Elizabeth Duncan Koontz Humanitarian Awards puts the selfless in the spotlight

Published 12:10 am Saturday, June 1, 2024

SALISBURY — Elizabeth Duncan Koontz was a pioneer in civil rights and in the field of education. Being the first Black president of the National Education Association and director of the United States Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, Koontz called Salisbury home during her 69 years of life.

To commemorate her mark on history, the Human Relations Commission, the same organization Koontz helped re-establish in 1985, puts together the Elizabeth Duncan Koontz Humanitarian Awards every year to acknowledge the individuals who continue to keep the ideals she stood for alive.

On May 30, at the Salisbury Civic Center, the commission held their 2024 ceremony to bestow Edward and Susan Norvell, Emily Perry, Jason Walser, and David Whisenant with this year’s Elizabeth Duncan Koontz Humanitarian Awards. 

“We thought about the impact and how it related specifically to Elizabeth Duncan Koontz and her work with advocacy, with creating spaces of belonging, and equity in the community. We used those as the pillars in how we selected the recipients,” Human Relations Commission Chair Christina Rary said.

Edward and Susan Norvell serve on countless local boards and commissions such as the Proctor Foundation, Racial Equity Rowan Committee and the Salisbury Public Art Commission. While Susan was unable to attend Edward shared the importance of the award to them as Salisbury residents. 

“I was kind of blown away…It means a lot,” Edward said.

Perry’s list of accomplishments encompass forming the Healthy Carolinas program, working as a state health education consultant, and being an adjunct professor of social work at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and Shaw University. Through her time with Mission House of Salisbury, she leads “grassroots efforts to educate citizens about the election process.” 

Winning the award was extra personal for Perry, she said Koontz hired her uncle back in the day for a summer job filling up the Blacks-only pool in Salisbury. Now after so much time has passed, Perry is in disbelief of how far she’s come. 

“I don’t think words can quite describe it…It was exhilarating, yet nostalgic because of so much growing up here and coming back here to try and make a difference,” Perry said. 

As executive director of the Blanche and Julian Robertson Family Foundation, Walser ensures nonprofits receive proper investing to allow them to succeed in their goals. He also was instrumental in the development of Bell Tower Green Park. Walser said he was floored with having his name be alongside all of the award winners that came before him. 

“I was aware of some of the past award winners and some of them are my heroes. I do not use that word lightly, they are heroes. To be in that group of people, to be associated with this group of leaders is remarkable. It’s an honor of a lifetime,” Walser said. 

For 32 years, Whisenant was a reporter at WBTV who always had his finger on Rowan County’s pulse. The Emmy winner covered a wide range of stories from presidential elections to NASCAR races to the Erica Parsons disappearance. Though he too could not make it to the ceremony, his son Kyle read a prepared statement from his father.

“I want to thank you for this honor. Over the years, I’ve covered these awards and have written news stories about the award recipients. To be included among them this year is very humbling. Congratulations to my fellow recipients and thank you again. This award means more to me than I can tell you,” Whisenant said.