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Cover Story: Denise Adams On The Move 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

She was at the edge of death, no doubt about it. Had her sister found her any later, that might have been it for Denise "D.D." Adams. But "might" ends up being a pretty operative word, here. Adams – who was crashing through trials of lupus, a compromised appendix and a tumor among other things, all at the same time – is uncommonly tough.

So when her sister, Tanya, found her barely alive in a grimly silent house one day in 2013, Adams demonstrated her standard: beating challenges and defying odds, no matter how dire.

But clearly if she was to survive it all, she would need full focus – maybe even retirement. She was, however, headed into yet another contest – a bid for re-election to the Winston-Salem City Council. And her landslide win later that year would show the city a refreshed public leader who says her appreciation for life, health and service found a gigantic, new dimension.

Fittingly, Adams’ campaign slogan was "On the move."

"And that’s how I see myself still," the councilwoman and Winston-Salem native said during a recent interview in her home. "I’m not a person to sit. I’m going to always be working on something. I don’t think I could sleep or live with myself if I didn’t do that."

Now running unopposed for a third council term, Adams appears at full strength – a norm, really, that she can trace to her youth. From a family of seven children including a twin sister, Adams said she was the quintessential middle child. She didn’t conform. She was rambunctious. She often made trouble with her bursts of energy – "my creative spirit, as I call it," Adams said.

She was close with her twin, Inese, but aligned more with her brother, Hurbie, her partner in climbing trees, exploring for tadpoles and playing "cowboys and Indians."

"I liked to be outside," said Adams. "I liked nature, competition. I like competition. I like sports. I like anything that tests me and my ability to be the best person I can be."

She connects that drive to her style of leadership, staring down challenges and ramming them to the ground with motivated team planning. Face-to-face communication is key, she says.

"Most people would tell you that I love to talk," Adams said. "I don’t look at it that way. I love to communicate. I love to be engaged. I love to listen to people."

Appropriately, she majored in speech communication at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md. – another story of overcoming. Adams’ parents wanted her to attend college in North Carolina, and she’d racked up acceptance letters from an array of schools including Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina A&T and UNC-Greensboro. She also won acceptance at out-of-state schools, among them Howard and Hampton universities – all in all, a good spread of options. But one turned her down – Morgan State – and that wasn’t going to stand, Adams declared. "I didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer," she said, "just like I don’t take ‘no’ now."

The school told her it had reached its out-of-state acceptance quota, but that didn’t impress this applicant. "So I had to go about the business of writing letters to request that they reconsider and accept me and tell them I would be a great student and an asset to Morgan State," Adams said. "Lo and behold, after many, many letters – I think they got tired of the letters – they accepted me."

But that wasn’t all. Her parents were puzzled as to why, of all places, she wanted Baltimore, at the time known as a fairly rough city. It wasn’t just the homicide rate that worried them. Adams had never actually seen the school before. It was all kind of a guess.

"I think it was the best thing I ever did," Adams said. Essentially, it gave her the right mix of independence, mystery and challenges, a scenario of self-reliance that would set her up for a career path in management, decision-making and quality.

Later would come a mindset for public office that saw Adams even running for a seat in the N.C. General Assembly in 1990, when she was 36. "No one expected me to even come close, because I was new," she said. "I was young."

She lost, but by a slim margin, and at this point in the story one might expect her to have called for a runoff that would ultimately seat her in the legislature. She didn’t. A sort of exercise in accepting defeat, Adams said she turned to the counsel of her hero, the late Earline Parmon, Forsyth County’s first black state senator. Adams said Parmon saw the concession as empowering, a move that would gain Adams respect. Her mother, meanwhile, had told her that if she really wanted victory, she would have worked a little bit harder to begin with. So, Adams nodded and moved on.

The lumps and lessons figured in to her development politically and professionally, as she worked on other candidates’ campaigns and elevated herself to performance- and quality-control supervisory at Johnson Controls in Winston-Salem. It was a job that allowed her to express priorities, teamwork and corrective action, she said.

"If there is a problem … I will always start asking questions," said Adams, who serves on the League’s Board of Directors. "And what my staff at the City of Winston Salem knows (is) that if I ask a question, there’s a 90 percent chance I already know the answer. But I need to know that my team knows the answer as well. And if they don’t, I don’t tell them I know the answer. Now I point them in the direction to go find the answer, and to the resources and the path to go find it."

After a contested campaign of door-knocking and handshakes, she won her first term on the Winston-Salem City Council in 2009, representing the city’s diverse North Ward. "I knew it was my time," she said.

While serving publicly, she maintained her job at Johnson Controls – each a demanding, full-time role. She was happy to have the energy.

"I’m a very healthy person," said Adams, an avid tennis player and golfer. "Everyone will tell you that about me."

But that got the ultimate test as her first council term wound down.

In 2012, she started losing weight – she thought because of her athleticism. But then came the nausea. "I’d never been sick, and I didn’t know what sick was," she said. "I thought it was a virus or something. I started going to the doctors, and no one could find anything wrong with me."

It got worse. She grew weak. Food tasted like metal. Her appetite vanished. And it got to the point where she could hardly stand.

Somehow, she still had the energy for city council meetings, but things weren’t improving. The environment grew graver in January 2013 when her sister, Rita, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. While grieving, Adams experienced unrelated dizzy spells, at one point passing out at work. Around that time, she noticed an odd rash.

A biopsy found it was lupus, a noncontagious autoimmune disease in which antibodies attack healthy parts of the body. It wasn’t good news, but Adams said the revelation relieved her. "Because at this point I know what’s wrong with me and it wasn’t in my head," she said. 

Doctors helped to control her lupus, but the nausea and weight loss persisted. She got to the point where she couldn’t walk. It scared her. Something more was at work.

She doesn’t recall much of what happened one April 2013 day following a city council meeting. All she knows is she balled up under bed blankets, while the sun was still out, and basically slept for days – her absence noticed by anyone familiar with her routine. When Tanya, Adams’ youngest sister, drove over to check on things, she found an untended home and a barely audible voice pleading for help.

Indeed, it wasn’t just lupus. Emergency room doctors found a leaking appendix poisoning her body, and it likely had been for months. They also found a baseball-size tumor on the appendix. They removed both and sent her home before two more returns to the hospital for related complications. After that, she just had to rest – and  think about how she’d continue to serve the city. She’s thankful for her corps of campaign helpers who worked to return her to the council while she rebuilt her health.

Fully charged today, Adams can talk mightily about issues on her radar – from the importance of the manufacturing economy and childhood nutrition to the battle against food deserts and an effort to restore an old community gathering spot in her ward. She’s also adamant that larger cities can be great resources to smaller towns that might need help with planning or economic development.

But her trials placed a vital, new texture on her style of service – the importance of pausing to appreciate not only the fruits of hard work, but all the natural beauties one can overlook while working, say, two full-time positions.

"I never stopped," she said. "I never saw the seasons change like other people."

Her advice to fellow public servants: Keep up the hard work, but stop to take in your surroundings. Link the two. It’ll make for more meaningful results.

"You’ve got to do it all," Adams said, breaking into tears after recalling the first spring she’d stopped to witness in her adult life, while she was healing. "You’ve got to have a piece of all of it. You can’t just do one part and that’s the part that you do. You’ve got to be connected to all of it."