Editorial: Hefner, Fleming etched in local history
W.O.T. Fleming and W.G. (Bill) Hefner are gone ó both died this week after long and accomplished lives ó but their names are deeply etched into this community’s history, both literally in the buildings that bear their names and figuratively in their dedication to public service.
On the surface, their spheres of influence might seem as widely divergent as Salisbury and Washington, D.C., the cities where they did their work. But they were united in this common purpose: To improve the lives of their fellow citizens, whether it was through providing better education, better housing for the disadvantaged or better medical care and support services for America’s veterans.
As a longtime educator, Fleming served as principal at three Salisbury schools ó Lincoln, Monroe Street and Overton ó mentoring generations of young students and teachers at those institutions while also helping to bridge racial and economic divides. Along with his devotion to education, he was a former chairman of the Salisbury Housing Authority, where he worked to improve citizens’ access to safe and affordable housing and day-care for disadvantaged children. The buildings that now bear his name ó Fleming Heights Apartments for senior citizens and the Fleming Parent-Child Center at Pine Hills ó are a visible reminder of contributions to the community that transcended race as well as age, helping black as well as white, young as well as old, the poor as well as the affluent.
Although Bill Hefner’s congressional responsibilities extended to hundreds of thousands of constituents in the counties that were part of his district, they found a local focus in Salisbury’s VA hospital. Even before going to Congress in 1974, after defeating incumbent Earl Ruth, Hefner was a familiar figure at the hospital, where the Kannapolis radio station owner performed as part of a gospel quartet. When it came to improving services for veterans, Congressman Hefner delivered more than a political song and dance. As a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and, later, ranking minority member of a military subcommittee, he was known for his work on veterans’ issues and helped channel millions of dollars in military projects to the state. The beneficiaries included Fort Bragg and the Salisbury VA, which in 1999 was renamed the W.G. (Bill) Hefner V.A. Medical Center in his honor.
Hefner worked at the congressional level and was a political powerbroker, while Fleming embodied the ideal of community activism that works through quiet negotiation to address inequities and give voice to the powerless. But they shared a passion for public service, and what one acquaintance said of Hefner certainly applies equally to both: “He was a friend of the people.”