Wilma Anderson retiring after 36 years with county
Over one hundred people gathered to wish Wilma Anderson a fond farewell Tuesday at a retirement reception in her honor in the Southwestern Community College annex behind the county administration building.
After 36 years of making sure Macon County government ran smoothly, Wilma (everyone knows her by her first name) is retiring from her long career as Assistant County Manager and Human Resources Director.
All of the currently sitting county commissioners attended the reception, as well as several commissioners that Anderson had worked with in the past. There were also two former county managers, and government employees from Cherokee, Swain and Jackson counties also attended.
Wilma’s friends and co-workers had nothing but words of praise and admiration for her, along with more than a few funny stories to share.
Past commissioner Pete Penland said he was the only commissioner in the room that hadn't been trained by Anderson. He had hired her in 1975, and said that it was the best work he’d ever done as a county commissioner.
Wilma started working at the tax office in 1975 when the county’s offices were in the old courthouse and Joel Mashburn was county manager. She was hired for a 30-day temporary appointment, but she was so sharp that her job soon grew into more than being a tax clerk when a position for secretary to the building inspector was added. Then in 1977 she was transferred to the county manager’s office.
Since then she has worked for every county manager except for Ron Winecoff. In order of service, first there was Joel Mashburn, followed by Sam Greenwood, then Jack Horton, Charles Mashburn, Rick Honeycutt, Mike Carpenter, and finally Sam Greenwood and Jack Horton serving again. Wilma has been a constant presence throughout each of their tenures. Unassuming and reliable, she has helped each of them by lending her expertise to help guide them through the responsibilities of their job.
Over the past 36 years, the county’s population grew from 20,000 to 32,000. When Wilma started there were 101 employees and seven departments. Now there are 375 full time employees and 50 part time employees in 23 departments.
Current County Manager Jack Horton has also seen the changes over the years. He learned early on that Wilma was the go-to person for information. “The oft-quoted line at the county administration was, ‘If anything comes up and no one knows about it, always go ask Wilma,’” he said. “She knew who, what, when, where and how of the background of everything that happened in the county.”
But Wilma’s real strength lies in her rapport with fellow county employees and the general public. Horton described her as being just like Lucy from the Peanuts comic strip, with her psychiatry advice stand. “She is also the go-to person for employees if they need help,” explained Horton. “She’s like a mentor to everybody she works with. For the life of me, I can’t think of a single person that got mad or stayed mad at her,” he said.
One thing Horton admires most about Wilma is her loyalty to her family. “Her biggest responsibility outside of work is her family. Her husband, three daughters, a son and two grandchildren have always been her priority,” Horton said.
Wilma says that the county has always been a family-friendly employer, and for that she has always been appreciative. She feels fortunate having worked for the county and being allowed to make her family her priority, to get to go to ball games, school parties, and other kinds of activities involving her children.
She’s been married to her husband J.C. for 42 years. He wholesales and delivers tires out of a big warehouse on eight acres of land they own on Hickory Knoll. They keep a few goats, a dog and a deaf cat on what they fondly call “the farm.”
Like their mother, each of the couple’s children serve the public in some capacity. Their oldest daughter, Mia, is 41 and lives in Arkansas. She actually worked for Gary Gooder at Macon County News for several years when she was a student. Mia shared her mother’s self-confidence and impressive work ethic, and could always be counted on when the deadline approached. That experience launched a successful career as a journalist, and now Mia works for the university of Arkansas as a publicist.
Their next daughter, Andrea, 37, and her 10 and 12-year-old daughters, live in Macon County. Andrea works for the domestic violence program REACH. Their youngest daughter, Tina, is 31. She works at UNCA library in Asheville. All three daughters graduated from UNCA. Their son, Colby, 28, works for the Macon County Board of Education in the IT department.
Teresa McDowell, the county’s Delinquent Tax Collector, has known Wilma for 15 years. “No one has her capability and understanding and being so empathetic with other people,” McDowell said. “The county will have a hard time finding somebody with that skill. She genuinely cares about other people. And she cares about the people she works with, too. She truly does,” she said.
Recounting a shopping trip with Wilma, she added, “We found this box of Liz Claiborne pocketbooks. They were on sale for $3.99. I remember looking at Wilma and we looked at each other like, ‘We’re going in!’ I remember being buried in that big ol’ box and all you could see was our elbows,” said McDowell. “Everything always turns into a hoot with Wilma. She can make anything funny and anything fun. I’m going to miss her a lot.”
Retired Board of Elections director Sara Waldroop recalled a time she and Wilma were involved in Girl Scouts when they had kids in a troop. A truckload of Girl Scout cookies was going to be delivered the next day. Wilma came to Waldroop’s office and asked, “Would you rather count cookie boxes or voter ballots tomorrow?” adding that she would cover for Waldroop at work.
Wilma worked for the county and did what needed to be done, but she also stepped up to the plate when it came to helping kids. “Besides Girl Scouts she also helped with youth sports. She didn’t work just for the county. She did other things, too. It would be good for the folks to know that about her,” added Waldroop.
Another co-worker with fond and fun memories of Wilma was Ginger Bush. Bush started working as a finance officer in 1980 and currently works at the Board of Education.
“We would pull pranks on each other,” she said with a big smile. “One time I called ‘Tell It and Sell It’ (The radio program) and told them that Wilma had an acre of turnips that were free and to call if anyone wanted some. She got calls as late as 10 at night from people wanting free turnips.”
A longtime friend of 55 years, who did not work with Wilma, is retired educator Peggy Huscusson. Their fathers were good friends from Cartoogechaye and worked together in Pontiac, Mich. during the early 1950s. She and Wilma went to church together as children and became close friends as young adults.
When Huscusson was in the 7th grade, Wilma told her there was no Santa Claus. “I was way old, but I still believed in him anyway and still do believe now,” said Huscusson. As serious as it was, even that didn’t ruin their friendship. “For the last decade we have been exchanging the same Virginia O’Hanlon Christmas card. I send it to her one year and then she sends back to me the next year. We write something new in it each year. We have quite a thing for holidays. She’s the most fabulous friend because, no matter what, she always sends me a marvelous card for whatever the holiday may be,” she said.
Huscusson says that Wilma always makes a positive out of a negative. “She always finds the silver lining. Because of her experiences with life she can empathize with anything someone is going through. She doesn’t dwell on the sad. She has a positive energy,” she said.
As for Wilma, her thoughts are on memories of the past and on what she is going to do with the future.
She is leaving with lots of good memories and lots of laughs, but what Wilma will miss the most are the people. “I will genuinely miss everyone,” she said. “I know so much about so many of these people. I know about their troubles. I know about their lives. I am going to miss being a part of that. I truly value the trust they have put in me.”
Things have changed in the county during Wilma’s time, in part due to her, many would say. But she places the credit with those she has worked with. “Macon County has been really progressive,” she said. “We are very fortunate to have visionaries as leaders and as board members. We have good facilities. We have good department heads that make sure we follow the rules. I think overall everyone seems to be satisfied,” said Wilma.
Perhaps what touched her the most during the years was when Guy Taylor died. Taylor was the county’s recreation director. He knew every kid in the county, and their parents. According to Wilma he was one of the funniest men — and one of the greatest people persons — that ever lived.
“About 11 years ago he was in a meeting in the room across the hall, and had a stroke and died,” she said with sadness in her voice. “Following his death we set up the Guy Taylor Memorial Scholarship. We have awarded 10 or 11 thousand dollar scholarships to students who graduated from school in Macon County,” Wilma said. “Taylor’s death was one of the saddest things for me, but the scholarship is one of things I am proudest of having done.”
For Wilma, people matter the most. “I look forward to spending time with my grandchildren and my mother, who is 80 years old,” she said. “I am going to spend time at my house. I’m going to garden. I’m going to spend some time at Lake Chatuge where we have a little place, and spend part of the time in Florida.” And last but certainly not least, Wilma said she is looking forward to spending lots of time with her husband, who she describes as “a good man and a happy man.”
Wilma said the older she gets, the more thankful she is for what she has and what life has given her. But it hasn’t always been fun and games. “There’s been some sadness in my life,” explained Wilma. “There have been some tragedies in my life, but my life’s been good.” When things get tough, she explained, she thinks of the Serenity Prayer. “I try to figure out the things I can change, the things I can’t and the wisdom and courage to know the difference,” she said.
The most important thing for Wilma has been to never compromise her integrity. “I sometimes have to compromise my beliefs, but never my integrity. If I could, I would tell everyone to be honest, be truthful. Preserve and maintain your integrity. That’s real important,” said Wilma.
When asked if she has any plans to run for political office, she emphatically said, “Oh hello, no! I told someone that if they ever hear anything like that, to call my husband to prepare the papers because I’ve lost my mind.”
At her reception on Tuesday, Wilma also received a number of parting gifts from her colleagues, including a print of the old Macon County Courthouse by Michael Rogers, presented to her by Macon County commissioners.
“This is one of those bitter sweet occasions where we celebrate the time with Wilma and wish her well on her retirement,” said Horton. He told guests at the reception that when Wilma told him she was going to retire, he told her, “We have a retiring freeze as well as a hiring freeze in Macon County right now.” But she was not to be deterred.
Commissioner Ronnie Beale shared his thoughts. “Wilma Anderson has set a standard for employees of Macon County, pure and simple,” he said. “...If you talk to anyone who has worked with Wilma, you will find a level of respect for her that is just uncommon. There’s nothing common about Wilma Anderson,” he concluded.
Finance Director Evelyn Southard said she had known Anderson since she was two or three years old. “We've done a lot ... together,” she said, “and I’ve learned a lot from Wilma professionally, too.”
Wilma was as gracious as her friends would expect.
“I’m at peace with this decision. It’s time. But I’m going miss everybody. Macon County has been as good to me as you all say I’ve been to it.”
Wilma said she is traveling to Washington D.C. this weekend to see the splendor of the cherry trees blossoming. As in her own life, it’s a new beginning.