Jo Anna McMillan never held elected office. She wasn't a CEO or business executive. She wasn't on TV or going viral on the internet. She wasn't a religious leader, at least not an ordained one. She didn't play any of the roles we often associate with influence.
But McMillan, who died recently at 57, had a deep impact on this community of Raleigh through one generous encounter after another.
Jo Anna was always organizing an effort to help someone. To feed a family who'd just lost a loved one. To build a Habitat House. To help the teachers at her children's public schools. To organize a day of community service for her church. To encourage the young people in a children's home in Haiti run by a Raleigh-based group. To support the elderly church women who longed to remain a part of their faith community. To acquire 1,200 books for her teacher-daughter's elementary schools. She never stopped reaching out to help.
Jo Anna and her husband, Doug, have five children, and Jo Anna was passionately devoted to her family. But somehow she made time for other people and their families. She was a compassionate leader with restless, persuasive energy who crossed racial and economic lines. She had a lot she wanted to get done — and, as her many friends could attest (my wife and I were among them), you couldn't say no to her.
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Reggie Edwards calls herself the chief encouraging officer at The Encouraging Place, a faith-based group that focuses on racial reconciliation. Jo Anna helped arrange child care so that women could attend the group's summer programs.
"She's a people person and she's a do-er. She was known for getting it done," Edwards told me, adding that Jo Anna "had the biggest heart in Raleigh."
Her brother Laurence Lilley in his eulogy said Jo Anna was a gangly, bespectacled, insecure teenage girl who eventually grew into a confident, 6-foot-tall woman who played varsity basketball at UNC. But she never forgot what it felt like to be on the outside.
She learned servant-leadership values from her parents in the small town of Williamston in eastern North Carolina. She believed in looking after people, like they did back home.
Lilley credits a summer job at Camp Seafarer, after Jo Anna's junior year at UNC, with lighting a spark in her about working with kids, which led to other types of service.
"In a small town, she saw that people help each other," he told me. "If something was going to get done, people were going to have to get together to get it done." To Jo Anna, Raleigh was just a big small town.
In North Carolina, we spend a lot of time these days thinking about how to save our small towns and rural areas. But maybe they will help save us. Not in the economic sense. But in another way.
Maybe the sense of community in places like Williamston and Clinton and Lillington and Warrenton will nourish us as more and more of small-town North Carolina consolidates in our larger cities.
Eric Johnson, who works at UNC-Chapel Hill and is a community columnist for The News & Observer, is a curious soul who travels around the state to see what's going on. As Johnson travels to our smaller communities, he sees people working to make a difference and succeeding.
"To overcome the perception of civic life as one extended shouting match," Johnson wrote recently in The N&O, "we need to elevate the good work happening all over the state."
Our state has two lives. There is a public life that it is debated and recorded as important decisions are made that affect the lives and futures of millions of people.
But there is also the day-to-day life we each lead — how we decide to spend our days and how we treat each other. Jo Anna McMillan's life of service reminds us that these personal interactions collectively help define us as a community. That should give us hope. We can do this, as Jo Anna often said. In this age of division, stalemate and rancor, maybe we are better than we think.