Community leaders mourn the loss of NHC Commissioner Deb Hays

Hays was elected as a commissioner in December of 2020 and served on many local, state, and national committees.
Published: Mar. 26, 2023 at 11:28 AM EDT|Updated: Mar. 27, 2023 at 11:07 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - New Hanover County Commissioner Deb Hays passed away suddenly on March 25. Hays likely suffered from a heart attack.

“This is a shock for all of us and is a tremendous loss for this board and all of New Hanover County,” said Board of Commissioners Chair Bill Rivenbark. “Deb was a long-time community advocate, a dedicated public servant, a friend and colleague, and – above all – a loving and proud mother and grandmother. She devoted her life to serving and helping others and cared deeply about this community. She will be greatly missed, and our prayers go to her family and friends during this difficult time.”

Hays was elected as a commissioner in December 2020 and served on many local, state, and national committees. She was also a realtor with Intracoastal Realty.

“New Hanover County extends its heartfelt condolences to Commissioner Hays’ family as they grieve their loss. In her honor, the New Hanover County flag on all buildings will be lowered Monday through the period of mourning and celebration of her life,” the county said in a press release.

NHC Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said he’s served the community alongside Hays for almost 20 years.

“We’ve been serving a leadership together for quite a while. And this was news that this is so unexpected. For someone that’s so young, almost in the middle of your career, so to speak, when it comes to, you know, being in elected office, she’s been a public servant for a long while. But being in elected office gave her a different view and a different passion that was very much infectious with a lot of the folks in our community,” Barfield said.

As Barfield and many other community leaders mourn the loss of Hays, he said it’s difficult to think about the future and someone else filling her position.

“The things that were important to Deb, Commissioner Hays, her passion shined through. She enjoyed the ability to sit at the table of the Board of Commissioners and lead at that level. And knowing that she had an impact on so many different things. She had a tremendous desire to see downtown Wilmington grow. And she shared, served as chair of the WDI board for quite a few years. And that was one of her tremendous passions. Serving on the Chamber of Commerce board was another, again, looking at ways that she could enhance economic mobility throughout our entire community. But not just that she also had a passion for our public schools, making sure that the funding level was right, and that we had the right pay for our teachers, and that she voted to indeed increase our teachers’ pay as well. But, also a big passion for planning. You know, she served on the Wilmington Planning Commission for quite a few years. So, she brought that knowledge and expertise to our Board of Commissioners as well. And she loves her realtor family and her realtor family loved her. She was past president, also realtor of the year, several years ago, and just had a love for this community. And it showed,” Barfield said.

Pat Bradford, an NHC school board member, said she talked with Hays often since she was elected and was shocked to hear the devastating news of her passing.

“It really brings the fragility of life and we better make every day count. It brings that very closely into focus. I know, all over the county people are feeling the same thing,” Bradford said. “She’s been really great with new elected officials to say, you know, what do you need? What can I do to help you? What’s going on?”

Bradford added that Hays was a big advocate for making sure NHC schools were the best they could be.

“She was just passionate on that. And so I keep thinking Darn, you know, it’s just hard to believe that, that she’s not here anymore,” Bradford said. “She leaves very big shoes to fill in my case, because we don’t have that many women in government and her heart and her passion for the school district was huge. And I hope that whoever replaces her has that same caring and concern and can continue what she’s been building for these last three years.”

NHC Commissioner Rob Zapple sent a statement to WECT saying:

“I, like our entire Board of Commissioners, am in shock by the news of Deb’s sudden passing. She was a true community leader that always put the best interest of our citizens first. It has been one of the best experiences in my political life to work alongside such a caring, thoughtful, and devoted public leader - Deb will be greatly missed.

There will be much more said and written in memory of Deb in the coming days and weeks. For now, I am still trying to process this sad news.”

Hays also served as the board chair for the Wilmington Downtown Inc. Executive Committee. WDI treasurer and executive committee member H. Thomas Davis said the following in an email to board members:

“It is with a very heavy heart that I am reaching out to you. As many of you already know about the very tragic and sudden loss of our friend, colleague, and Board Chair Deb Hays. I just wanted to make everyone aware that Vice Chair Spruill Thompson, myself, and the rest of the Executive Committee will be meeting over the next few days to determine how best to proceed in light of this tragedy. At this time no action is required of the board other than keeping Deb’s family in your thoughts and prayers.”