When Les Roark went on the Shelby City Council in the 1950s, he was a young newspaper editor with new ideas that didn’t always go over well with more conservative board members.
Roark, who died last week at age 89, pushed to form a human relations commission to look at such issues as slum clearance, employment and education. The proposal got nowhere at first. But Roark didn’t let the matter drop and in 1963 the council created a biracial commission.
In 1976, Roark was named mayor after the incumbent died and served until 1979. He went on to become North Carolina staff director for U.S. senators Robert Morgan and Terry Sanford and administrative deputy attorney general for N.C. Attorney General Lacy Thornburg.
In 1996, the city and Human Relations Commission established the Lester D. Roark Annual Award for advancing racial equality and goodwill. He was named the first recipient.
“Les was a persistent visionary for the community,” said former Shelby Mayor Ted Alexander. “He worked tirelessly to help achieve that vision and was a big supporter for things that made Shelby better.”
Roark grew up on the family farm near Grover, served with the 390th B-17 Bomb Group in England during World War II, and worked as a reporter/editor at The Cleveland Times in Shelby after the war.
In 1953, Roark lost his first bid for a City Council seat. During that time he met Sam Raper, a popular leader in the African-American community and they became friends. Seven years later, Roark was elected to City Council. As mayor, he successfully lobbied for the appointment of Raper to the vacant council seat. Later, Raper would become the first black person elected to office in Cleveland County.
Roark and Raper started a trust fund for beautification in Shelby’s historic heart in 1998 and later both were awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian award, for their contributions toward improving race relations.
“Nobody loved Shelby more than Les,” said Mayor Stan Anthony. “I wish there were more people who had his level of civic-mindedness and caring about the community.”
Memorials can be made to the Raper-Roark Trust Fund, P.O. Box 207, Shelby, NC 28151 or Shelby Presbyterian Church, P.O. Box 1444, Shelby, NC 28151.