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Sacrifice and Service: Sen. Bill Rabon Finds Rewards Amid Demands 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

Bill Rabon has an enviable position – able to effect change and find happiness in the hard work it requires, even if it means little time for leisure, or even sleep.

"It’s nice," he said in his Southport office with a stethoscope slung around his neck, "to have a profession that you enjoy, to wake up every day after 41 years and still want to work. I do."

Muffled but steady communication, foot traffic and other shuffling beyond the closed door easily gauged the demand on his operation, at least on the recent morning Southern City paid a visit. Occasionally, a nurse would peep in to make sure she knew where the doctor was, in case of emergency.

"I love what I do," he continued. "I love my patients – and their owners." Rabon in 1976 opened Brunswick County’s first veterinary practice, remained its lone provider for roughly a decade and has kept it strong as the surrounding area mushroomed with development and change, particularly in the past 15 years.

And it’s clear that it’s had an influence on his drive to serve the people around him, considering his leadership roles in the N.C. Senate, where District 8 voters in Brunswick and neighboring counties have kept him for the past six years. His duties have included chairmanships on the busy and high-profile Senate Transportation and Finance committees.

From there, he can get a lot accomplished. But the road to public office wasn’t without worry, he said in an interview. For one, there was the time he’d have to spend away from his practice. North Carolina’s part-time legislature isn’t truly part-time.

"I decided to test the water," Rabon said of running for Senate, "and unfortunately I found I could swim (laughter). It has been interesting. It’s a roller-coaster."

Of course, North Carolina has seen a lot of change in recent times, and certainly in your district. Going back to when you were the only veterinarian here, how have you seen the area shift?

When I started my practice, it was in Supply, because that was in the center (of Brunswick County) and had access to the most people. And there was a big upheaval in the county at the time, moving the county seat (from Southport, where Rabon resides, to Bolivia), building a new hospital – a lot of growth, and unrest. But in 1976 ... to see more than two cars on Highway 211 at one time after 8:30 at night was a rarity.

And now there’s so much traffic that it’s commanded a lot of changes – the road- and intersection-widenings, brand-new connector roads, waterway crossings….

Oh yeah. And I don’t know that we’ll ever get in front of it again. I don’t know that we will.

(Rabon started on another example of local change when one of his staffers popped in with a worried face. "We’ve got a really bad one out here," she told him.

Rabon leapt from his chair to respond and returned several minutes later with tough news. A tearful woman had brought in an unresponsive dog, and things didn’t look good.

"Yeah, little dog is in pain," Rabon said, reseating himself and shaking his head. "Nobody wants that, and I certainly don’t. But we’re getting that taken care of.")

You’ve been doing this a long time, but how do you ever get used to that? Must be hard to see a client in emotion like that....

Well, you have to switch modes. You have to go from a surgeon’s mode, to an internist’s mode, to whatever. With time, you learn how to do that. You have to pull yourself out of one plug and into the other.

What got you interested in veterinary work?

I started out in pre-med, at N.C. State – in those days, pre-med, pre-dental, pre-vet were all the same curriculum. My brother was in vet school. I went down and visited the University of Georgia a few times with him over the weekends, liked it, so I decided I would give it a whirl. I made good friends and liked what I saw and decided to stay in.

And now, serving in the legislature, how do you balance the demand?

It’s a lot easier when you’re my age than it would be for the younger people 

to do it. But I’ve started opening my business and working on Saturdays to make up. We were referring a lot of our emergencies to an emergency clinic, but I will now see patients before and after hours.

Of course, going into it, you knew it would be time-consuming.

I thought it would be time-consuming, but that’s a euphemism – it takes all of your time (laughter). But I try now to get up every morning between 3 and 4 (a.m.) to read my emails, do an hour of legislative work, usually doze off again between 5 and 5:30. I just do it when the rest of the world is asleep.

Why did you run for the Senate to begin with?

I came to the conclusion that individuals make a difference. But you have to be willing to make some sacrifices – and to believe that you can. And I thought that North Carolina was sort of on the cusp, that southeastern North Carolina was definitely in a position to better itself and move forward.

So looking back on your six years in the Senate so far, what’s the big takeaway for you?

For me, two things. First, the changes in transportation and infrastructure. I think that one segment of North Carolina policy is one of the two big game-changers…. Putting roads where they’re needed, where the demand is rather than where they’re wanted, and rather than where the politicos want them. Huge, huge as far as moving North Carolina forward and attracting business.

The inroads that we have made in tax reform are huge. Huge.... I think that has made North Carolina’s business climate, again, one of the most attractive in the nation. I hope that we continue on that. We have done a lot on the corporate side, on the business side, and we are beginning to move on the personal side. A modern tax structure, as opposed to an antiquated one.

What else is pressing right now?

Well, you look at the budget pie. The lion’s share goes to education. That’s a tough one, and that’s an almost impossible wheel to turn – not to rotate, but in taking a different direction. Education will change. It will change very slowly. But it will change…. It’s important that we see what other countries are doing, not just what our neighboring states are doing, because education is a global issue.... All education has to be globally oriented. It’s not just a local, county or state issue.

Speaking of local, how do you find your communication is with your local officials? 

I would like for there to be more. I think they would probably like for there to be more. Everyone has their realm – mayors focus on what mayors are focused on; county commissioners are focused on what they are focused on; and the legislature is focused on this, and Congress is focused on that. I would like to see more done at the local level ... especially at the municipal level if possible, with less, eh – I think the state should give direction and assistance, but I think people should make up their own minds. North Carolina is probably one of the most unique states in that we have such a large population with so many small towns. I mean, North Carolina is really one big small town. If you take Greenville, Wilmington, Raleigh, Triangle, Triad, Charlotte, Asheville out of picture, this is a state of small towns. That’s a lot of local government, compared to other states. I have north of 40 (municipalities) in my district. 

How does that affect your service as a legislator?You get a lot of emails (laughter). Each has common needs, and individual. Just in my senatorial district, I have the coast, and I have the crossroads, and they all have different needs.... And I think we collect way too much tax in North Carolina. I would like to see less going to (the state) and more going into the towns and counties for them to make their decisions. I think it’s more efficient and it serves the will of the citizens better at the local level.

Your personal life, veterinary practice, your public service – what does it all add up to? 

It’s very gratifying, very satisfying. Some of it is frustrating. Again, it goes back to the roller coaster, the ups and the downs, the peaks and the valleys. It’s not a gentle curve. All in all, I guess if you connect the dots and draw a line through them, as long as that line is positive, it’s a good thing. 

And is that line positive? It is – with some dips (laughter). I think the takeaway is that North Carolina is a heck of a state. It really is. We have good leaders – great leaders – on both sides of the aisle. Sometimes we lose track of that... I’m impressed with how genuine most people are in wanting change for what they think is better.