LEWISBURG — “This is a whole new ballgame here.”
Ensconced in a City Hall conference room, a bemused Beverly White shook her head at the position in which she now finds herself — on the verge of being sworn in as this 237-year-old city’s first African American mayor.
“I haven’t really had time for it to sink in,” she told The Register-Herald barely a week after the June 11 municipal election that propelled her from a city council seat she had held for 16 years into the mayor’s office.
“I do look forward to serving the city — the ones who voted for us, and the ones that didn’t. I’m their mayor, too.”
A lifelong resident of Lewisburg, White proudly wears her love of the town on her sleeve.
Reminiscing about her childhood, she said, “I felt we had a good life. We had a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs. It was like one big family on what we called ‘Gospel Hill’ back then.”
Not only did the town’s black families live in that neighborhood, but their children went to school there as well — at Bolling School, founded shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War in order to provide a basic education for Greenbrier County’s African American children.
“I went to Bolling,” the 67-year-old mayor-elect said. “We had the best teachers in the world.”
Later, with the advent of integration in the 1960s, White and her classmates had to walk to the other side of town to attend school at Lewisburg Elementary and High School. No school buses ran in her neighborhood, she noted.
At Lewisburg and, after consolidation, at Greenbrier East High School, White said her experiences were largely positive.
“I didn’t find any animosity, really,” she said. “My classmates treated me well.”
It was here that she raised her own family — a son who is now fire chief in South Charleston and a daughter who is senior payroll accountant at a nonprofit in Alexandria, Va. White also has three grandchildren, the oldest of whom will be off to college in the fall.
White’s career in public service began nearly four decades ago when she was appointed to the Lewisburg Parks Commission.
“I always say I did 20 years of Parks before I even got to council,” White said with a chuckle. “I showed up to every meeting, so finally I became chair.”
Several years into her tenure on Parks, when she heard a city council member was thinking about retiring, White spoke up and said she would like to serve on council, but was advised to wait and see what happened. Then similar rumors swirled around another council member, and White again expressed an interest. When neither council member stepped down, however, White said she knew the timing wasn’t right for her.
But in 2003, then-council members Vivian Conly and John Manchester (who would go on to win that year’s mayoral race and, subsequently, three more) approached White and asked her to run for council.
“I did, and the rest is history,” White said.
It was indeed historic. By winning that seat in 2003, she became the first African American woman ever to serve on the Lewisburg City Council.
“I have been very humbled by the trust the citizens have put in me,” White said. “It means a lot to know people trust (me) with their city, and they trust the council that we have to make the right decisions.”
She said she is glad voters chose not just to elect her as mayor, but also to elect the entire Citizens’ Party slate that she led.
“I need my team,” she said. “We have such a diverse team. The ideas that will come from that, I look forward to.”
In addition to the elected officials, White said Lewisburg is fortunate to have terrific volunteers and city workers.
“We have the greatest employees in the world,” she enthused. “I’m looking forward to getting to know our employees on a personal level, to let them know I care what happens to them and what happens to their families.”
That personal touch is White’s trademark. The man whom she will succeed as mayor on July 1, John Manchester, said as much during an interview with The Register-Herald earlier this year.
“I’ve had the pleasure of serving with (White) all the years I’ve been mayor,” Manchester said. “She’s brought a level of compassion, goodwill and understanding to our city council and our community that is unprecedented. She has helped … bridge the gap of the diverse populations of Lewisburg. She has been a wonderful role model for our youth because of her work ethic and because of her willingness to address difficult issues.”
White believes that kind of relationship-building is just one facet of the leadership style she will bring to this new position.
“I will lead with respect,” she pledged, something she also identified as one of Manchester’s strong points.
Among the challenges White faces as she takes on the title of mayor is that the job itself is changing. Lewisburg is adopting a new form of government with the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1.
Unlike Manchester, who currently wears two hats in city government — serving as the elected mayor and as city administrator, for which he was hired by city council — White will take over ceremonial mayoral duties, along with a few administrative responsibilities, while manager in training Jacy Faulkner drops the “trainee” designation and assumes the mantle of manager.
“I’m glad we separated the mayor and city manager jobs,” White said. “I look forward to working with Jacy Faulkner. I see us working closer together. We really have to define our jobs. We need to get our feet wet and figure out how we do this.”
Make no mistake, however, White already has a pretty good handle on what the future holds.
“Day-to-day operations will be Jacy,” she said. “I see myself the caregiver and cheerleader for our city.”
In addition, White said, she will continue to listen to her constituents as she always has.
“Our citizens need to feel they do have a voice,” she said. “Some people just want to be heard. They don’t expect you to solve all their problems; they just want you to listen.”
Other challenges have been festering for a long time, as White is well aware. But she sees light at the end of the tunnel on several issues.
With a water rate hike approved only last month, the wheels have already begun to turn for a long-overdue $38 million upgrade of Lewisburg’s regional water plant and delivery system. And there is quiet buzz in certain quarters hinting at progress in selecting property for construction of a replacement for the crumbling downtown Fire Station No. 1.
White asks for the public’s patience as these processes play out.
“It does take time,” she said. “It takes a lot of effort. It takes a lot of teamwork.”
She said she also would like for people to realize that Lewisburg has just as many vibrant shops as it has restaurants.
“There’s something for everybody, in every price range,” she said. “I’ve been in every shop in town; I know that’s true.”
Asked if she feels extra pressure because she is the city’s first African American mayor, White responded, “I look at it as more of an opportunity.”
Having worked in the child care field for many years, White said she has been delighted, both during the campaign and since the election, to hear from kids she once worked with.
“They’ve encouraged me — 'Miss Bev, you can do this!' and congratulated me,” she said.
“I want to make a difference, especially in the lives of young girls who may say, ‘I can’t do that.’ I want to show them this is what they can do. Be patient because your time will come.”
She said she has received additional support from public officials in White Sulphur Springs, Rainelle and Ronceverte, and from people living in surrounding areas. White took that as evidence that “they love Lewisburg as well and enjoy all we have to offer, and they want to see the good things continue.”
Active in the community, White is a member of the boards of The Bimbo Coles & Co. Project and Carnegie Hall, and volunteers with the Lewisburg Food Locker, Greenbrier Valley Theatre and Carnegie Hall. She also works as a standardized patient at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.
White is a pillar of her church, John Wesley United Methodist, where she is a lay servant, co-chair of trustees, church secretary and delegate to the Annual Conference.
“Trust in God is everything,” White said. “I think having that relationship with Him is so important. You need to call on someone higher than you to do this job and keep you centered.”
As she prepares to take the oath of office Tuesday at City Hall, White believes she is up to the task.
“I feel I can do this,” she said. “I’m excited to see where we’re going to go.”
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