Jerry Plemmons has done much for the mountain-wedged communities of Madison County in western North Carolina. But don’t expect to hear it from him. "There’s one thing you need to understand about us mountain-folk," says Plemmons, who grew up on a farm just outside of Marshall. "We don’t care too much for talking about ourselves."
But few mountain-folk would question how much Plemmons cares for the area’s children and families. In fact, his commitment is reflected in both his daily work life and his many volunteer activities. As the long-time Economic Development Director of the French Broad Electric Membership Cooperative (French Broad EMC) in Marshall, the modest 65-year-old has devoted himself to meeting the affordable energy, employment and community development needs of area residents. As a co-founder and 23-year board chair of the Hot Springs Health Program — one of the many institutions with which French Broad EMC has partnered — Plemmons helped create this innovative health-care delivery system that now boasts a ten million-dollar budget and 125 employees. He is also a former chair and current board member of the Madison County Smart Start program, another French Broad EMC partner.
Plemmons holistic approach toward his economic development position at the French Broad EMC has been operating quietly but effectively long before a broad, people-oriented approach became trendy across America. He is a visionary in terms of his understanding of the connections among economic, physical, educational and community well-being. Plemmons takes to heart the "member-owned" foundation of this rural co-op. "The co-op feels very strongly that for it to do well, the community has to do well," he says, noting that his interests lie with the community first. "I believe that if you build a strong community, your economy will develop along with it. If it’s a place where people are healthy, want to live and raise their kids", continues Plemmons, then "it becomes much easier to bring about job creation."
Plemmons’ leading role in the Hot Springs Health Program (HSHP) has had a major impact on the small, Appalachian communities it serves. Prior to the opening of a primary-care clinic in Hot Springs, a small town near Marshall, in 1971, Madison County was in desperate need of a health facility. The simple, concrete structure out of which a few doctors had previously operated now stood vacant. When nurses Linda Mashburn and Rae Ann Gaserowski relocated to the area in the late 1960s to set up a clinic, they searched for knowledgeable and resourceful local contacts. Given his ongoing efforts at creating opportunities for local families via a local community action agency, and his lifelong familiarity with the area and its people, Plemmons was just what the nurses ordered.
"Jerry knew everybody," says Mashburn, who characterizes Plemmons as "one of the most sincere and trustworthy people I know." Plemmons did community organizing for the program, tirelessly recruiting board members, volunteers and even physicians. "Whatever he does," says Mashburn, "he consistently has the welfare of the community at heart." Noting his dependable nature, the nurse adds, "whatever Jerry says, you can take it to the bank." Apparently so, given that HSHP now operates four medical centers in the county providing a full range of services from prenatal to dental to geriatric, seven days a week.
Though such tangible results are a testament to Plemmons’ vision and efforts, the intangible effects are as important. "Jerry has always managed to bridge deep-seated traditions in Madison County with more progressive ideals and programs," says Nancy Alenier, executive director of the county’s Smart Start program. While trumpeting Plemmons’ role in bringing quality child care and child development services to the area, Alenier elaborates on the far-from-easy task of "selling" such government-run services to the region’s staunchly-traditional communities.
"Early on, Smart Start was commonly thought to have the potential to usurp the family’s role in raising children and to destroy the family structure," acknowledges Alenier. "But Jerry was able to interpret the program’s mission as an opportunity to support both families and traditional values by insisting that the best thing for young children was to strengthen their families and the communities in which they lived." Plemmons’ promoted this belief in crafting the county Smart Start’s mission statement, which states that the program "enhances family and community resources to nurture the development of every child." Without Plemmons direct, steady, reassuring leadership, Smart Start might well have crashed or stalled across this county.
A product of the Madison County public school system, Plemmons own childhood development was enhanced by hard-working parents who instilled in him a sense of pulling together for a common goal. "My father worked at a hardware store five-and-a-half days a week, 10 to 11 hours most days," he recalls, noting his parents’ additional responsibility of running a farm. "We were a typical mountain farm family in that we raised chickens and hogs for meat, and my mother did a lot of canning." Growing up in such an environment, says Plemmons, "gave me a real appreciation for the value of an intact family." His childhood was not easy by today’s standards, but it was a good one.
Accordingly, the pleasant-mannered Plemmons admits he sometimes gets frustrated when influential people or policy-makers don’t recognize the importance of "giving young children a good start" by ensuring them and their families timely and affordable services. Doing so, insists Plemmons, will "return dividends for them and their communities throughout their lives. If they are given a good start, they’ll likely become productive, contributing citizens and much less apt to be a burden on society as they get older."
Such returns on his own investments in Madison County’s children and families are what Plemmons banks on. "The satisfaction of just seeing children from one of the programs I was involved with grow into outstanding and involved contributors to our community is enough for me," says the humble mountain-man with an eye-twinkling smile. "It makes me think that maybe some of those meetings I went to actually made a difference."