They’ve served together on the Sampson County Board of Education for the past 18 years, several of them under the leadership of retired superintendent Dr. Larry M. Bell. So it was only fitting that Bell, now a state legislator, would be on hand Monday night to present both Mary Brown and G.H. Wilson with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of the state’s highest honors.
“It is my honor to represent Gov. Beverly Perdue in presenting this high honor to two very special and deserving people,” Bell said.
The announcement was a surprise to the stunned Brown and Wilson who listened, mouths agape, as Bell told a packed audience at Union Middle School about the honor and why it was being bestowed upon the two school board members.
The Order of the Long Leaf Pine is among the most prestigious awards presented by the governor. It is, Bell said, presented to individuals who have a proven record of extraordinary service to the state, as well as their communities, coupled with extra effort in their careers, and many years of service to their organizations.
Bell, a recipient himself, ticked off a list of Who’s Who among Order honorees including Billy Graham, poet Maya Angelou, basketball great Michael Jordan, artist Bob Timberlake, “and a fella named Larry Bell,” he quipped.
“This is a prestigious honor given to two very fine individuals,” Bell asserted as Brown and Wilson walked to the podium to accept their framed certificates, a rousing round of applause, followed by a standing ovation, from the audience.
Fighting back tears as she accepted the honor from her friend, Brown squeezed her school board colleague’s hand, smiled and addressed the audience, her voice timid. “This is a very eerie feeling for me. I’m reminded of a poem I recited in the eighth grade and how it made me feel. I feel the same way now. I am surprised and I am humbled … really moved,” she said.
Wilson expressed gratitude to Bell and the governor for bestowing the honor upon him and then, shock still showing on his face, he turned to his family, who had shown up to see him receive the award, and thanked them for years of support. “None of this would be possible without my family,” Wilson said. “I’ve been away many nights at school board meetings and conferences, ball games, and they’ve put up with it, and me. They’ve supported me all these years and I’m deeply grateful. Without that support, I couldn’t have done it.”
Tuesday, both Brown and Wilson were still in shock at becoming Long Leaf recipients, and both showered praise on the other for achieving the prestigious honor.
“Mary’s more deserving of this than I am,” Wilson stressed. “Her work in her community, at the community college in the nursing program and on this board … she very much should have this honor.”
Wilson, who has served 18 years on the Sampson County Board of Education, has also been an assistant coach in the Midway district for much of his adult life, has worked tirelessly with the Sampson County Shriners and served four years as a director on the North Carolina School Boards Association.
He said receiving the award was humbling and a special honor considering he was awarded along with Brown, and both were given the award by their former superintendent.
“It was really, really special,” Wilson said. “It’s a great honor to receive the award, and to get it at the same time as Mary made it that much more special. And, of course, to have Dr. Bell give it to us, well, that made it even more so.”
Brown, who has served 23 years on the county school board, offered similar thoughts, praising Wilson in much the same way he touted her.
“I still can’t believe it,” Brown said. “I really was shocked. And I humbled, very humbled.”
At the same time, she emphasized, she was overjoyed. “To have received it with G.H. was really nice, and then to have Larry give it to us, that was great, very special.”
Brown, who began her educational career as a nursing instructor at SCC in 1976 and retired as the program’s director some 28 years later, said she didn’t feel deserving of such a prestigious award, and she pointed to Wilson’s work on the NCSBA as a far greater reason to be a recipient.
“He certainly deserved the honor. He has worked really hard for the school system and with the School Board Association. In fact, that work has helped put Sampson County Schools on the map.”
Both Brown and Wilson said their time on the school board has been rewarding and both said they hoped they had made a difference in the lives of young people along the way.
“There are many joys of serving,” Brown noted, “but I guess I would have to say being able to touch the lives of so many over the years would be the greatest. The children, the parents, even the employees … I hope I’ve had a positive impact; I hope I’ve served as a good role model and I hope I have been an encourager.”
Wilson offered a similar assessment. “I’ve always tried to do what I can for children, whether it was on the ball field, working with the Shriners or on the school board. All my adult life I’ve tried to work to help young people because I really do believe they are our greatest asset,” he said.