Over his 35 years as mayor of Mebane, Glendel Stephenson became famous, for among other things, his trademark comments at almost every groundbreaking, ribbon cutting, or other celebration in Mebane at which he was, inevitably, asked to make a few remarks.
“It’s a great day to be in Mebane,” he would almost invariably begin his comments. And his enthusiasm for his adopted hometown was infectious.
The late mayor’s passion should also serve as a lesson for transplants to know they don’t have to be a native to become involved, effective, or influential; Stephenson himself was not a Mebane native, but moved here as a relatively young man – at about age 30.
The mayor had long served as a one-man chamber of commerce for promoting Mebane. He gladly met with countless business and industrial leaders who were considering what he often called his “little city” for their operations.
And he had a great track record in attracting them. Mebane is “business friendly,” he often said, and as a former local banker he was familiar with what attracted businessmen (large or small).
Stephenson brought that same banker’s eye for financial detail to his city budget duties, and we believe it is no accident that the city’s finances had been a model of steady, substantive growth over many decades – both due to paced, responsible spending, as well as to the accumulation of a mounting tax base from commercial, residential, and industrial development.
In fact, when he retired from the mayor’s chair in December 2019, he had helped put his city’s tax base at almost $2.3 billion.
His focus on all forms of growth were refined through a prism of examining proposals for what would be best for the long-term future for his city. Before it had such a name, he advocated “smart growth.”
He told us when he retired that he did not think he had actually voted more than three times during his 35 years on the dais. (Mebane’s mayor does not vote except to break ties; with five members, that doesn’t happen often, except in cases of recusals or absences.)
But the mayor’s furrowed brow, or an incisive (or often, obvious) question, was often enough to turn many a discussion or decision in a more sound direction.
The mayor’s demeanor at council meetings was serious, but with appropriate doses of humor. He was unfailingly fair to speakers, many of whom approached the council with pent-up emotions.
He almost always allowed them to air their views – with the only limitation that he didn’t traditionally allow crude or abusive comments for very long.
He had practiced the adage that if the presiding officer will allow people to speak their peace on an issue – such as a controversial zoning matter – as long as you’re fair to both sides, they will go away relatively satisfied, or at least pleased they’ve been treated even-handedly.
We’re not sure we can recall a time during when we’ve covered him (most of his 35 years, in two separate tenures) that we’ve even heard him raise his voice – not at a fellow council member, a resident at the microphone, or any staff member.
His demeanor and manner was the epitome of a “Southern gentleman” from a bygone era.
The resolution read at his retirement and the dedication of city hall included the following whereas clauses that were especially appropriate then and we think a fitting eulogy now:
“WHEREAS, Mayor Stephenson has brought respect, honor, and integrity to the office of Mayor, exhibiting the highest level of ethics and maintaining a superior moral character. . .
“WHEREAS, Mayor Stephenson’s unwavering commitment, willingness and ability to understand and respond to the concerns of the people of Mebane, has made a substantial contribution to the betterment of the City of Mebane. . .
“NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, on behalf of the citizens of Mebane, that the City Council expresses to Glendel Stephenson their sincere appreciation for his loyal and distinguished service, both as citizen and Mayor. . .”
So while it may still be pretty great to be in Mebane, this week, it is just a little less of a great day inasmuch as the city has lost its number one cheerleader and a truly effective and visionary political leader.