Profile in Service: Honoring Dearly Departed Wake County Commissioner Dr. James West

By Sara Mogilski | NCACC Chief Operations Officer

Dr. James West – Wake County Commissioner :: Photo Credit – Wake County Communications Office

Wake County leaders and residents were saddened by the news of Commissioner James West’s passing on November 18, 2023. Lauded as a “pillar of public service,” Dr. West showed up for all of his communities consistently and thoughtfully. The local news coverage that ensued following his passing speaks to his extensive work as a tireless and respected leader. But his impact is felt well beyond Wake County lines, both as a trailblazer of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service (Extension) and leader in the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC).

A Season with Extension

A little over a year ago, Wake County profiled Dr. West for a series titled, “Celebrating Black Excellence,” in recognition of Black History Month. When asked, “What are you most proud of?,” Dr. West answered: 

I am proud of being able to move up the ladder with all the impediments and barriers that were placed on my people. One accomplishment in particular that stands out is being the first African American in the United States and the state of North Carolina to become the Director of County Operations for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service (at NC State University) with the responsibility of supervising over 1,000 extension faculty and support staff.

This experience would prove to serve as formative training ground for Dr. West as he first became Wake County Commissioner in 2010. 

Working in Extension prepared me well for this role as a county commissioner. I hadn’t thought too much about politics but several people encouraged me to get involved. At Extension, I worked with all county managers and county commissioners … I learned how to work with people, learned to respect different cultures, from the mountains to the coast. It was perfect for me because I like people and had that opportunity to transfer many of the things I’ve always believed in into the work I’m doing now.

Dr. West shared these reflections with me when we sat down for an interview July 2021 for a documentary film the NCACC’s 100 Strong Productions was creating to shed light on food system resiliency in North Carolina. He described his experience, “I worked in three counties with Extension Service, then became specialist with 4-H, was district director for 17 counties down east, and then became Director of County Operations for the state of North Carolina.” 

Moving up through the ranks of Extension, Dr. West’s career there spanned 30 years. During his funeral service, an Extension colleague and friend, Dr. Richard Liles, spoke about his experience with his friend James, as he referred to him, “I saw James often and spoke with him often, including over an hour the Tuesday before he passed.” Dr. West and Dr. Liles struck up this friendship when they were County Extension Agents together in Wake County and both had assignments in 4-H. “At that time, 4-H mostly included segregated community clubs. We decided this wasn’t good, so we worked together to integrate the 4-H program in Wake County. With James’ leadership, we recruited 3,000 new members,” reminisced Dr. Liles. Their collective work continued for years and clearly made an impression on these collaborators in Extension. “James could quote the Bible like a Baptist preacher and any leadership book he’d ever read. But he also had a lot of what we call ’wise country sayings,’ and one that was his favorites was, ’Give it your best and leave the rest,’” Dr. Liles remarked as he closed his parting words in honor of his long-time friend.

Interview for Resilience: Food For All :: 100 Strong Productions documentary film released in 2022

Commitment to Community

Dr. West’s appointment as a Wake County Commissioner in 2010 meant that he was now a part of a network of 587 commissioners representing North Carolina’s 100 counties. He began attending NCACC functions and growing his connections throughout the state. With Dr. West’s election to the Wake County Board of Commissioners in 2012 and subsequent re-elections in 2016, 2018 and 2020, he became increasingly well-known for his ability to bridge relationships and demonstrate his commitment to being a student of and advocate for county government. 

Dr. West gained a reputation for being a skilled storyteller. Full of apt anecdotes, he described situations in detail to paint a picture for the listener that allowed for a deeper level of understanding. This gift would be brought to bear in Dr. West’s many leadership roles with the NCACC. He served on steering committees and the NCACC’s Board of Directors, volunteer positions in pursuit of collaboration and cooperation across counties. Dr. West also served on the 2010-2011 NCACC presidential initiative task force on youth involvement, chaired by former Person County Commissioner and now North Carolina House of Representatives member, Ray Jeffers.

Most recently, Dr. West co-chaired the 2020-2021 NCACC Resilience Task Force, led by former NCACC President and Martin County Commissioner Ronnie Smith. The presidential initiative focused on the county’s role in strengthening the state’s food system resilience. This issue was near and dear to Dr. West given his experience with Extension combined with the focus of his work as Chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. During that time, he launched a two-year effort directed at examining issues of food insecurity. 

“I learned so much visiting food banks and pantries. There was a close collaboration with the school system. This issue touches your heart and soul … it affects everything; food is the key ingredient when kids come to school.”

Dr. West’s leadership with the Resilience Task Force led to the publishing of a report that outlines ways counties can impact food system resilience and contributed to the NCACC’s “Resilience: Food For All” documentary. Both served as catalysts for conversations among community groups and other stakeholders to improve the quality of life for North Carolina residents. This is the kind of work Dr. West is known for… grassroots and community oriented. 

As I spoke with Dr. West about his views on food system resiliency, he shared, “We had a philosophy, it’s called helping people to help themselves. And those are the kinds of values I learned being with Extension. Our whole philosophy [was] utilizing the research and resource base of both of those land grant universities to help people have a better quality of life.” His upbringing in East Sampson County gave him first-hand experience with an agrarian way of life, “We learned the work ethic. It’s what I call the community era.” This dedication to community and sense of doing right by one another spilled over into his interactions with fellow commissioners across the state. “The relationships within the Association, getting to know others, understanding where they are and having great appreciation can truly pull us together.” 

Thank you, Dr. West, for holding onto and promoting the ties that bind. The NCACC will be forever grateful for all you did to cultivate community and understanding among counties. May you rest in peace and may your family gain comfort in knowing your legacy will live on through Extension and the NCACC.

Resilience Task Force Meeting at Hickory Nut Gap Farm :: 2021, Buncombe County

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