The N.C. General Assembly convened Wednesday for the first time in two decades without retired Sen. Jean Preston, and as Thursday dawned, Eastern North Carolina had lost one of its most loved leaders.
Preston, 77, of Emerald Isle, died early Thursday morning at a Connecticut hospital following complications from a serious fall.
She had just completed a final term in the General Assembly after serving a combined 20 years in the N.C. Senate and House.
The news of Preston’s death was heartbreaking for N.C. Rep. Pat McElraft, also of Emerald Isle, who considered Preston a mentor and close friend.
“We’ve lost an angel here in North Carolina, but God has gained an angel in heaven,” McElraft said shortly after hearing of Preston’s passing. “I will miss my good friend. We were sisters from the beginning of our friendship. Jean was respected and loved by all in the General Assembly and everyone she ever met.
“Our hearts are breaking.”
McElraft said she got to know Preston while she was a town commissioner in Emerald Isle and Preston was serving in the House. Their friendship grew, and McElraft ran for the House seat when Preston decided in 2006 to run for the Senate. They were both successful in their bids for election.
Looking back at Preston’s career, McElraft said the legacy she leaves is the passion she had for education.
“She was an educator all her life, and she educated the General Assembly about the importance of a good education for our children,” McElraft said.
Preston was a retired educator who served as a special education teacher, school administrator and principal.
During her tenure in the Senate, she was co-chair of the Senate Committee on Education/Higher Education and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education/Higher Education. She was also joint Republican caucus leader.
“Jean Preston was a pioneer in the field of special education who dedicated her life to ensuring our children have the brightest future possible,” Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger R-Rockingham said in a statement Thursday. “As a legislator, Sen. Preston worked tirelessly on education reform and on achieving better results for our students. She was legendary in her district for an amazing work ethic and commitment to providing outstanding constituent service. Sen. Preston was a dear friend, and my colleagues and I will miss her greatly.”
Preston had wrapped up her final days in office and was on vacation in Connecticut when she had a serious fall down stairs during the week of Christmas and was admitted to the hospital. She was in intensive care at the hospital in Waterbury when she died at 12:20 a.m. Thursday.
Preston announced last January that she would not seek re-election, deciding to retire after two decades in public service. She wanted to spend more time with her family, including her two grandchildren.
But she worked tirelessly until the end of her final term, and among her last public appearances were a showing as grand marshal at the Emerald Isle Christmas Parade and to administer the oath of office for new Carteret County Commissioner Jimmy Farrington of Emerald Isle. Her comments to the board at the swearing-in ceremony were a reminder of her efforts to balance educational needs with fiscal responsibility.
“One of the reasons I think I’m so proud of you all is the way you have funded our schools,” she told Carteret commissioners at the time.
Preston served seven terms in the N.C. House of Representatives before being elected to the District 2 Senate seat representing Carteret, Craven and Pamlico counties.
Doug Raymond of Carteret County credits Preston with his start in political consulting. Preston’s race for the House seat against Democrat Ronnie Smith was the first political campaign Raymond was ever involved in.
He said Preston was respected on both sides of the political aisle and that he respected Preston personally as well as professionally. He holds dear one of their last meetings this past June, near the end of the legislative session, in her office in Raleigh. Raymond said Preston noted that he had worked on her campaigns since 2002 but had never been on the Senate floor with her.
They walked to the Senate chamber and Raymond said that she invited him to sit in her chair and they talked about how much she loved serving the people of North Carolina.
He remembered that day as he was back in Raleigh this week.
“I was in the Senate chamber (Wednesday). No one was in there and I kept looking at Jean’s spot knowing what might be,” he said. “It’s hard to think she’s not going to be there anymore. She loved serving the people of North Carolina.”
Greg Lewis, chairman of the Carteret County Republican Party and the Carteret County Board of Commissioners, called Preston a “longtime political light and force” in Carteret County and Eastern North Carolina.
“Jean exemplified the attributes that you would want to see in your elected official,” he said. “She always put what was right above politics.”
As was the case in Raleigh, Preston was also known for her cooperation with the local community and her constituents.
“Jean has been a great friend for many years and will be missed tremendously,” Emerald Isle Mayor Art Schools said. “She was always a pleasure to work with on legislative issues and had a great relationship with other legislators and got results for her constituents.”
McElraft said education was a top priority for Preston, but she fought hard for all her constituents and also worked hard for the commercial fishing industry.
“She worked tirelessly, not as a politician but as a public servant,” she said.
Preston, a native of Greene County, was the widow of John Preston and mother of two daughters, Suzanne Hardy Castleberry, who served as her legislative assistant, and Lisa Forbes Hardy, who is deceased.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.