David Rowe ventured to the Mount Airy Municipal Building as he has on countless Thursday nights and afternoons, but, instead of taking his familiar place with other city council members, sat in the audience for a change.
And rather than pounding his gavel which the city’s former mayor had to do from time to time in restoring order, Rowe was on the receiving end of a gavel — one attached to a plaque recognizing his public service locally.
Though not officially designated as such, it could have been David Rowe Night Thursday when he showed up in council chambers during a Mount Airy Board of Commissioners meeting for the first time since resigning on Oct. 8 for health reasons.
Rowe was accompanied by his wife Inglis and other family members for a special program at the start of Thursday night’s session. It mixed expressions of happiness by fellow municipal officials for having known Rowe to extreme sadness over his departure.
The city’s former chief executive was dogged by medical issues during a tenure that began in late 2015 after his election to fill the unexpired term of Mayor Deborah Cochran after her resignation in March of that year. Rowe was re-elected to a full four-year term in November 2017, which he was unable to complete despite a valiant effort in the face of mounting health problems.
Embodiment of humility
Rowe, 76, had undergone a kidney transplant in 2009, but encountered difficulties that required an ongoing reliance on dialysis treatments and increasingly limited his mobility.
Yet this did not stop him from returning to his old stomping ground Thursday night to hear heartfelt comments from former colleagues.
In offering his own remarks during that occasion, Rowe displayed an easy-going manner and sense of humor that were hallmarks of his local government service.
The ex-mayor reminded everyone that after the November 2015 election he had to be administered the oath of office on the eighth floor of Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem due to his condition.
“And that’s pretty much how it’s ended,” he joked.
This down-to-earth attitude on the part of Rowe and the model of stability he constantly personified during even the tensest of times were recalled by individuals including City Manager Barbara Jones.
“I’ve always admired the fact that Mayor Rowe is the same, whether you see him on the street or whether he’s in a meeting,” Jones observed.
“He served with such humility and is always just generous and kind to all people. So many times Mayor Rowe would help people and do things and never want recognition for it,’ the city manager added.
“It was always a pleasure to have you in the office,” Jones advised Rowe. “You and I had many great talks — I learned a lot from you, we shared a lot, we agreed and we disagreed, and we always remained friends and came out with the best solution.”
Jones further referred to Rowe’s pleasant demeanor in saying how much his absence is felt around City Hall. “I miss our talks and laughter — we worked hard, but we had a great time.”
Commissioner Steve Yokeley pointed out that Rowe never let personal feelings influence his work in city government.
“I think everybody knows you did your best and you always kept the citizens’ best interests at heart,” Yokeley told the former mayor.
The board’s Marie Wood seemed to become tearful when voicing her thoughts.
“It’s certainly been a pleasure working with you,” she told Rowe. “I thank you for listening to me and for loving me for being me — and I love you dearly and wish you the very best.”
“Mayor Rowe, I just want to say it’s been a treasured time in my life to serve this city with you, and I think you know this, but I’d like for the community to know that I love and respect you,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said.
Commissioner Ron Niland, who in his dual role as mayor pro tem also has assumed the chief executive’s responsibilities since Rowe’s departure, recalled how he has known him “for my entire life in Mount Airy.”
That included Rowe’s service as a commissioner during a period when Niland was city manager.
“I will be forever grateful for that special blessing,” Niland said while becoming emotional.
He also had referred to the former mayor during a prayer that opened Thursday night’s meeting: “I pray we honor David and his service to the city continually by tapping into the best of our nature.”
Tom Koch, another commissioner, mentioned that he also has known Rowe for a long time and served with him on the Mount Airy Board of Education before Rowe left to join the council, calling that the school board’s loss and the city’s gain.
“I consider you a good friend and have admired you all these years and wish you nothing but the best,” Koch said to Rowe.
It was mentioned Thursday that Rowe, who long has been associated with a local construction firm, Smith-Rowe, not only has served the community through his leadership in city government and educational realms but in every local civic and philanthropic endeavor.
The ex-mayor’s family additionally was praised along with him, including by Niland in his prayer when expressing thanks for the Rowes.
“They have served this city well and our thoughts and prayers are with them always.”
City Attorney Hugh Campbell offered similar sentiments, saying appreciation is due Rowe’s family for sacrifices and understanding during periods in which he was absorbed by local government issues and not spending quality time with loved ones.
“I know there was not a day or an hour when he wasn’t working on city administration,” Campbell said, “so I thank you all for sharing him with us.”
The city attorney told Rowe that he is “glad to call you a friend.”
In his parting remarks, the former mayor said he believes the future is bright for Mount Airy once the COVID-19 crisis ends.
“I think we’re on the cusp,” Rowe said, pledging to help where possible while also recalling the privilege of serving as mayor.
“It’s been an experience that anyone should treasure, and I certainly do.”