Jim McClure has known Martha Bryan Liles since elementary school. And as he introduced her at a luncheon to present her with the James R. Stevens Service to Garner Award, he playfully noted that his depth of knowledge put him in a unique situation: with her potentially nervous.
“She’s been bossing me around for 57 years. And this is about the first time I’ve detected the least bit of apprehension. If you don’t mind I’m going to savor this moment,” said McClure, who is the vice president for local and regional advertising for the News & Observer.
Liles, who has dedicated herself to numerous causes including cancer fundraising and child literacy, became the 26th winner of the award, one of the town’s most prestigious awards.
“You feel kind of humble,” Liles said. “You look around at the host of recipients, it’s such a cast of folks to follow. I feel like I’m being recognized for something I love doing.”
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McClure introduced Liles to the crowd with a toast – a roast, he joked – that highlighted her presence, work ethic and leadership. When it came to organizing events, he quipped that a combination of mottoes from Nike and Larry the Cable Guy could serve as her mantra: “Just git ’er done.”
For Liles, volunteering time provides a major foundational element in a small town.
“It is the only award that really recognizes community service,” Liles said. “We’re a small town, we depend on a lot of volunteer time, and you do see the same people working in a lot of different efforts. So I think it’s important to gather and celebrate that.”
After beating cancer (which she did twice) she was co-chair with Jill Cottengin (a former Stevens Award recipient) of the Garner Relay for Life in 2000 and 2001. She also has helped spearhead Garner United Methodist Church’s efforts that have raised more than $300,000 in the event over the years.
She also has been a key part of the Garner Education Foundation as a two-time board member. She currently coordinates the Schools and Community Organized to Read (SCOR), touting the importance of pushing literacy at an early level for the sake of long-term outcomes.
“That has probably done more to influence more young lives in Garner than anything I can think of,” McClure said. “Study after study has been done, and at third grade is where high school graduates and high school dropouts start separating.”
McClure spoke about Liles’ imagination, drive, refusal to wilt in the face of adversity, and generous nature. He also touched on the lighter side. He talked about crashing her girls 8th birthday party (and eventually getting ejected by Liles). He joked about how she “grew four feet from third to fifth grade” but “forgot to keep growing” after. And he surprised her with ice cream from Goodberry’s.
“You can look on her iPad and the flavor of the day is on there for 10 years,” McClure said.
The event also featured words from Mayor Ronnie Williams, Chamber of Commerce president and Liles’ former classmate Neal Padgett, and Tim Stevens (a sports reporter with the News & Observer) whose father, a former Garner alderman and civic leader, is the namesake of the award.
Several former Stevens Award winners also attended.