Leading the way: Alumni include at least 7 (and counting!) mayors

A man in a red shirt stands in front of pharmacy shelves.
“It can be a challenge at times,” says Willie Lamar (B.S. ‘83), mayor of Madison, Virginia, for 18 years. (Credit: Lisa Provence/C-Ville Weekly)
By Cynthia McMullen

Serving the community seems to come as naturally to pharmacists as breathing. As consummate multitaskers, pharmacy students and working pharmacists consistently give of themselves and their time in a variety of settings. So it makes sense that many of them assume leadership roles.

At least seven living School of Pharmacy alumni now serve or have served as mayors, having been elected by their councils or constituencies as a municipality’s highest-ranking official. Their experiences have differed, depending upon the locale, but they share a common inspiration and aspiration: the desire to make a difference.

Willie Lamar (B.S. ’83) grew up in a family where people were paramount. His father, Jim Lamar (B.S. ’54), was a pharmacist and active with the Boy Scouts, and his mother was a founding member of the local rescue squad. In fact, his parents did emergency dispatching through the drugstore before the existence of 911 centers.

“The issue with small towns is having enough residents to run them,” notes Lamar. “It can be a challenge at times.” But he’s up to the challenge, having been mayor of tiny Madison, Virginia — population 250 — for 18 years.

C.M. Mitchell (B.S. ’71) has served as mayor of Galax, Virginia — population 6,600 — since 1992. He always had “sort of a feel for public service,” he says. “It’s about taking care of people, particularly in a regional environment.”

Making sure you have enough funds to keep things running is paramount, Mitchell says. But one of his proudest moments came when the city of Galax formed a strong working relationship with the two counties of which it is part. “Working together, we can advance much quicker than any of the three entities working by themselves.”

Wanting to “actually help somebody and see the benefits from it” inspired Glen Abernathy (B.S. ’71), mayor of 7,700-population South Boston, Virginia, from 1996 to 2004. “I particularly enjoyed trying to find answers to the problems,” he says.

Under his leadership, Abernathy notes, South Boston was the first city in Virginia to petition the state to become a town again. The results included a wider tax base and much sounder economy.

Nancy McFarlane (B.S. ’80) is serving her fourth two-year term as mayor of the city of Raleigh, North Carolina. (She recently announced that she will not run for a fifth term.)

A woman in green jacket smiles.
McFarlane

Running for mayor “wasn’t anything I set out to do,” she says. When her children started school she discovered how much their education depended upon decisions made by county commissioners and, with encouragement from a previous mayor, ended up running for a district city council seat. In time that led to the top position in the 470,000-population metropolis and research hub.

Although McFarlane wasn’t deeply involved in pharmacy school organizations, working with — and for — her fellow citizens “does kind of tie in to that public service piece as to why you become a pharmacist,” she says.

As for Chris Jones (B.S. ’85), the urge to serve led from Suffolk, Virginia, where he served as mayor from 1992 to 1996, to the Virginia House of Delegates, where he now represents residents of the 76th District.

Howard O. Wachsmann (B.S. ’63) served as mayor for the town of Stony Creek in Sussex County, Virginia, for 20 years. He served on the town council for a total of 30 years, from 1966 to 1996.

“I moved back home April 1, 1964, to work in a rural pharmacy,” Wachsmann writes in an email. In 1966 he purchased Stony Creek Pharmacy and ran for town council as a write-in. Two years later he became mayor and served as judge in mayor’s court for about four years (later, Sussex County handled the town’s court cases). “In 1996 I moved out of town so I didn’t run again,” adds Wachsmann, who has a pharmacist son and daughter as well as a grandson currently enrolled in VCU School of Pharmacy. “I enjoyed the rural life and serving the community.”

Curtis H. Smith (B.S. ’75, Pharm.D. ’01) has been in public service in Kilmarnock, Virginia, for years including a term as mayor, 10 terms as vice mayor, and chairman of the planning commission. “I continue to be proud of my alma mater,” he writes.

A man smiles in front of a blue backdrop. He wears a dark jacket and white shirt with tie.
Mitchell

Galax mayor Mitchell notes that practicing pharmacy has given him a good rapport with people. One of his former co-workers, a member of city council at the time, gave him a feel for how local government worked. Ultimately, he says, “I like doing it, and 99.5 percent of the time it’s very fulfilling.” He adds wryly, “You earn your money on the point-5 percent that’s left!”

Abernathy of South Boston cites as his favorite part of being mayor “just [being able to provide] an overall response to the needs of the community.”

For Madison mayor Lamar, it comes down to “working with people and caring about people”: the very definition of community and public service, whether in a pharmacy or city hall.


NOTE: An earlier version of this story ran in our annual print magazine. After publication we heard from Smith and Wachsmann; they have been included in this updated version. It remains very possible that there are other living School of Pharmacy alumni of whom we are not aware who have served as or who now are serving as mayors. If so, please let us know! Email pharmacyalum@vcu.edu.

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