By Catharin Shepard
Two former Hoke County commissioners with many years of community service to their names received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine award at a ceremony Monday night.
Ellen McNeill and Jean Powell were inducted into the prestigious order in recognition of their decades spent striving to better the lives of others. At their induction, they joined other members such as Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King and Oprah Winfrey along with thousands of everyday North Carolina citizens who work to achieve extraordinary things.
The award is presented to people who have “consistently performed time and time and time again,” state Sen. Ben Clark said. Clark and state Rep. Garland Pierce presented the awards to McNeill and Powell.
“It’s at times like these I feel very humble,” Clark said during the presentation.
McNeill said she praised God for the honor. “I’m humbled and thankful,” she said.
McNeill worked with the City of Fayetteville for many years before retiring. She served on the Hoke County Board of Commissioners for eight years before leaving the board in 2014.
McNeill is an active member of the Hoke County Missionary Union, an organization of many of the county’s missionary churches that works to provide scholarships to deserving local students every year. She is a member of the Upchurch High School Class of 1962. She has volunteered with many local groups and endeavors such as the Raeford-Hoke Museum and Friends of the Hoke County Public Library, and served on many other organizational boards. Currently, she is working on a project about White Oak School.
Powell said that she suspected something was up when her family showed up to the ceremony Monday night. Her brothers, sister-in-law and 96-year-old mother all attended to see Powell receive the award. It was an honor to be inducted into the order, she said.
“It was really a surprise and I will frame it and look forward to having it in my house for years to come,” Powell said.
Powell was born and raised in Sampson County and attended law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. She worked with the Cumberland County District Attorney’s office during the years Hoke and Cumberland were in the same district. She served as an assistant DA for 11 years, mostly working in Hoke County during that time. She ran for DA in Hoke County and served as district attorney for 12 years. After retiring, she was elected to the county commission and served for 12 years before going off the board in 2014. She has served with many local organizations during her years in Hoke County, including the Regional Land Use Advisory Commission (RLUAC) board.
Powell was reportedly the first female District Attorney elected in North Carolina.
Commissioner Harry Southerland praised McNeill and Powell for all they have done to help the people of Hoke County, and thanked many other local women who have given of themselves to support others.
“We’ve got some extraordinary women in our community,” he said. “…They need our respect. Listen to what they say.”
Many consider the Order of the Long Leaf Pine the highest award presented to a civilian by the State of North Carolina. The honor names the recipient an “Ambassador Extraordinary” and grants them the right to propose the official North Carolina toast anywhere in the free world.
Some of Hoke County’s other local members of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine include the late school leader, literacy supporter and military veteran John David McAllister Sr.; Maj. Freddy Johnson of the Sheriff’s Office Emergency Management Division; the late author, school leader and peach farmer Raz Autry; and the late military veteran, former Home Food owner and local photographer/historian James Luther “Luke” McNeill.
Since its inception more than 50 years ago, more than 15,000 people have joined the order. The award is presented to people who have “demonstrated a lifetime of service to the state,” and retired state employees who have 30 years of exemplary service can also be nominated for the award.
Leach leadership award
During the service Monday, County Commission Chairman James A. Leach became the first recipient of a leadership award in his name that was created and presented by his family and friends in his honor.
The James A. Leach Leadership Award will now be given each year to a person in Hoke County who has demonstrated excellent leadership qualities. The annual award will recognize those who deal with unforeseen problems with grace, overcome adversity, have the ability to inspire others and, above all, have the ability to lead, presenters said.
Leach didn’t know the award was coming.
“This is one of the first times he didn’t have a say in what was going on,” a presenter joked, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Leach has served as a county commissioner for more than 20 years, making him the longest-serving commissioner in the county’s history. Leach is also the pastor of Rockfish Freewill Baptist Church and has served as the Lumber River Council of Governments board chairman. He has served on many other governing boards and during his time as commissioner has been part of directing the growth of Hoke County as it underwent the biggest population boom in its 100-year history.
Leach has received many other awards for his work with various organizations including the Calvin Haggins Award for Outstanding Lumber River Council of Governments Member of the Year and the L.E. McLaughlin and Bob Gentry Regional Leadership Award. Leach, McNeill and Powell were all part of the commission board that was named statewide Board of the Year by the North Carolina School Boards Association (NCSBA) in 2013.