Helms and Morgan: A Tale of Two Towns

Posted on: Friday, March 21st, 2014 by Monica Hoel
In a world where politics can seem like a jungle of partisan wrangling and unrealized plans, it is a wonder that people continue to step into the arena to serve. But good leaders continue to lead, and continue to want to make a difference in their communities.


In a world where politics can seem like a jungle of partisan wrangling and unrealized plans, it is a wonder that people continue to step into the arena to serve. But good leaders continue to lead, and continue to want to make a difference in their communities.

It is a point of pride for Emory & Henry that the two largest towns near the College are each led by mayors who are E&H grads. The mayor of Marion, Virginia, is David Helms (E&H ’63), and the mayor of Abingdon, Virginia, is Ed Morgan (E&H ’71).

Ed prefers to share the spotlight, and is quick to point out that he isn’t the only E&H grad in an important position in Abingdon: the vice mayor is an alumna (Cathy Lowe’12), the assistant town planner is an alumnus (Garrett Jackson ’99), and the town manager is also a graduate (Greg Kelly ’84).

In fact, neither man speaks boastfully about their positions: they both just seem very honored to have the opportunity to serve.

David Helms speaks of a prevailing enjoyment of working with people. “I’ve returned every phone call,” he says. He enjoys listening to people, being available, and he’s proud of the work done by his neighbors in the community. He speaks with great pride of the work done by the local VFW to honor local veterans, he glows when describing the hours put in by retired educators to provide volunteer staffing for the Smyth County tourism office, and he loves to talk about the good work done by people like the staff at Hungry Mother State Park to promote the natural resources of the area.

He has seen Marion grow a lot in his tenure and he is especially excited about the recent collaborations with Emory & Henry. You can see him in the photos from the recent event marking Emory & Henry’s role as the new caretaker for the old Smyth County Hospital – now the future site of the Emory & Henry College School of Health Sciences. There are banners going up in Marion that ballyhoo the town’s relationship with Emory & Henry.

A born collaborator, David exudes confidence in the people with whom he works. “We’re fortunate to have a progressive-minded council and an extremely professional staff.”

David understands the importance of hard work, and recalls having to work during his college days. His father died his sophomore year, so he worked as a cook at Howard Johnson’s in Bristol and washed dishes in the cafeteria of nearby Patrick Henry High School. He points out that people at the college knew you personally – and that personal touch seems to be important to him even now. “There are very few things you can’t solve if you get everyone around the table together.”

An education major, David won’t reveal what kind of student he was. He says he was on the Dean’s List “– but it was a list of students the dean thought could do better!”

David is also currently serving as the head of the Virginia Municipal League (VML), so he has the opportunity to know other mayors around the state.   Ed Morgan seems proud of the fact that another E&H alumnus is heading up the VML.

Ed came to his role of leadership after a lot of community organizing. He worked in areas like Whitetop Mountain to help them establish the Whitetop Mountain Maple Syrup Company, and he was a major instigator behind the now-booming Frazer Fir business in that area. He worked with families in the Mount Rogers area to represent their interests when there were plans to build a behemoth outdoor recreation area in Mount Rogers. In the end, says Ed, that area does now bring in a lot of tourists and tax dollars, not due to major construction but due to the Virginia Creeper Trail – “it’s because of a little path through the woods. It’s authentic,” says Ed Morgan.

He speaks a lot of authenticity, and is proud of the fact that Abingdon has worked hard to establish laws and ordinances to maintain the historic nature of downtown Abingdon. During a recent battle with Walmart, the town enforced an Entrance Corridor Overlay District so it could control not only the look of the historic district in town but also the development along roads leading into town.  He talks a lot about the town’s focus on funding the arts – concerts, art galleries, Barter Theatre –  because “it’s a solid business investment” that brings in a lot of money to the community and brings exponential returns on the town’s investments. Ed says “…because of the culture and the architecture and the arts community it is a destination for tourists – and it is a place where people want to live. People want to live in a place that is authentic.”

He smiles as he says he really can’t take credit for most of what is working about Abingdon. He speaks with pride about the founding members of the community who invested good money into great homes that set the architectural standards. He speaks of their commitment to education and how educated founders made good decisions early on about the direction of Abingdon and its role in the national political scene. And he brags on council members who came before him who have always made good decisions about the right kind of progress. One great example of that is the decision to invest in the “rails to trails” project, the Virginia Creeper Trail: a project that cost the town about $25,000 and now celebrates about 200,000 users annually. 

Ed is a family man who speaks proudly of his wife Helen, a weaver, and his son Peter, a ceramic sculptor and marathon runner. So maybe it’s that quality of family life that sharpens his focus on local government. “Local governments affect our everyday lives and quality of life more than the federal government. And it’s also the place where most of us can really have an impact – you can see me in the grocery store and talk to me about issues and concerns.” He was a political science major at E&H, and loved learning about world affairs, but he says he could have benefitted from knowing more about  local politics.

In 1975, Ed won a Ford Foundation Grant that allowed him and his wife (Helen, a weaver) to travel to Canada and Great Britain to study small communities and how they work. He brings some of that experience into his work as mayor of a small Virginia town, but more than that he brings his affection for constant learning and following examples of those who are seeing success – he often cites books like The Rise of the Creative Class and Metropolitan Miracle.

After conversations with both of these gentlemen it becomes obvious that they are always thinking of how to serve their towns, because each place is filled with citizens who feel a sense of ownership in their town. Communication seems to be key to their success. David Helms is never going to miss an opportunity to listen to his constituents whether it’s in a phone call or over a Bingo card at the VFW hall. Ed Morgan sums up this notion this way: “We have an obligation to educate -- to explain what we’re doing and why.” 

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