Longtime Wake Commissioner Betty Lou Ward, advocate for art and education, has died

Former Wake County Commissioner Betty Lou Ward — who helped shape the region during her generation of service — died Wednesday.

Ward, 87, served on the Wake County Board of Commissioners from 1988 until her retirement in 2016. Her 28 years as a commissioner were noted for her advocacy of public education, the arts, parks, the environment and public transit.

“Our county did not become one of the best places to live in all the nation by accident, it was cared for and shaped and fought for by Betty Lou for decades,” former Wake County Commissioner Erv Portman posted Thursday on Facebook.

“Rest well dear friend knowing you have done good work and have been a caring faithful servant to so many for so long. Well done.”

Wake County Commissioner Betty Lou Ward, center, refers to a Wake County debt load chart at the joint Wake County Commissioners and Wake County School Board meeting at the Chamber of Commerce offices in downtown Raleigh, NC on March 21, 2013. School Board members Kevin Hill, left, and Bill Fletcher, right, listen. Much of the discussion involves a proposed school construction bond.

From PTA mom to commissioner

Ward was born in Roxboro, raised in Raleigh and earned a nursing certificate in Kansas after moving there with her husband, The News & Observer previously reported. They moved back years later, and Ward became interested in local politics while participating in and leading the PTAs at schools her children attended.

She served on Raleigh’s planning and appearance commissions before running for the northwest Wake seat on the Board of Commissioners in 1988. The Democratic candidate’s platform was improving schools and local parks.

“I can not express in words at this moment how heart broken I am and how very very sad,” former Wake County Commissioner Yevonne Brannon posted Thursday on Facebook. “Her achievements were many == I met her through the local/state PTA meetings in the early 80s and later served on the Board of Commissioners with her — we were both totally dedicated to increasing funding for Wake Co. Schools and we did!!”

Democrats now hold all seven seats on the Wake County Board of Commissioners. But Ward was in the minority during much of her tenure as she tried to maintain good relations with her Republican colleagues.

Wake County Commissioner Betty Lou Ward has stern words for Chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners Tony Gurley, right, as the two discuss how Gurley’s election came about two days earlier during a meeting of the board at the Wake County Courthouse on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009. Ward, with a vote made from home via telephone by an ailing Harold Webb, the former Chair, was elected Vice Chair of the board. Commissioner Stan Norwalk is at left.

But in 2009, GOP commissioners broke a political deadlock that had lasted past midnight and voted for their pick as board chairman after Ward took an unexcused bathroom break.

The move prompted outrage from Democratic commissioners and some Wake residents. Ward was disappointed but not bitter. “It happens in the world of politics,” she told The N&O at the time. “There’s no need to get bent out of shape over it.”

At her final meeting in 2016, commissioners created the Betty Lou Ward Public Art Ordinance, allowing the board to spend money for public art on capital projects that exceed $1 million.

“So sad about Betty Lou’s passing,” U.S. Rep. Deborah Ross posted Friday on Facebook. “She served us all with grace and strength. No one did more for Northern Wake County.”

Deborah Ross and Wake County Commissioner Betty Lou Ward talk while riding a light rail train in Charlotte in this 2008 file photo. Ward passed away on Nov. 8, 2023
Deborah Ross and Wake County Commissioner Betty Lou Ward talk while riding a light rail train in Charlotte in this 2008 file photo. Ward passed away on Nov. 8, 2023

‘Friend and mentor’

Ward served as a role model and mentor for other local leaders.

“She was a friend and mentor. Loved this woman and I am heartbroken,” Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin posted Thursday on X, formerly Twitter.

Former Wake County Commissioner Greg Ford was also among those who considered Ward to be a friend and mentor. Ford was elected to Ward’s seat in 2016 after she announced she was retiring.

“Betty Lou touched countless lives in her decades of public service to Wake County residents. Improving the lives of the people throughout the region truly was her passion, and the positive impact of her leadership on our lives will forever be part her great legacy,” Ford posted Thursday on Facebook. “She will be deeply, deeply missed by many.”

A memorial service for Ward will be held Dec. 6 at 2 p.m. at Edenton Street United Methodist Church, 228 W. Edenton St. in Raleigh.