Shaffer: 80-year-old mayor stuck in office

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comSeptember 16, 2012 

Earl Poplin, mayor of Mount Gilead, has stayed in office almost a year past his term waiting for the town's disputed election to be resolved.

JOSH SHAFFER

— At age 80, Earl Poplin serves as the reluctant mayor of Mount Gilead, a Uwharrie Mountains town seven miles from the closest Food Lion – the center of a year-long political scrap.

He’d love to retire. There’s yard work to do. There’s painting to finish.

But last year’s race to choose his successor finished at 178-176 – a margin of two votes. The loser protested, insisting that a handful of supporters got turned away at the polls, and touched off a fight that raged for 10 months. On Sept. 4, the state Board of Elections ordered a new contest in November.

Imagine if candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush had spent a year after the 2000 election trading jabs, counting chads and filing appeals – while President Clinton dreamed of sailing off to Valhalla. Such is the lot of Mount Gilead’s octogenarian mayor, eager to be shut of politics.

“I would just like him to be available once in a while,” said his wife, Hilda. “To leave town and not feel like he’s obligated to be here in case somebody gets a flat tire.”

The fray in Mount Gilead distresses Poplin, a graduate of N.C. State University who spent a career in agricultural sales. He unabashedly supports his next-door neighbor Benjamin Blake, the winner in last year’s disputed race against Patty Almond.

He believes the fiasco at the polls came down to a clerical error, not any kind of malice. An elderly couple who had difficulty voting got caught up in confusion over an address change, Poplin says, and they declined an offer to vote by provisional ballot.

But I’m not here to pick sides in an election that took place two hours southwest of Raleigh in Montgomery County, but rather to lament the fate of a public servant unable to graciously step aside. After four two-year terms, a mayor deserves the chance to shuffle about in his pajamas and consider matters no more weighty than marigolds.

“He would just piddle,” joked Hilda. “P-I-D-D-L-E.”

“If you consider painting the house to be piddling ...” the mayor countered.

“Earl is piddler,” she repeated. “He would just read all day.”

Poplin can look back over four terms, plus this bonus year, with a satisfied grin.

When he took office, the town couldn’t afford to keep the street lamps lit. Downtown looked faded and crumbling. Black and white residents – about evenly numbered in Mount Gilead – didn’t mingle much.

Poplin by no means takes sole credit, but the downtown lights are burning again. The cash-strapped town managed to start up a facade improvement fund under his watch. For every merchant who invested $2,000 in a storefront makeover, the town contributed $1,000.

But the milestone that really gets Poplin glowing is naming a section of N.C. 109 for Julius Chambers. A Mount Gilead native, Chambers rose from segregated schools to become the first black editor of the law review at UNC-Chapel Hill, then became a leading voice in the civil rights movement.

When Poplin talked up the ceremony around town, some white residents told him, “Hold my ticket,” with a sneer. Some blacks asked, “What’s he ever done for me?”

But when Chambers’ mother, approaching age 100, attended the dedication along with a passel of dignitaries, Poplin handed her a corsage of roses.

“I wish I had a picture of her face when we gave it to her,” Poplin said.

Even in a town of 1,200, politics will wear a mayor down. You sit through meetings that drone on for hours, and in Mount Gilead, you only vote to break a tie.

People rip up your ideas and offer none of their own. Poplin never guessed that buying the town a used fire truck, largely with savings stored up over a dozen years, would raise any hackles. He was wrong.

“Can you believe that in itself is an issue?” Poplin asked. “I’m still not senile. But it’s probably not far away.”

Come November, if the gods of smooth-running elections be willing, Poplin’s worries will end. He’ll be able to spend his time organizing the silent-film festival with the Civitan club. He and Hilda will perform in community theater. (They both appeared in a production of “The Music Man.”)

And most importantly, he will pass the baton to a younger steward, along with the story behind each of his gray hairs.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

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