My Turn, Elizabeth Cook: Fisher’s advice golden, example priceless

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 8, 2020

By Elizabeth Cook

When Paul Fisher asked for a few minutes of your time, something important was brewing. 

That’s the way it was during my years as editor of the Salisbury Post, and others probably had similar experiences. Fisher would set up an appointment, come take a seat and share a deep concern he had for the community. 

He wasn’t asking questions; he had something he wanted to say. The message was carefully constructed. And once he got it off his chest, he left. 

Fisher was a visionary who liked to plant ideas, then watch them take root and grow. 

Most often, he wanted to talk about the future of Rowan County, in one way or another. Beneath Fisher’s snow white hair, wheels were always turning in his sharp mind. Concerns were stirring in his heart. He analyzed issues and strove to make Rowan better to the very end of his life. 

This passion came across in his writing, too. I saved two examples when I cleaned out my office. Consider them pages of local history. 

One was a column headlined “It Is Time.” The essay was published two days before the November 2014 election, but it sounded an alarm Fisher had been raising all year, if not longer. Local leaders were not working together as a team, he said, and it was time for the silent majority to cease being quiet. “If we continue on the current path, we will risk becoming a Third World county.” 

He went on: “First, we need to realize the cavalry is not coming; it’s only us. Yes, we have to save ourselves from ourselves. Second, we should realize that we all play on the same team. It’s called Team Rowan …” 

Fisher didn’t name names, but at the time many people believed the chairman of the Board of Commissioners set the wrong tone for Rowan County. The chairman dug in his heels on education spending, took an adversarial attitude toward the city, and was less than welcoming to incentive-seeking industrial prospects. He also led the county’s purchase of Salisbury Mall amid talk of moving county offices out of downtown. 

Fisher invested body and soul (not to mention his bank) in Rowan, and by 2014 he was determined to see the county take a more positive, forward-looking approach. He sponsored a community forum in April 2014 that pulled together government, business and education leaders. They heard keynote speeches covering “Secrets of Successful Communities” and “Developing Your Community Vision.” 

Other forces were at work that year, including La Resistance, a grassroots group that also pushed for new county leadership. But Fisher had a pivotal role in building momentum toward change. The commission chairman lost in the May primary, and the November balloting brought in three new leaders. It was nothing less than a sea change in county governance. 

The second Fisher document in my files is an earlier one, a letter he gave every East Rowan senior upon graduation one June. He headlined the missive “Wise Choices.”

As CEO and president of F&M Bank, Fisher knew how to get the students’ attention: each letter came with a $1 coin attached.  

His message covered two pages, but he underlined key phrases such as “practice is over” and “everything counts.” An excerpt: 

“Set your moral compass before setting out on life’s highway. It is your internal GPS system. We all want you to reach your destination — … a successful life.

“Let me quickly define a successful life. I assure you that it is not making the most money. ABC television did a story about all the folks that had won the Mega Bucks in the lottery. Not a single winner was a happy camper.” 

He listed the features that defined success for his generation: “Great family, great friends, good health, a rewarding job, respect in the community, having a caring and sharing spirit and being grounded in a faith of one’s choice.” 

Fisher aced every category of that test, with one unstoppable exception. Cancer took his life on Oct. 30. He was 82 years old.  

In the decade since Fisher sent graduates that letter, presidential dollar coins in mint condition have more than doubled in value. The advice he gave, if heeded, is golden. And the example he set is priceless. 

Thank you, Mr. Paul.

Elizabeth Cook is former editor of the Salisbury Post.