Colleagues pay tribute to Marshburn

Chris Berendt Staff Writer

November 22, 2013

Elections director Donna Marshburn passed away Tuesday after a long bout with illness, leaving her many close friends and colleagues to mourn the loss of a woman they said was hard-working, dedicated and crucial to local elections and veterans affairs over the past two decades.

“It’s been really tough,” said Veterans Service officer Ann Knowles, a close friend and longtime co-worker of Marshburn’s. “It’s just been really tough. She’s been sick for the last three years, the whole time she’s been director really. The last six months it was getting worse and the last three months was just really bad. For the last six months, Donna has really suffered.”

Marshburn actually began working at the Veterans Office about 20 years ago on a volunteer basis, at the behest of Knowles. While splitting time between the Veterans Office and the Board of Elections, Marshburn spent most of her time working with local veterans for years before she was selected among more than a dozen other applicants to lead the Board of Elections.

She took over as Board of Elections director following the retirement of longtime director Sylvia Thornton, who held the post for 39 years. Marshburn served in an interim basis for a month in early 2010 before assuming the permanent role in March 2010. Prior to taking the reins as director, Marshburn worked in the Elections office on a part-time basis for a decade, while also serving as backup for the Veterans Office.

“She worked more with the veterans until she became director,” said Knowles. “Even before she was part-time, she would volunteer. She has been part of this office for more than 20 years. She been here with me and Sylvia for many years.”

On Thursday, both Knowles and Thornton shared fond memories of Marshburn, who they praised for her work ethic, her sense of family and her loyalty to the county, its veterans and its voters.

“Her heart was to come back to work, until she could retire,” said Knowles. “Then she was going to visit her grandbabies in Georgia. She’s such a wonderful worker. She was a homemaker and she raised her children and other people’s children. She was the ultimate homemaker — she did it all. You could eat off of her floors.”

When her oldest child went off to a college, Marshburn started working as the manager of a hog farm in order to earn money to pay the school tuition. She didn’t start at the bottom, Knowles noted, but instead was immediately managing the operation.

“It didn’t take long for them to realize she was a hard worker,” said Knowles. “Whatever had to be done, she would grab a hold of it and do it.”

Knowles knew that well, and it was the driving reason she strongly urged Marshburn to come work in the Veterans Office. Marshburn took her up on the offer, with the stipulation she have every Thursday off, because that was her day with her grandson Austin, the oldest of her three grandchildren.

“She really is the kind of grandmother you wanted your kid to have,” said Knowles. “They were her sun and her moon.”

Thornton will serve as interim Elections director for the time being, until the county can advertise and ultimately hire a replacement. That person has big shoes to fill.

“Whoever comes in has to be a special person,” Knowles remarked. The Veterans Office and Board of Elections work in close proximity in the same building, presenting a unique situation for its employees. “We live in each other’s pockets. We spend more time together than we do at home,” Knowles said.

Thornton agreed that it takes a special person to work in the kind of environment presented by the Board of Elections/Veterans Office. But for years, the offices have been full of those kind of people, and Donna was one of them.

“Donna’s going to be missed and she’s going to be hard to replace,” said Thornton. “She was a special lady. She worked hard and she did everything that was asked of her. She never hesitated.”

Just a couple short weeks ago, friends and collegues shared their optimism that Marshburn would get well enough to return to her duties. Knowles, at the Sampson Board of Commissioners Nov. 4 meeting, updated the board, county staff and others about the health of Marshburn, noting her failing health but relaying Marshburn’s desire to come back to work.

“She had emergency surgery (Nov. 3) after a three-year bout of illness and, for the last few months, (was) totally bed-ridden. But she came through it fine,” Knowles said at that meeting. “There have been a lot of prayers, because they said if they ever put her on a respirator she would never come off. Well the Lord intervened. She came off. She’s doing as well as you can expect in her condition, is what the surgeon told us.”

Knowles told the public then that Marshburn had lost an incredible amount of weight due to a gallbladder ailment, and said her husband had traveled to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill every day for the previous two months to be by her side.

“She’s below 80 pounds from the sickness, but she doesn’t have cancer. This is all to do with (her) gallbladder,” Knowles said at the Nov. 4 meeting. “We’re hoping that she’s going to just keep gaining and get some strength so that she can be back with us. Her intentions are to come back and work for Sampson County, so all of you please keep her in your prayers.”

Since that time, Marshburn and her friends held out hope, however the Lord intervened again.

Donna Sue Currie Marshburn passed away Tuesday in Chapel Hill at the age of 64. She will be laid to rest in Roseboro Cemetery following a Saturday funeral at Royal-Hall Funeral Home.

“She had lost a lot of weight. They didn’t have anything to work with toward the end,” said Thornton. “But she had the spirit to come back.”

“This is a family,” Knowles added. “That’s why her passing has been so hard.”

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at