He worked for the love of his county
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 11, 2009 2:00 AM
Wilber Shirley, left, presents the Order of the Long Leaf Pine to former county commissioner and school board member Atlas Price, right, with his wife, Carolyn, beside him.
For Atlas Price, there's no place like Wayne County. A native of Pricetown and a long-time resident of Seven Springs, not only did Price never consider leaving, he dedicated about a third of his life to working for Wayne County and its residents.
"My whole family grew up here," he said one recent afternoon. "It's home. That's all there is to it."
And over the years he's seen Wayne County grow and change -- roads paved, electric lines run, a county water system built, business and industry come and go, homes built and destroyed by flood and built again.
"In so many ways .... I've seen the whole world change. Some of it for the better; some of it for the worse," he said. "But we've seen nothing but progress. I can remember driving to Goldsboro when I was about 14 or 15 and I could tell you who lived in every house.
"Wayne County's come a long way."
And he hopes that at least in some way, he's helped it get to where it is today.
Born into a farming family, growing tobacco, corn and beans, Price also worked for D.M. Price and Sons, as well as for Carolina Tobacco Warehouse until 2002.
But it was in 1986 that he began what many consider his greatest contributions to Wayne County, serving as a member of both the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners for 10 years each.
He explained that he decided to run for county office, not because he sought awards and recognition, but because he felt he had something to offer the community.
"I just thought I had some leadership abilities and that I could help improve Wayne County and make it better for its people," Price said on a recent afternoon. "Some of it I was successful with, some of it I wasn't."
But more often than not, he was, helping to guide the county through such projects as the building of a new Wayne Community College, the merging of the Wayne County Public Schools and the Goldsboro City Schools, the continued development of a countywide water system, the construction of industrial parks and the creation of the county paramedic service.
He explained that his secret was working with people -- even those from the opposite party.
"I did as much behind-the-scenes work as I did in front," Price said. "I'd talk with the other commissioners. I didn't try to persuade anybody, but I tried to show them what I thought was for the good of the county and the people, and most of the time I won out."
He also explained that he made it his business to help out the new commissioners.
"I tried to make it clear to them that we each only have one vote so we have to work together to get things done," he said. "Most of them come in thinking 'I can turn the world upside down.' But I asked them, 'Do you want to help Wayne County or do you want to fuss and fight all the time?' And most of the time it was, 'I want to help Wayne County.'"
And while he's no longer on the board, having retired in December 2008, Price still has goals for Wayne County.
Primary among those is the completion of the U.S. 70 bypass project.
"The U.S. 70 issue is the most important issue in this area," he said. "We need a direct connection to the Morehead port because it's one of the best ports up and down the East Coast, and if we're not careful we're going to find that (advantage) slipping through our fingers."
The other issue he thinks is of paramount importance to the county is the school system and the need for redistricting.
"We don't need an inner school system and an outer school system. We need a Wayne County school system. Right now, it's segregated and that's not right. We have to live together. We have to work together. We need to be educated together, as one people. That's the only fair way to do it," Price said. "I know they don't like me saying it, but it's the truth and I'll say it as long as I live. It'll happen one day. It'll have to happen."
Most of all, though, he wants his former colleagues to keep working for the betterment of Wayne County, and he offered them a bit of advice.
"Study all the issues clearly. Get your facts. Learn the answers before the meeting. Know who you are costing and who you are helping. Be able to make decisions based on facts and actual being, and be able to stick to that decision so you can go home and go to bed at and night and sleep peacefully," he said.
And on one afternoon in late September those same friends and former colleagues gathered at his Seven Springs home to present him with the prestigious Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest award given to a North Carolina civilian.
"I told him, 'This is one of the greatest honors I've ever had, to present this to you for your years of service," said longtime friend and owner of Wilber's Barbecue Wilber Shirley. "He was a voice for the average person. He dedicated his life to helping people and he was quietly effective in everything he set out to do."
Current county commissioners John Bell and Jack Best were also both at the presentation, and credited Price for showing them the ropes of county government.
"When I came onto the board nine years ago, I had no idea what county commissioners did. Atlas took me under his wing. I owe everything I know to Atlas, but never did he tell me how to vote.
"I don't know anybody in this county who's made a larger contribution to Wayne County than Atlas Price. He's a great man. We definitely miss him on the board."
Best, too, credited Price with teaching him about county government, as well as with "keeping me out of trouble," and said he often looked to Price for advice.
"That's the kind of thing you do to folks like that -- use all that experience," he said.
Republican Commissioner Andy Anderson also valued that knowledge.
"I think Atlas Price is a top-notch man. We thought a lot alike. We had a lot of the same ideas. I have a lot of respect for him," Anderson said. "I think the biggest thing he brought to the board was stability. He made sure things were well thought out and done right."
And the fact they could work together despite coming from different parties made the relationship all the stronger.
"That's what I liked about him so much. Politics always play in and you have differences with people, but he was probably the most open-minded person I've ever served with," Anderson said.
But even more important than Price's contributions to the board, was the fact that he was a good friend to many.
"A friend, you can call on for anything, and you knew Atlas was standing at your right shoulder if you needed him," Best said.
"Oh boy ...," Price said when asked how it felt receiving the award. "There were a lot of words in my heart, but I couldn't get them out. I just hope I've left some footsteps somewhere somebody can follow."
Making the award even more special, though, was the timing, his wife Carolyn Price said.
"He's done our community proud, and this means a lot, especially coming now," she said, referring to Price's August diagnosis with stage four pancreatic cancer, which he's currently battling with chemotherapy.
"The goal is to shrink and stall," Mrs. Price said.
And most days now Price can be found resting at home. With good days and bad, he's no longer the presence in the community that he once was, having been forced to even give up his daily breakfast routine at Seven Springs Restaurant.
Still, though, he views each day he gets to spend in Wayne County with his wife as a blessing.
"We praying for quality time," Mrs. Price said.
Both widowed by their first marriages, come December, Atlas and Carolyn will have been married 15 years, though they have known each other their entire lives.
"If he hadn't been so slow we could have had a lot of years," Mrs. Price said with a smile. "That's the only thing I've known him to be slow on -- asking me out."
But now, Price said, "I've got me the cream of the crop. She's my friend, my wife and everything else -- my nurse, one of the best.
"I'm not going to give up. I just thank God for every day. I have a saying when people would say 'Hope you have a good day,' I say, 'Every day is a good day, even the bad ones. You just have to look hard to find it.' I'm just hoping to get to the next day. I've had a good life and I'm going to enjoy what I have left."