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Wilbur Rabon was one of more than two dozen Rabon-family members at the Dec. 3 Brunswick County commissioners meeting for the swearing in of his niece, Register of Deeds Brenda Mercer Clemmons.
As he stood at the front of the room to hold the Bible for Clemmons, he did not realize he was set up to be the center of attention.
After taking her oath of office, administered by another family member, N.C. Sen. Bill Rabon, one of Wilbur’s nephews, Clemmons announced it was also the family’s opportunity to publicly recognize Wilbur Rabon’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine award.
“When someone receives an award, our family shows up, even if it’s for dog catcher,” Clemmons said. “My uncle had no clue, if he did he would not have been there.”
Clemmons told the audience Wilbur Rabon received the award back in the 1970s.
“Uncle Wilbur was called into the governor’s office in Raleigh. He presented it to him personally in his office,” Clemmons said.
It was presented by N.C. Gov. James E. Holshouser Jr., who was in office for one term from 1973-1977.
Wilbur Rabon was appointed to Holshouser’s newly established Department of Transportation Board in 1973. He was also asked to join the Secondary Roads Council.
“We worked with municipalities and rural areas. There were a lot of unpaved roads in the state. We tried to work with them to improve the highway system,” Wilbur Rabon said.
In 1973, Wilbur Rabon was already three years into his first term on the Brunswick County school board, was working full time for Federal Paperboard Company, was farming in the evenings and serving on Holshouser’s DOT Board and Secondary Roads Council.
“I was at a meeting at the DOT board. He came by after lunch and asked me to stop by his office that afternoon. He said ‘I have something for you,’” Wilbur Rabon recalled.
After a brief chat in the governor’s office, Holshouser opened a desk drawer and handed him the plaque.
“He said I want to thank you for all your work,” Wilbur Rabon said.
Presenting the honor in such a personal way was gratifying to Rabon, but it meant there was no record of his award.
“His was one of the originals,” Clemmons said.
Wilbur Rabon said the award, which he received along with a framed photograph of Holshouser, went into his brag room—where he kept the plaques and mementos of his years serving on the board of education and as a county commissioner.
He served from 1970-1978 on the school board, and then served as a county commissioner from 1979-1982.
In recent months, Wilbur Rabon was diagnosed with lung cancer and spent several weeks in the summer and fall receiving treatment.
Wilbur Rabon’s service influenced the political careers of his niece, Clemmons, and nephew, Sen. Bill Rabon.
Her swearing in at the meeting and having the state senator do the honors gave the 30-something family members reason to crowd the commissioner meeting room and spring the trap on Wilbur Rabon.
“I was caught off guard. A couple weeks ago she asked me to do her a favor—hold the Bible for her swearing in. I said I’d be there,” Wilbur Rabon said.
Sen. Bill Rabon said Wilbur Rabon was the first recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine in Brunswick County.
Sen. Bill Rabon said his father, Roy Rabon, also received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, “but Wilbur came first.”
“He has never been presented with it, so we wanted to bestow that honor,” Clemmons said. “Now was the time, we wanted him to be recognized.”
Brian Slattery is a staff writer for The Brunswick Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or firstname.lastname@example.org.