Monday, February 26, 2024

NHC commissioner Deb Hays dies unexpectedly

New Hanover County Commissioner Deb Hays passed away Saturday at age 65. (Courtesy photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County Commissioner Deb Hays passed away Saturday at age 64.

According to a press release from New Hanover County, Hays likely suffered a massive heart attack. There are no additional details about the cause of death available at this time.

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“This is a shock for all of us and is a tremendous loss for this board and all of New Hanover County,” Board of Commissioners Chair Bill Rivenbark said in the release.

A Republican, Hays served eight years as chair of the city planning commission and helped write the City of Wilmington Comprehensive Plan. She unsuccessfully ran for city council in 2015 and 2017 before seeking her commissioner seat.

Hays was elected as a New Hanover County commissioner in December 2020 and served as vice-chair until 2022.

The New Hanover County GOP released a statement upon her passing, expressing devastation over the news:

“Deb was a staple of of New Hanover County with her work both on and off the commission. Anyone that knew Deb, knew how passionate she was about helping the people in our community.”

Hays was involved in state, local and national committees, recently meeting with state legislators alongside the American Flood Coalition to advocate for flood resilience needs in New Hanover’s coastal communities. She served on the Community Leaders Task Force for housing, renovation, and rebuilding post-Hurricane Florence as well.

Hays also was the board chair for Wilmington Downtown Inc., an organization that promotes economic growth and business development for Wilmington’s historic downtown. She served on the Wilmington Housing Authority, Cape Fear Museum advisory board, and Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority/WAVE Transit over the last few years.

Mayor Lynn Barbee of Carolina Beach posted on social media a text he had received from Hays recently: “Gonna get this done.”

“It brought a smile to my grief,” he wrote. “This is her. Tasks that at times seemed overwhelming to me and nearly impossible, this is how Deb saw them. Whether it was replacing the Cape Fear Memorial bridge or fixing Oleander/College Rd, this was her attitude.”

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo echoed the sentiment and praised Hays as a “tremendous community leader.”

“Deb gave freely of her time and significant talents to make Wilmington and New Hanover County a better place,” he wrote in a statement. “Deb’s passion and dedication were second to none and she will be deeply missed.”

Hays’ work extended beyond the political and into charitable works. She often volunteered for nonprofit agencies including Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry (WARM), Lump to Laughter and Habitat for Humanity. 

A graduate of DePauw University, Hays completed an IBM masters program at Indiana University and had a corporate career with the tech company before becoming a real estate agent and broker. She was employed with Intracoastal Realty, served as a past Cape Fear REALTORS president and was inducted into the Realtor Hall of Fame.

“She was a great colleague, and — above all — a loving and proud mother and grandmother,” Rivenbark said in the release. “She devoted her life to serving and helping others and cared deeply about this community.”

At Hays’ last board of commissioners meeting on Monday, March 20, she took a moment to thank her fellow commissioners for their collaborative efforts and work as civic leaders. She noted there have been recent instances where elected officials and members of committees or councils “have cast invalid accusations and negativity upon others.”

She didn’t expound on specifics, but instead made a promise to continue serving the NHC board of commissioners with “integrity, respect and professionalism” and asked her colleagues join her in this recommitment. Hays walked to each person seated at the dais — Rivenbark, vice chair LeAnn Pierce, and commissioners Rob Zapple and Jonathan Barfield — to shake their hands in gratitude.

“We have such a unique opportunity to truly lead this county,” she told them. “I thank each of you for the honor to serve with you and to serve all of our citizens.”

In Hays’ honor, the county flag on New Hanover County properties will be lowered Monday in celebration of her life and contributions.

“She will be greatly missed, and our prayers go to her family and friends during this difficult time.” Rivenbark said in the release.

[Ed. note: The article was updated to reflect Hays’ age is 64, not 65 as originally reported; PCD regrets the error.]


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