New Hanover County Commissioner Deb Hays, who died unexpectedly Saturday, is being lauded as an advocate who put the community first. She was 64.
“This is a shock for all of us and is a tremendous loss for this board and all of New Hanover County,” said County Commissioners Chairman Bill Rivenbark in a statement. “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, a Republican, joined the county board in December 2020. Prior to that, she ran for Wilmington City Council twice − narrowly losing a seat both in 2017 and 2015. She also had served as chair of the Wilmington Planning Commission for eight years. Hays also served as chair of the Wilmington Downtown Inc. board, and on the Wilmington Housing Authority, Cape Fear Museum advisory board, and Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority/Wave Transit board.
Commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr. noted her contributions to New Hanover County.
"Deb was passionate about her service to our community," he said. "She will be missed."
In a statement, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said Hays was a tremendous community leader who epitomized the very best of public service.
"As an elected county commissioner and previously as a longtime member of the city’s planning commission, Deb gave freely of her time and significant talents to make Wilmington and New Hanover County a better place," Saffo said. "As we mourn her passing, I pray comfort for her family, friends, and loved ones. Deb’s passion and dedication were second to none and she will be deeply missed.”
Hays also was a Realtor with Intracoastal Realty and was active in numerous local, state, and national committees.
Natalie Haskins English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, joined others in celebrating Hays' career in the public realm.
"Deb Hays lived her life in the service of others," she said. "She cared deeply for all people in our community. She always fought for making our community better. She was sincere and genuine in her beliefs.
"She was a light for all she knew celebrating them and reminding everyone she knew how special they are."
On Twitter, Wilmington City Councilman Luke Waddell joined those praising Hays.
"Our community suffered a devastating loss with the passing of Deb Hays," he tweeted. "Deb worked tirelessly and passionately to make (New Hanover County) a better place for all. She truly understood the importance of the work she was doing, believed in it and believed in those she represented."
Our community suffered a devastating loss with the passing of Deb Hays. Deb worked tirelessly and passionately to make @NewHanoverCo a better place for all. She truly understood the importance of the work she was doing, believed in it and believed in those she represented… pic.twitter.com/qnsH0fJx05
— Luke A. Waddell (@LukeWaddell) March 26, 2023
All New Hanover County flags were lowered Monday and will remain that way through the period of mourning and celebration of her life.
Leaders of the New Hanover County Republican Party will appoint a replacement to serve the rest of Hays' term, which expires in 2024.
Reporter Chase Jordan contributed to this story.
Reporter Gareth McGrath can be reached at GMcGrath@Gannett.com or at GarethMcGrathSN on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: New Hanover County Commissioner Deb Hays dies suddenly