But newly elected Ellerbe Mayor Olivia Webb returned to her hometown just a little more than a year ago and has embraced it fully.
Growing up, Webb attended Ellerbe Primary School until the third grade, then went on to the O’Neal School in Southern Pines until graduation.
She attended UNC-Chapel Hill for college, during which she spent a year abroad in Spain learning the language, and graduated in 2006 from the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Following graduation, Webb made her way to New York City where she worked for a home goods store in their advertising and marketing department.
After two years of working and living in Manhattan however, Webb was ready to come home.
“I would have stayed but it’s really cold up there, expensive and I missed being somewhere with space and missed the pace of life here, so I came home,” Webb said.
Webb moved back to Ellerbe in September 2008 and began working for the Daily Journal in January 2009.
“That was the best thing I could have done coming home because I got to come back and reconnect with everyone,” she said. “You learn about your community growing up as a child, but you don’t really know what people do or how the world works in a business setting, so I came back to a place I’d known as a child and got to completely re-learn everything at a different level.”
Webb said the best part of the job was developing sources with people in town government, specifically Hamlet, Dobbins Heights and Ellerbe. She was given the chance to work with them closely to make sure she understood how everything worked.
“Everything I learned in school about how government works was totally different in practice,” she said. “Politics wasn’t something I’d been very passionate about, especially in the current state of America where everything is so polarized, but everything I covered, when there was conflict, I was always satisfied in the end because people helped me understand the situation.
“People at the Journal taught me a lot,” she continued. “You’re given these stories and you have to understand it. It is a big responsibility because you have to take complicated issues and lengthy documents and go through them and understand it yourself and sort through the information and format it in a way that everyone can understand. I’m such a perfectionist and that just blew my mind.”
But it’s that process of researching, formatting and conveying information to an audience that Webb said helped develop her confidence in her ability to be a fast learner.
The job also helped Webb realize her passion for the town of Ellerbe.
“No one had covered Ellerbe for a while so when I got to the Journal I called Lynn McCaskill and asked if I could start attending the meetings and I started covering Ellerbe,” she said. “They found out about the Golden Leaf money and the sewer project began to take shape. A lot of really good things were happening to Ellerbe and I got really excited about it.
“When you report and cover something like that you get attached and protective about it. Covering these things, Ellerbe more so than Hamlet and Dobbins Heights, became almost like my baby. When you report you have to be unbiased about things and that was hard anyway because Ellerbe was my hometown, so I started to take it personally. If there were any negative aspects, the minute they were pointed out I started to get offensive and it became too personal.”
That’s when Webb realized what she needed to do was get involved.
One night while talking with her friend/roommate the two decided there was no reason not to run for office.
“We’re young, we’re not married, no kids, there’s no reason not to run,” she said.
At the same time Webb decided to pursue a run for mayor seriously, another passion of hers was realized.
Though her background and education is in journalism, Webb said the greatest influence in her life had been her year abroad in Spain learning Spanish.
“I’m most proud of that because it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said.
Around that time, Webb saw an ad for an opening at Episcopal Day School in Southern Pines. She left the Journal to teach Spanish part time for grades Pre-K through fifth-grade, and is also the alumni relations coordinator and does marketing, and PR for the school.
She also runs a blog on the school’s Web site with photos and updates on class field trips, projects and special events.
“It’s sort of like having my own little community paper,” Webb said. “It’s really cool because one of my favorite things to do at the Journal was to go to the Roberdel Children’s Center and 4-H because children are so uninhibited and it’s hard to take a bad photo of kids. It’s almost like it was meant to be. I discovered I love working with children and still get to do the parts I love about working for a newspaper.”
Webb said her job at the school gives her a lot of room to think creatively and encourages her to get the children to think out of the box as well. She said the coolest thing, though, is that the school’s number one rule is to follow the “Golden Rule,” of ‘do unto others as you would have done to you,’ and the children receive “Golden Awards” for practicing it.
“Those kids covet those Golden Awards more than anything and to be around that every day is the best time,” Webb said. “I get up every morning and I love going to work. There may be stressful things, but I love going to work every day and look forward to seeing the kids every day and I’m really proud of that. I love watching them grow. It’s awesome.”
While beginning her new career at Episcopal, Webb was also running her election campaign in Ellerbe. She said the best part of that whole experience was letting people see the older Olivia Webb, rather than the “little Olivia” everyone knew as Bill Webb’s daughter and had known since she was in diapers.
Her proudest moment, she said, was on the actual election day, when she had her whole family, friends and other colleagues and acquaintances who couldn’t even vote in the election, supporting her and campaigning for her up until the ballot box closed.
“I was smiling all day,” she said. “Even when I got home I couldn’t stop smiling. Not because I had won, but because people came out and said they were proud of me and that was wonderful.”
Webb said the one piece of advice she got while running for office was to not make any promises, so she has no clear plan for the next two years.
“But we have so much on our plate right now and all of it is really good,” she said. “We have the $1 million from the Golden Leaf Foundation and that was a really big achievement, I wasn’t there for that, but now we’re trying to get matching funds to do the sewer project and that’s what everyone is focussing on now. I guess, first and foremost, my plan is to focus on the logistics of things that need to be taken care of. I’m jumping in and learning everything I can and figuring out my role.”
Webb said one thing she’s really going to work on is lessening the load for council members.
“All these people have served for a long time, and being in municipal government, no one is going to get rich, they do it because they feel responsible for the community and love their community,” Webb said.
“They’ve put in plenty of time here and pulled their weight and I want to come in and work as hard as I can to relieve them of any extra stuff I can. I want to step up and help in any way I can.”
Webb said another thing she wants to focus on for the next two years is following through.
“If someone comes to me with a problem, I want to come back to them with an answer, even if it’s not the one they want,” she said. “The main thing I want to do is follow through. I want to take care of the things we say we’re going to take care of.”
Webb said she’s had a lot of people come up to her with ideas for things they want to see around town and she’s got a lot to think about.
“The highway came through and that’s changed business and capacity for businesses to thrive here, but I do think there are things we can do to get that back,” Webb said. “The stars are aligned for us in so many ways right now that I want to keep capitalizing on that and see how things play out.
“We’ve got the sewer project, the Highway 220 corridor development, and we want to make sure that benefits and edifies local business here. Ellerbe has great capacity for local business.
“We’re not big enough for big box stores — we’re kind of removed from Hamlet and Rockingham in a physical sense — and Ellerbe has always been an agricultural town, we have a different identity. I would like to get us attention and credit and get benefits for being a unique town.”
And at 25-years-old, Webb feels she’s in the perfect position to be a liaison for other young people living in Ellerbe who want to make sure the future generations have the same quality of life in Ellerbe that they had growing up.
“There are a lot of people my age around here who really want to see that happen and are willing to work for it,” she said.
Webb said she’ll also be focussed on planning the town’s 100th Anniversary.
“We’re getting a lot of attention now,” she said. “We’ve got agencies like USDA and Rural Center meeting with us about grants and that’s a big deal. Our 100th anniversary is another opportunity to get people here to see what we have and get some exposure. We need to start planning that and make it special because we have a lot to be proud of.”
But in the end, Webb said she just wants people to think she did a good job, no matter what they might think of her personally.
“At the end of two years, no matter what happens, I just want people to say that as a mayor she was her own person, made her own decisions and worked hard,” Webb said.
Staff writer Eren Tataragasi can be reached at (910)997-3111 ext. 19 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.