DOBSON — Opening a ceremony honoring the late Sen. Don East with a prayer, Surry County Commissioner Larry Phillips was choking back tears.
“We thank you for his legacy and public service,” he said. “We thank you for the example he set, not only for myself, but for others, about what it means to be a public servant.”
The county board spent a significant portion of its Monday night meeting with a ceremony honoring East, and Phillips’ message permeated the board’s sentiment.
East, a former county commissioner, died on Oct. 22, following complications from a routine surgery.
He served as a Surry County Commissioner from 1984 - 1992, and was elected to the North Carolina Senate in 1995, where he served until 2000.
After taking a break from the senate, East returned when he was elected to another term in the legislature in 2005, where he served until his death.
East served as the co-chair of the Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and co-chaired the Appropriation Committee’s sub-committee on Natural and Economic Resources.
In addition, East was a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Insurance Committee and the Judiciary’s Criminal Committee.
But Monday night’s celebration of his life was less about his political record and more about a man one commissioner said “served with a servant’s heart.”
The celebration fluctuated between laughter and tears, and commissioners said repeatedly that while they didn’t always agree with East’s position — and vice versa — they had nothing but respect for the man.
“He was a true son of Surry County,” said then-chairman R.F. “Buck” Golding, who spent the last moments of his tenure at the helm of the board honoring the former Senator. “Don was absolutely tireless when he got on an issue and he wouldn’t back down from anyone or anything. You have to appreciate that.
“He did more for Surry County than I can remember, and I go back a ways,” Golding added with a chuckle.
It was a message that resonated throughout the ceremony.
Commissioner Eddie Harris said East’s dedication to helping the little man spoke volumes about his character.
“He would go out in the country and visit with people with little problems. Problems getting a permit. Problems with receiving benefits,” Harris said. “Things you’d never dream of a state senator doing. I was so impressed with him. What a great American.
“Don East was a dedicated, first-rate public servant,” he added.
Commissioner Jimmy Miller was the only member of the board who was serving during East’s tenure as a commissioner. He said their friendship was much deeper than any political position.
“We didn’t see eye to eye every time, but Don was a fighter for the little man, and he’ll be remembered that way,” Miller said. “If he said that’s the way it was going to be, that’s the way it was going to be. I just hate that we don’t have him now.”
Commissioner Paul Johnson noted that he once tried to un-seat East in the Senate, a move that showed him East’s fighting spirit.
“Don East was like a pit bull,” he said with a laugh.
But the laughter soon turned to tears as Johnson noted a recent political skirmish with the senator.
“We were at odds there for a while,” he said as his voice broke and the tears briefly appeared. “But we made peace with each other and I’m so glad we got to do that.”
Looking at East’s daughter Gina and her husband Mickey, Johnson said he grieved for their loss.
“It was sudden, and I know you’re going to miss him, but the people of this district will also miss him greatly,” he said. “We’re much better off having known him than not.”
Phillips said East should be remembered for his principles and his faith.
“Death reminds us that life is important,” he said. “I look forward to one day being reunited with my friend.”
The ceremony continued as Sheriff Graham Atkinson noted that East went out of his way to help others, even those outside his district.
He noted that East once drove to the Outer Banks to help a group of fishermen with a problem.
“There was no political gain in that,” he said. “He came back and said those people are just country folks who happen to live on the coast. He worked to help them just as if they’d been his constituents.
“He took his job in the General Assembly seriously, not just for the people of Surry County, but for the people of North Carolina. No one will ever replace that.”
East’s long-time friend Van Tucker said in the political arena, East found his calling.
“Don seemed to have found his role as an elected official taking on the powerful for average folks,” he said. “He’d always say to me that ‘it’s important to them’.”
Tucker said East was serious about his job, but preferred to think of himself as a simple man who worked for a cause.
“Don was a great servant with a big heart tho worked tirelessly and fearlessly for those who couldn’t put up a big fight for themselves,” he said. “We’ll miss him, but we’ll always remember.”
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.