Price leaves legacy of diversity, respect

Dec. 04, 2013 @ 02:31 PM

Last night, as the first city council meeting in nearly 15 years started without him sitting on the council, Lewis Price’s tenure with the city of Lenoir came full circle.

Price and Merlin Perry left the council, replaced by Ike Perkins and Crissy Thomas, the first African-American man and woman to sit on the council simultaneously.

Price himself ushered in an era of diversity in Lenoir in 1962, when as Lenoir’s first city manager he hired the city’s first African-American department head, Sam Sturgis, to run the newly formed City of Lenoir Parks and Recreation Department. Sturgis previously worked with the city in a number of different positions, including director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center before being hired as department head. He served as department director for 42 years, retiring in 2004.

Sturgis worked with Bill Stronach, a city employee, to build the department from the ground up.

“Lewis was a great help to recreation here in the city,” Sturgis said. “As a matter of fact, he was a great city manager, and he was very interested in recreation here in the city.”

Price also hired the first woman department head in the ‘60s, Betsy Wilson, who held the position of finance director for Lenoir 45 years, as well as Nadine Hood, in accounts payable, and Bernice Yount, a clerk.

Price hired Linda Sturgis, Sam's wife, the first African American hired to the front office, serving as clerk from 1970 to 2000.

“He hired a lot of folks when it wasn’t easy to do,” said Kaye Reynolds, Lenoir’s communications and resource director.

Terry Patterson, who starting working for the city after graduating from Lenoir High School in 1969, said that race relations were not always smooth when he was hired. “The fact that Mr. Price took it upon himself to hire Sam, myself and other African-Americans during that time was really commendable,” he said. “At the time I was hired as code administrator, there was a lot of negativity that surrounded that.”

Patterson recalled a number of calls to the city and a particular occasion when a property owner was unhappy with a code enforcement issue that Patterson had contacted him about. The property owner came to city hall and gave Patterson a business card.

“On the card was a picture of a hearse,” Patterson said, with “graphic statements.”

The property owner also spoke to Price, who told the man he was overstepping his bounds and that Patterson was doing the job the city council had asked of him.

“He really stood up for me,” Patterson said.

Price said he simply judged people by their work and qualifications.

“I just looked at who was most capable of doing the job,” Price said. “Color of their skin didn’t matter that much to me or most people working with the city at that time.

“I treated them the same as I did any other department head,” Price said. “I didn’t cut them any slack, I expected the same productivity out of them as any other department head.”

But it went far beyond work, Patterson said.

“He and his wife, Carol, always treated me like family,” he said. “He invited me to his home on several occasions, shared fellowship, laughed and cried together. … I can attribute to him the kind of person I turned out to be. I have nothing but great respect and love for him and his family.”