Cary News

August 5, 2014

Koka Booth, Cary’s former big-growth mayor, looks back

The walls of the garage at the home of former Mayor Koka Booth tells the story of how one man helped transform Cary from a sleepy little town into one of the most desirable cities in North Carolina, and maybe the entire Southeast.

The walls of the garage at the home of former Mayor Koka Booth tell the story of how one man helped transform Cary from a sleepy little town into one of the most desirable cities in North Carolina, and maybe the entire Southeast.

A Rose Bowl parade poster is a reminder of Booth’s dedication to the Cary High School band. There are photos of Booth posing with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. There’s a Lazy Daze poster, in honor of the town’s annual arts festival. Newspaper articles, mounted onto plaques, detail Booth’s years of governing the town, the last 12 as mayor until 1999.

The mementos might have extra-special meaning now. On his worst days, Booth struggles to remember all the work he did for Cary. All the hours at Town Hall, pushing to bring more businesses to town. All the Town Council meetings where he plotted plans to build roads and water and sewer lines.

Booth, who will turn 82 on Aug. 12, has dementia brought on from a stroke in 2004. His political days behind him, Booth spends much of his time toiling around the house with his wife, Blanche, who gently answers questions he asks over and over again. He tends to the yard, sometimes looking for stray golf balls from the nearby MacGregor Downs Country Club.

He eats lunch most Thursdays with his family at Ashworth Drugs, where he sits at the “Booth booth” in front of the store.

Despite his struggles to remember details about the two decades he spent on the council, Booth looks at his town now and sees the results of plenty of people’s hard work.

When the Booths arrived in Cary in the early 1970s, the town had about 6,000 people. Now it has 145,000.

Booth wanted Cary to grow, to become a place where his children could stay and work.

“Oh no, no,” Booth said recently when asked about Cary’s growth. “We haven’t grown too big. We’re still trying to do better.”

By way of West Virginia

Like so many people, Booth moved to Cary from further north.

The day after high school graduation, he left his home near Huntington, W.Va., and moved to Rocky Mount, where he went to work with his brother and cared for his mother and grandmother.

There he met Blanche.

“I had heard a lot of talk about this boy who moved from West Virginia,” she said.

They headed to Raleigh, and then to West Virginia, where Koka Booth got involved in the coal mining industry. He was injured at a work site and underwent plastic surgery on his face.

The family came back to Raleigh, and then to Cary in 1971, lured by the Cary High School band. Their son, Chuck, played in the band.

One day after a band boosters meeting, Koka Booth approached band director Jimmy Burns with an idea. What if they tried to go to the Rose Bowl in California?

“Of course I laughed in his face,” recalled Burns, 80, who still lives in Cary. “I said, ‘The day I put my fanny in the plane is the day I believe it.’ ”

The band did perform in the Rose Parade. And in other college football bowl games. And in Switzerland.

“He was always such a visionary, and there was nothing too big for him, that we couldn’t do,” said Ralph Ashworth, who owns Ashworth Drugs in downtown Cary and met Koka Booth through the band.

The band years still hold fond memories for Koka Booth. Why did he devote so much time to the local high school band?

“I did it because of the young people,” he said. “I did it for them.”

‘The town’s doing great’

In some ways, Koka Booth was always thinking about the young people, from the time he was appointed to fill a vacant Cary Town Council seat in 1978.

Without infrastructure in place, he knew the town couldn’t grow. And if it couldn’t grow, his sons – and other people’s children – wouldn’t be able to stay.

His two sons did stay in western Wake County. So did Ashworth’s sons.

It can be tough to see Koka Booth these days, Ashworth said. Like many people, he calls his friend “Koke.” (Koka got his name from his father.)

“It’s very sad, because Koke was such a visionary, and he always had these wonderful ideas of everything we were going to do,” Ashworth said.

Burns gets emotional when he thinks about what his friend is going through.

“We couldn’t be any closer,” Burns said. “ I call him every day.”

Koka Booth was at his job at SAS, in the communications department, the day he had a stroke. Thirty minutes earlier, he had been on the phone with Blanche, talking about what a wonderful weekend they had in Rocky Mount.

He spent a year and a half in physical therapy, learning to talk again. The dementia has gotten worse over the years.

Most of his time is devoted to family now. Koka Booth doesn’t attend Town Council meetings or try to weigh in on town business.

“It doesn’t worry me anymore,” he said. “The town’s doing great.”

No regrets

During his time as mayor, some people disagreed with Koka Booth’s philosophies about the future of Cary.

In 1997, voters ousted two Town Council members – Booth’s friends – and brought in candidates who pushed for slower growth so schools and parks could keep up. One of them was Glen Lang, who later became mayor.

It was a time of political strife for Booth, who was known for being chummy with business owners and developers. He was criticized for working at SAS, which was founded by Jim Goodnight, who financed some town developments.

Blanche Booth recalls late-night phone calls while her husband served in office. People would complain about some proposed ordinance or another.

But under Booth’s watch, Cary grew by thousands of residents. He helped bring a YMCA and a conference center. He pushed for the development of Fred G. Bond Metro Park, now a popular gathering place.

He also helped encourage the development of the amphitheater that now bears his name. Koka Booth Amphitheater draws about 120,000 visitors a year for concerts and other events, according to the town of Cary.

Koka Booth says he has no regrets about the way he governed.

“I did what I thought we should do,” he said.

Koka Booth didn’t let the criticism bring him down too much, Ashworth said.

“He let a lot of it slide off him,” Ashworth said. “He thought what he was doing was best for the community.”

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