Earlier this month, the Durham County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to recognize and pay tribute to a Rougemont man who recently ended his term as the first Black president of one of the country’s largest civic organizations, Ruritan National, following two terms of service beginning in 2019.
Board vice chair Wendy Jacobs introduced the resolution at the beginning of the board’s January 10 meeting.
“It was important for our board … and our entire community to be aware of, celebrate, and recognize the lifetime service of Mr. Linward Hedgspeth,” Jacobs told the INDY. “This is something we should all know about, recognize, and celebrate.”
Hedgspeth’s term as president of the 93-year-old civic service organization ended January 8 with the installation of its new president.
While speaking to the commissioners during the virtual meeting, Hedgspeth said he was honored to serve, adding that he had “a lovely tenure.” While it was a lot of work being national president, “it was a labor of love,” he told the INDY.
Hedgspeth, who retired from IBM in 2014, says when he first joined the Rougemont Ruritan Club in 2005, he never intended to become even the local president, never mind the organization’s national leader.
Tiny Rougemont sits on rolling farmland in northern Durham County. Hedgspeth says Rougemont homes are passed down through generations and, save for northern newcomers who have purchased old farms, the unincorporated community of about 1,000 people hasn’t changed much since he was a child.
“We got a Dollar General a couple of years ago,” he told the INDY.
During the meeting, commissioner Nimesheena Burns noted that she grew up in a small town, and recalled how the Ruritans sponsored 4-H activities for young people in her community. She thanked Hedgspeth for his service and for leading Ruritan during the pandemic, along with “knocking down doors” while “putting a crack in that glass ceiling and going through it.”
Hedgspeth says he doesn’t put much stock in being the civic organization’s first national Black president, and he says in a nation that pays lip service about making a change, well-meaning Americans should take a page out of the Ruritan notebook.
“Being the first person of color to serve as Ruritan’s national president was never a concern,” he says. “The fact [that] Ruritan selected me to serve in this leadership role says Ruritans [have] changed, and I am proof. And so should the nation.”
Hedgspeth says he is most proud of navigating the organization at the height of the global pandemic, while trying to maintain normalcy during one of the most aberrant periods in global history.
“A lot of these clubs are old,” he says. “A lot of the older folks were scared to go out and [the clubs] just disbanded.” Some of the older members have lost their lives to COVID.
Ruritan National was founded in 1928, with the start of its first club in Holland, Virginia, and has become America’s leading service organization, according to Ruritan’s website.
During his tenure, Hedgspeth was the source of “inspirational and transformative leadership for the nearly 25,000 Ruritan Club members in 900 local communities throughout the United States during the unprecedented and challenging time of a global pandemic,” the county commissioners state in the resolution.
Part of Hedgspeth’s transformative brand of leadership has its roots in the creation of a local chapter that features, arguably, the most diverse membership of any club in the country.
“When I first joined, a lot of the clubs were places for mostly old, white men. A lot of the clubs are still that way,” Hedgspeth says. “Our club is multi-racial, with a lot of folks of color; white, Hispanic, Black, male and female, younger members and older members. We have a variety of folks. We are trying to change that narrative.”
Hedgspeth notes that before diversity became a defining feature of the Rougemont Ruritans, things “were kind of like tribal.”
“We want to serve everybody,” he explains. “We won’t discriminate.”
The civic leader says Ruritan was designed for members of rural communities, and a way for farmers and small businessmen to band together and improve quality of life in those areas.
“That’s why it’s called Ruritan,” he says as he lists a slate of annual activities sponsored by the local chapter: financial scholarships for several high schools, community Brunswick stew dinners sold by the quart, pancakes and sausage breakfasts, a spring festival and parade that features an Easter egg hunt and games, volunteering at voter precincts, a food bank, yearly roadside trash pickups, and an all-you-can-eat homemade ice cream social each midsummer to honor the town’s first responders.
When the temperatures drop, there’s the Rougemont Ruritans’ signature activity: putting up lighted, five-feet tall golden-and-silver Christmas angels that line the utility poles on both sides of the main road and crossroads leading into town during the winter holiday season.
“When we don’t put them up, people are very disappointed,” Hedgspeth says.
Hedgspeth and his family have deep roots in the community where he was born. The fifth of six children, he still lives on the street where he was raised, along with his siblings. His mother was a homemaker and his father worked with Duke University and was a member of a gospel quartet, the True Lights of Bahama, during the art form’s golden age that featured the likes of Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Johnnie Taylor before they crossed over into soul music.
True Lights members, Hedgspeth explained, would only play at places that allowed them to return home the same day to avoid being refused a room at segregated hotels.
Hedgspeth met his wife, Anne, during their junior year at the all-Black Little River High School. The couple married soon after graduating from high school and have two grown sons. They built their home on the street where Hedgspeth grew up. They will observe their 52nd anniversary in July.
“It’s been a beautiful ride,” Hedgspeth said about their union.
Hedgspeth worked for 35 years in quality engineering with IBM and enrolled at Durham Tech. His new job required him to take classes at Duke and N.C. State University, along with additional training at the IBM Quality Institute that enabled his work with the company’s foreign and domestic divisions.
The county commissioners’ resolution notes that the pioneering, civic-minded rural leader is a dedicated member of the New Harris Grove AME Church where he wore many hats in service to the congregation including chairing various boards. Hedgspeth also found the time to usher, teach Sunday School, and sing with the choir, of which he is vice-president at the church that was founded by his maternal great-grandfather.
“It’s our family church,” he says. “I’ve been there all my life.”
In his president’s message in last summer’s edition of the Ruritan, the organization’s quarterly magazine, Hedgspeth struck an upbeat, albeit clear-eyed tone in his message to club members across the country.
“Hopefully very soon we will revert to something more normal, like in-person meetings and having personal fellowship,” Hedgspeth wrote. “But there are surely … some changes that will remain permanent. Sometimes things come to an end and a door closes to get us ready for something new. Do not get discouraged when things suddenly change. There are bigger and better things to come. New doors, new opportunities, and new relationships to be born.”
After the pandemic shut the country down, Hedgspeth and members of Ruritan’s national committee met virtually each week in order to continue publishing the magazine, collect dues, and maintain its membership rolls, along with making plans for in-person 2020 and 2021 national conventions in Covington, Kentucky that featured the singing prowess of Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr., who was the winner on season six of NBC’s America’s Got Talent.
“The 900-plus clubs needed us and so for the first time we used Microsoft Teams, Zoom and conference calls,” Hedgspeth said. “There was really no blueprint on how to keep the organization viable.”
Hedgspeth says he and Anne have literally enjoyed journeying across small and mid-town America, where “you park your car and [local Ruritan members] just take care of you.”
Earlier this month, the chief executive couple were at the Ruritan national convention in Myrtle Beach, where “First Lady Anne” hosted a dinner and show at the Medieval Times Tournament.
They’re looking forward to the annual Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Virginia this year, where 20,000 festival-goers from all over the country dress up in pink and green to exult in the three-day event. The event was canceled the past two years due to the pandemic.
“There were supposed to be lots of celebrities there,” Hedgspeth said. “It was just the luck of the draw that they canceled when I was president.”
Hedgspeth says the organizers did not want him to miss the event. So, he and Anne have been invited for this year’s event that takes place in early spring.
“They told us they want us to come for 2022,” Hedgspeth said. “It is such a privilege to attend as a president.”
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