SALISBURY — At first glance, Thomasina Paige is an unimposing presence — a petite woman with a warm smile and a flower pinned to her graying hair.
But underneath the delicate appearance and gentle manner lies a strong force for positive change.
Paige says she's not sure why she feels such a drive to help the community around her.
“Maybe it's because of my desire to be involved in shaping and improving where I live,” she said. “Maybe it's because I want my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren that are around me to look on the most positive side of life that they can.”
Maggie Blackwell, mayor pro tem of Salisbury, said Paige has been very involved in the Fulton Heights neighborhood where they both live. She supported the creation of a park and other initiatives there.
At those meetings, on the first Wednesday of every month, police share the past month's crime statistics for the area. Blackwell said Paige serves as “an advocate for her neighborhood,” making sure that their concerns are addressed.
Preston Mitchell, Salisbury's planning and development services manager, also lives in Fulton Heights and said Paige is well-known and well-loved in the neighborhood.
He invited Paige to serve on the Salisbury Planning Board, and she was appointed by the board as a member in 2010.
“Tommi really brings the love and experience she has with Fulton Heights to the board,” Mitchell said. “She brings the perspective of a grassroots-level neighborhood advocate.”
He said Paige doesn't say much at planning board meetings, preferring to listen and learn. It's at committee meetings where she becomes more vocal.
Paige has been serving on a committee tasked with looking at development of the Interstate 85 corridor.
“She's wanting to know, how are these decisions going to impact those surrounding neighborhoods or those surrounding residents?” Mitchell said.
She also understands the city's goals of encouraging economic development and business growth in the area, he said.
Paige said she came on the board without much prior knowledge, so she spends a lot of time researching the issues involved. The committee just presented some of its findings this month.
“We've pointed out all of these spaces that are underutilized in our corridor,” Paige said. “I was very interested in what we could do with I-85 right in this little strip.”
Paige's signature flower is a tribute to “Lady Day,” jazz singer Billie Holiday, who often wore gardenias above her left ear during performances.
“Whether it's having a flower in her hair, or saying things other people are thinking but just needs to be said, she has the courage and self-confidence to just be herself,” Blackwell said.
Paige volunteers with Piedmont Players Theatre, where she once served on the board of directors and even took the stage herself.
Her involvement with the theatre began as she encouraged other African-Americans to try new things and meet new people in their community.
“They never give black plays,” they told her, in spite of her arguments that there were plenty of roles minority actors could fill.
“Finally, I just got on the board for Piedmont Players,” Paige said. “Eventually, they started getting a few more plays that the African-American community could relate to.”
Paige still helps out at the box office, but she isn't a board member anymore, and she no longer participates in plays.
“It wasn't the learning of the lines,” Paige said. “Our people in this city, we love musicals, and I just couldn't do those dance steps.”
Paige was born in Landis, but she grew up and went to school in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Her family moved to New York during the time of African-American northern migration.
Nearly every year, her family would travel back to visit Landis and Salisbury, where Paige's mother grew up.
Her mother wanted her to attend Livingstone College in Salisbury, but Paige chose to go to Central State College (now Central State University) in Xenia, Ohio, where she earned a bachelor's degree in education. Later, she earned a master's degree in education management from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.
After holding a few different jobs in and out of California, Paige began working for the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1979. There, she helped exchange students prepare to study abroad and also helped them re-adjust to life in their home countries.
Over about a decade, she visited many of those foreign countries. She was fascinated by the differences in their cultures and, at the same time, the similarities in their people.
“The thing about that is the opportunity to really get ahold of how people in other places, other parts of the world, live,” Paige said. “It does something for your heart, to me.”
She had three children with her first husband - Tamu Johnson, who lives in Virginia; Robert Holmes Jr., who lives in Roseboro; and Isha Holmes, now a Salisbury resident. After their divorce, Paige waited until her children were grown to remarry. She and her second husband, Sydney Foster Paige, were married for 18 years.
One day, while flying to North Carolina for a family gathering, Paige started reading one of the free magazines on the airplane. Inside was an article saying that North Carolina was looking good for women in positions of leadership in education.
Though she had moved several times and loved traveling around the world, Paige suddenly felt drawn back toward the place where her life began.
The first time Paige interviewed for a student affairs position at Livingstone College, she said, she didn't even get a call back.
She then called the college to tell them that she didn't think she was given a fair amount of time in her interview. Bernard Franklin, the college's president at the time, heard her complaint and invited her back for another one.
Paige got the job. “That was the beginning of a real love affair with Salisbury,” she said.
State Alexander, director of public relations at Livingstone, said Paige's “genuine and caring nature” made her well-suited for her role there.
“She was always very attentive to students and what they needed and was also very quick to counsel them in the right way,” Alexander said.
When she came to Livingstone, Paige began an AIDS education program that offered frank, honest discussion about the disease.
“We had to pull back from that, because a church got involved, and somebody said we were promoting promiscuity,” she said. “But it was OK. When you plant a seed, you're going to get some growth out of it.”
Later, she became the first director of the college's continuing education and lifelong learning program.
Alexander said Paige is a positive, uplifting person, who is “not shy about saying what she thinks is the right thing to do” — and then she does it.
“She's the kind of person who makes history in a quiet way,” he said. “ She's not flashy, and she's not looking for accolades. ... She's kind of a quiet force in the community.”
Paige retired in 2002 after 13 years with Livingstone, but she soon realized that she wanted to stay active and needed another source of income.
Paige began volunteering at Rufty-Holmes Senior Center, where she taught workout classes for older adults.
Soon after, she was hired as a part-time outreach coordinator.
On behalf of Rufty-Holmes, she would teach programs at churches and other community centers about health issues affecting older adults. Paige said she told participants the latest facts about hypertension, vision care and senior fitness, encouraging them to recognize what was going on with their bodies and to do something about it.
Paige also was responsible for representing the community with groups that the center wanted to reach out to, like minorities, low-income individuals and veterans.
“She's always positive and upbeat and trying to make other people feel good about themselves,” said Director Rick Eldridge. “She certainly has a genuine concern and care for folks.”
Last year, Paige's position at Rufty-Holmes was eliminated due to budget cutbacks.
But she still has found ways to stay involved in her community.
She recently has started volunteering at the Habitat for Humanity Restore in Salisbury, and she keeps up some involvement with her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
After a heart attack in August, doctors told Paige she needed to take it easy, so she started to limit some of her activities and emotional stress.
Still, Paige said she won't cut herself off from the world around her.
She's motivated by connections with people, she said, and finding those connections in everyday things like how they put out their garbage cans. Her smile brightens as she talks at length about all the people she has grown to love.
“I want to take every bit of advantage that I may have to live out my life in Salisbury,” Paige said. “I'm close enough to home, I think, to accept the end of my life being right here on this street, with neighbors much like the ones I already have here. ... I just love Salisbury. I can't help it.”