesse Byrd’s way. And for Jesse Byrd, there could be no other way.

“Jesse never wanted the limelight,” Mike Nagowski, chief executive officer for Cape Fear Valley Health, says. “He was always quick to recognize and promote others. He was very giving with his time, in addition to his talent and treasure. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations that I had with him. … It takes a special person to give so much to a cancer center – the passion to start something from scratch and then see it grow and prosper for 30 years is remarkable.

“His impact will be felt by the cancer center, the patients the center serves and this region for decades to come.”

No other way

Jesse Byrd was born in Erwin on Feb. 19, 1934, one of two children of Jesse Byrd Sr. and Catherine Byrd. He was smart, enrolled at Duke University and became a certified public accountant. He co-founded Haigh, VonRobsenburg, Byrd & Lambert in 1976 along with partners Charles VonRobsenburg and William Lambert.

He was meticulous when it came to numbers, and all the more conscientious when it came to detail. There could be no room for error. It was Jesse Byrd’s way. And for Jesse Byrd, there could be no other way.

He was as meticulous about fashion as he was about tax preparation in April. His suits and neckties were something of his calling card. He loved fashion, and he loved browsing the clothing stores and shopping for friends on birthdays or anniversaries or whatever the special occasion.

He loved traveling the world with his wife. Or, in later years, being at Litchfield along the South Carolina coast with sister Cathy and brother-in-law Joe Hedgpeth, where shopping and fine dining were part of every beach get-a-way. He liked the ocean breeze and the seagulls soaring high. And when it came to hosting friends for cocktail parties at his VanStory Hills home, there was a warm welcome for all at the front door, but no red wine, if you will. It was Jesse Byrd’s way. And for Jesse Byrd, there could be no other way.

‘Jesse was Fayetteville’

Jesse Henry Byrd Jr. died Friday.

He was 88.

And so they gathered Tuesday, where Jesse Byrd would be placed alongside the love of his life – Irene Thompson Byrd.

“We’ve come together today to give thanks for the life of Jesse Byrd, to mourn his death and to commend him to the care and keeping of God,” the Rev. Michael Garrett would say. “Jesse died this past week after a period of declining health. He was blessed with 88 years of life marked by generosity, faith, humor and a sense of style all his own.”

Jesse Byrd’s style.

Jesse Byrd’s way.

“Jesse lived his life in the midst of family,” the preacher would say. “During the course of his life, he was a beloved husband, brother, stepfather, grandfather, great-grandfather and uncle.’’

He was a true southern gentleman, Garrett would say.

“He was always put together – smooth and stylish, with great taste and memorable neckties and color-coordinated eyeglasses. He could give you an unblinking, no-nonsense CPA look with the best of them, but he had a smile and a sense of humor that could break through at any time. He enjoyed his life. He enjoyed the people he shared it with.”

His generosity, Garrett reminded us, exceeded the bounds of geography.

“Jesse was Fayetteville in so many ways,” the preacher told us. “After his death, one friend said, ‘It’s hard to imagine a Fayetteville without Jesse in it, as he has done so much for this community.’ He served on numerous charitable boards seeking to improve the quality of life for so many people in this city.

“Jesse was also a man of faith.

“He joined First Presbyterian Church in 2005 and served this congregation faithfully,” Garrett would say. “He was elected to the office of elder and served on the congregational care, stewardship and finance committee for many years. He donated countless hours to helping us get and keep our books straight, and he did it as only Jesse Byrd could have done it.”

Now, the preacher would say, it was “Jesse’s time to surrender a tired, old body in anticipation of a day to come when he will take up a new one.

“Let us celebrate Jesse today even as we mourn him. He left us many treasures, confident that his work was not in vain. We honor his legacy if we hope and work and love with the same graceful determination he had.”

Ringing of the bell

Across town at the Cape Fear Valley Cancer Treatment and CyberKnife Center, a cancer patient rang the silver bell by the Irene Thompson Byrd Cancer Care Endowment wall to signify the completion of a final cancer treatment. It is a sound of hope for every cancer patient.

“Jesse Byrd has meant so much to the Cape Fear Valley Cancer Center,” says Mary Kulig, nursing service line director for oncology at the center.

“The generous gifts of the endowment have helped many of our cancer center patients throughout the years. Jesse Byrd has quietly touched many lives and provided assistance when it was most needed. He truly made a difference for the cancer patients in our community, and his giving will continue to support our cancer center.”

Sabrina Brooks remembers not only his financial support for cancer victims that has grown to $1.2 million but his words.

“Jesse never sought the limelight or accolades,” says Brooks, vice president of the Cape Fear Valley Health Foundation. “He was unassuming. But if you talked with him about caring for cancer patients, he was vocal in his support. When asked about why he created the endowment Jesse said, ‘It's not just about Irene or the Friends of the Cancer Center. It's about the community. It's about the doctors and the nurses and the techs. And about all the people who do all they can to help those who are less fortunate. And that takes money.’ And Jesse was generous in his support.

Brooks worked with Jesse Byrd for 12 years.

“He taught me about generosity and, caring for those in need,’’ she said. “Cancer patients in this region had no bigger champion than Jesse Byrd. I am grateful for the privilege to have known him.”


A soft spring wind spread across the cemetery. And over at the cancer center across town likely rang the silver bell of hope.

No grief.

No tears.

Just the best of memories of a man’s life along his way.

“I have lived a good life,” Jesse Byrd would want us to know.

And be assured, Jesse Byrd would remind us, all is well with his soul.

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910- 624-1961.

Column, Bill Kirby Jr., cancer center