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Inspired to serve 

by Jessica Wells, League Communications Specialist

For Gibsonville Mayor Leonard Williams, the road to public service started on a farm outside of Enfield as one of 12 children. He was raised by his father, a sharecropper, after his mother passed away at age 40. He went to school for the first time at age 9 when a few teachers walked three miles to the farm and convinced him to come to class.

He took first and second grade simultaneously to catch up with the other children.

"I almost caught up. I was just one year older than most of my classmates," Williams said. "I didn’t miss a day once I started."

One of those teachers followed Williams all the way through graduation when he enrolled in North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. With a degree in accounting, Williams moved to New Jersey for a job with the Internal Revenue Service specializing in nonprofits.

"I never got to say thank you before she passed away, but I hope to do something at her church before I leave this world, too, because she was the one who took me under her wing," he said. "That did have an impact."

Williams said he hopes to see his secondary school, which has since closed, turned into some sort of library. Even in New Jersey, Williams was inspired to serve his community as a part-time paramedic and a mentor to local students through a program sponsored by the IRS.

After moving up the ladder in his career, Williams and his wife decided to come back to North Carolina. He accepted a position with the IRS in Greensboro in 1983, his wife transferred to a United States Postal Service office in Elon, and Gibsonville became home.

Williams knew he wanted to be part of the community in Gibsonville, so he joined the planning committee in 1985. In 1993, he was elected to council with the most votes, and in 2005 he became mayor.

In his 30th year as an elected official, he’s not running out of things to do.

"My problem is I’m hyper. Every morning by 7:30 or 8, I’ve read two newspapers, and I’m looking for something to do," he said.

He spends time at the senior center where his wife serves meals daily. He also frequents downtown hangouts like Pete’s Grill, Jack’s Bar-B-Q, and a garage where people congregate every morning.

"You just got to do the best you can with what you have and enlist everybody," he said. "You can’t satisfy everybody – I know that, but you’ve got to do the best you can for the community as a whole."

Gibsonville has made a big push recently to improve its downtown and recruit new businesses. The town created a matching grant program for downtown businesses to improve their storefronts. Several businesses have already taken advantage of the grants, and Williams said he hopes more will follow suit.

The town is also working on creating ways to bring people downtown like summer music events, which attracted close to 1,000 people last year, and its booming soccer program of roughly 600 that provides business for the restaurants after practice and games.

"A lot of folks don’t want to see this community get big, but we’re trying to do something to make downtown more attractive and get people downtown," he said. "People have to have something to go to."

Attracting more commercial and residential development will also help Gibsonville cope with losses from the Privilege License Tax repeal and inability to annex. Williams regularly travels to Raleigh to work with legislators and serves on the League’s Legislative Action Committee.

"We’ve been working on this for about three years and they finally just said, ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’ It’s hurt us, but you have to live with what you have, so we do the best we can with it," he said. "You can only raise taxes so much, and you have to live within your means. You have to find a way to get the best out of the money that you have without having to raise taxes."

For Williams, that means achieving a few things.

"I’m on a mission now – we don’t have any money – but we need two things that Gibsonville doesn’t have," he said.

A few years ago, Gibsonville’s only grocery store moved out and Williams is determined to find a replacement. People who normally drive through Gibsonville to get to a store 8 miles away would possibly stop in Gibsonville instead, creating new revenue for the town.

"I take the position that, this little downtown area, it’s not much but that’s what holds this whole community together," he said. "This is a good community, people work together. You have to do this because you love the community and you want to do something to help people. If you’re not interested in helping folks, you don’t need to be elected because that’s what it’s all about."

The second thing Gibsonville needs, according to Williams, is a recreation center for indoor activities. Though the town has a few parks, basketball courts, and an active soccer league, Williams said Gibsonville needs a place for senior citizens to do activities or a place for people who don’t play soccer or basketball to play games indoors or work on computers. Williams is in the process of trying to find funding for the center.

"Some people say, ‘You’re not going to get it,’" he said. "But I don’t give up. Even though I’m old, I don’t give up."