Watkins, beloved leader, dies

Feb. 23, 2014 @ 12:01 AM

Sam Watkins Jr., beloved community and business leader in Henderson, died unexpectedly Saturday.

He was 80.

Chick Young, former Henderson mayor and a longtime friend and business partner of Watkins, said described a community bettered by Watkins’ service.

“Everything that has gone on in this community that is progressive over the last 30 or 40 years, he has had a hand in it,” Young said. “He has been a tireless worker for city of Henderson and he has also been instrumental in getting the arts center built. While that is yet to be built, the funding in is place and the plans are in place and the beginning work is being done right now.”

Watkins was president of Rose Oil Company, and a member and the chairman of the Henderson-Vance Economic Development Commission board of directors for 33 years.

He served on the Maria Parham Medical Center board of trustees for 22 years, co-founded the Henderson Downtown Development Corporation and helped form the Embassy Cultural Center Foundation. He was a recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine from the governor’s office.

John Charles Rose, a close family friend of Watkins, said his death comes as a shock.

“I did not expect to receive a telephone call that he passed away,” Rose said Saturday.

Cliff Rogers, president of the Rogers Group, said Watkins’ was tireless in his pursuit to make Henderson and Vance County a better place to live.

Rogers said the Lifelong Learning Center project to renovate Henderson’s library and construct a performing arts center next door is one of Watkins’ many achievements in the community.

“In the face of many naysayers, he continued to seek ways to find the resources to build the library,” Rogers said. “He believed in the project and believed it would be a benefit to the community.”

Former Vance County commissioner Danny Wright said “pulling together” was Watkins’ middle name.

“Sam and I were good friends as well as partners in economic development for Vance County,” Wright wrote in a statement. “We had a lot of respect for each other. His passing is a tremendous loss to our community and I shall miss him.

“In my tenure as commissioner for Vance County, I cannot tell you how many mud holes we were in together looking for ways to bring jobs to our community. Whether it was talking to prospects personally, or shaking the trees down in Raleigh, he was always trying to present a unified effort.”

Vance County Manager Jerry Ayscue said Watkins described himself as the best cheerleader for the county.

“He was always very positive about Vance County,” Ayscue said. “I would say he was the epitome of community greatness. He loved Vance County. Sam and his brother George represent a strong spirit of resilience and determination in our community and evidence of that is all around. Sam will be sorely missed in our community.”

Granville County Economic Development Director Bill Edwards said Watkins provided jobs to the county and improved the quality of life for residents.

Edwards and Watkins partnered to bring the solar energy company Semprius to Henderson.

“Sam has been the pulse of this community for many years and all of us who know him and respect him will grieve in his loss,” Edwards said.

Watkins’ recruitment of the Walmart Distribution Center brought more than 400 jobs to the area.

“One of the biggest things Sam did was the amount of jobs he helped create and retain in Vance County that most people are completely unaware of,” Rogers said.

Henderson-Vance Economic Development Director Stuart Litvin said Watkins has been a positive force for the community.

“He has always been a strong leader and proponent for Henderson and Vance County,” Litvin said. “He will be missed and hard to replace.”

Rose said Watkins’ has had an enormous impact on the community.

“He has had a hand in the more progressive things in Vance County,” he said. “He was a community advocate. He loved his community. All he talked about was his community.”

Contact the writer at smansur@hendersondispatch.com.