Elaine Berry has come a long way from her childhood home on a tobacco farm in the northern reaches of Orange County.
From this rather humble beginning, Berry would become the first person in her family to attend college and ultimately earned an undergraduate degree from East Carolina University.
Berry went on to pursue her graduate studies at the University of Maryland before she began a three-decade career as a teacher and administrator with the public school system in Baltimore County, Maryland.
Since her retirement in 2007, Berry has swapped the urban clamor of Baltimore for a more leisurely existence in Mebane — a mere hop, skip, and a jump from the rustic community where she grew up. In the meantime, the former school teacher has found her abode in Alamance County to be an ideal proving ground for a new avocation in politics – a pursuit that has recently earned her a gubernatorial nod to serve as the head of Alamance County’s board of elections.
Before her return to North Carolina, Berry had generally maintained a safe distance from the thrust and parry of electoral politics. That’s not to imply, however, that this career educator was entirely disinterested in the results of elections.
“I voted in every election since I was a senior at Orange High School,” she recalled in an interview earlier this week. “As a teacher, I was always active as far as supporting public education, and I was actually the union president for the administrators at Baltimore County Public Schools.”
It wasn’t until after her relocation to Mebane, however, that Berry became interested in the nitty-gritty realities of the campaign. The retired school teacher credits much of this new-found fascination to the influence of the late Dorothy Yarborough, a local civil rights icon who, at the time of her death, had served as the chairman of the local board of elections.
Berry said that she first got to know board’s late chief after her arrival in Mebane more than a decade and a half ago.
“I joined the NAACP,” she recalled, “and that’s where I met Dorothy Yarborough, and Dr. Yarborough became like a mentor to me.”
Berry said that she and Yarborough grew even better acquainted as she began to attend meetings of the local Democratic Party. Along the way, Berry also developed an urge to work the party’s campaigns, and she eventually took a course in campaign management before she headed up her first electoral campaign in 2018 on behalf of statehouse hopeful Erica McAdoo.
In the end, Berry was unable to put McAdoo over the top in her bid to represent the state’s 63rd house district. Her labors nevertheless impressed enough of her fellow Democrats that, in 2019, the party selected her to serve as the chairman of its organization in Alamance County. During this time, Berry also got her first look at the inner workings of the local board of elections, whose bipartisan membership oversees the entire electoral process in Alamance County.
Berry’s two-year stint as the local Democratic chair happened to coincide roughly with Yarborough’s selection to serve as one of the party’s three representatives on the five-member board of elections. As the party in command of the governor’s mansion, the Democrats controlled the board’s leadership in addition to most of its seats when she joined, and Yarborough would go on to hold the position of chairman for most of her three years on the board.
Yarborough’s tenure nevertheless came to an end earlier this year when she succumbed to a debilitating illness. It ultimately fell to the local Democratic Party to suggest a replacement for Yarbrough, and when the party’s leadership got around to addressing the matter, Berry decided to offer herself up as a candidate to carry on the legacy of her late friend.
“Our new [party] chair put out a call for anyone who was interested in that appointment,” she went on to recall. “I believed this was a way I could work for the fairness and equity of elections, and I was interested in continuing my public service in a way other than working on campaigns.”
Berry eventually beat out one other contender to win the local party’s nomination for the vacant position. Then, on June 29, Governor Roy Cooper confirmed Berry’s selection as part of a whole slate of appointments to local elections boards across North Carolina.
In addition to her past chairmanship of the local Democratic Party, Berry continues to serve as the president of the LGBTQ+ Democrats for Alamance County, according to the website for LGBTQ+ Democrats.
Berry won’t be formally sworn in as the local elections board’s new head until later this month. Even so, she is already bracing herself for her increased commitment to local elections, and the time it will inevitably take from her life’s other passion – the equally competitive pastime of golf.
“I am an avid golfer,” Berry confessed. “I love golf, and that’s one reason we moved to Mebane. It’s my one guilty pleasure.”
Berry and her partner, Louise Karen Shulack, live in the Mill Creek subdivision, which includes a popular golf course, on the north side of Mebane. Berry said she attends Storied Church, a United Methodist congregation in Mebane.