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Interview with Melissa S. Hight, November 19, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Melissa S. Hight, November 19, 2008
November 19, 2008
Melissa Hight was born and raised in Onslow County, NC, on a small farm near Jacksonville where her father was stationed as a career Marine. Her mother and sisters remained in that area during the deployments of her father. She learned from her mother the true meaning of "Home Economics" becoming the family cook by age of eleven. This was her introduction to her field of study at East Carolina University (Masters in Educational Housing,) Involved in Co-operative Extensions (Educational) involving Environmental issues, particularly storm water runoffs, and wellness programs. Melissa interned 18 months in Johnston County, worked in Lenoir County, and grabbed the opportunity to come to Wilmington, where she is now Executive Director of Co-operative Extension which includes Wellness programs, the Ability Garden as well as numerous classes on local environmental issues. Melissa is also President of the Downtown Rotary Club with 180 members involved in not only local but universal good will, sponsoring student education around the globe, as well as funding various special needs for handicapped, children, and wherever a true emergency exists. The second largest Rotary Club in the state. To understand better about the Co-operative Extension operated in conjunction with NC State, please read the transcript.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Hight, Melissa S. Interviewer: Jones, Carroll / Sweeney, Kate Date of Interview: 11/19/2008 Series: Southeast North Carolina Length 83 minutes

Jones: Today is Wednesday, November the 19th, 2008. And I'm Carroll Jones, with Kate Sweeney, with the Randall Library Special Collections Oral History Program. And we are in the Helen Hagen Room of Special Collections. Our guest this morning is Melissa Hight, Executive Director of the Arboretum. And Melissa's also President of the downtown Rotary Club, which is a member of Rotary International. She's been a hands-on volunteer for many of the Rotary projects both here and overseas. Good morning, Melissa.

Hight: Good morning, Carroll.

Jones: Thanks for coming. We'll start off by having Melissa tell us a little bit about yourself. I'm going to mention I'm going to let you start. Your husband has almost the identical job in Brunswick County?

Hight: He does, yes. Actually cooperative extension is our official title. We have an arboretum here in New Hanover County. But my official title is Cooperative Extension director and arboretum director. So we both work for Cooperative Extension, which is a part of NC State University.

Jones: Okay, oh my.

Hight: Extension.

Jones: Extension, okay. Let's go ahead and have you tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from originally, and how did you get from there to here?

Hight: Well, from Southeastern North Carolina from Onslow County. My dad was a career marine, and we lived in Beaufort, South Carolina for a couple of years before I started elementary school. But other than that, we pretty much stayed in Onslow County.

Jones: Really?

Hight: Mm-hmm.

Jones: And your father was a career marine, and you stayed in one place.

Hight: Yes. He did a lot of traveling.

Jones: Okay, so you all stayed there.

Hight: Yeah, he did quite a few tours to Okinawa and was also with the embassy in Egypt at one point. So he was the traveler. We stayed home. And that's where he met my mom, when he was at Camp Lejeune. And she was from Verona, which is down near Sneads Ferry, in-between Jacksonville, Sneads Ferry. And they got married, and I have two sisters. I'm the oldest. But that's where I grew up.

Jones: Things have changed.

Hight: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jones: Did you live on base?

Hight: No. We lived in the country. Actually, my parents own a farm, a little 29-acre farm, about six miles out of Jacksonville. Or it used to be. Now Jacksonville's kind of encroached. They almost have a Wal-Mart in their back door now. I've seen so much change. I went to junior high school at Jacksonville Junior High and then to high school at Jacksonville Senior High. And there were 425 people in my graduating class. And right after that, I have a sister that's six years younger than I am, in-between the time I graduated and when she went to high school, they built a new high school out closer to us. So Jacksonville has changed tremendously since when I was growing up.

Jones: I've seen a change just in the last 11 years that I've lived here full-time. It's amazing. Why am I surprised?

Hight: Well, when I was growing up, we came to Wilmington. If we wanted to eat, we would either go to Sneads Ferry or we would come to Wilmington. My grandmother loved to come down here shopping. She would come to the doctor down here as well. We didn't have access to the health care unless you were military in Jacksonville. The health care was not that good, and I'm not sure that it still is. But a lot of that was done in Wilmington. Of course, we went on base when we were growing up, Camp Lejeune. So I spent so much time in Wilmington that I almost felt like I was from Wilmington.

Jones: You're practically a native, just right next door.

Hight: I consider myself to be one.

Jones: You're Southeastern North Carolina, which is what this is really being grouped as.

Hight: That was one place. If someone had asked me, even, you know, 20 years ago, if there was one place in North Carolina that you would like to live, I would've said Wilmington. I always wanted to live here. I just thought it was the neatest place. And so when the opportunity became available, I just jumped at it.

Jones: Let me ask you this, how long ago, what time frame are we talking about that you thought coming here would be a neat thing?

Hight: Well, I graduated from high school in 1973.

Jones: So we're talking about late '70s.

Hight: And college in '77. And I've actually been working with Cooperative Extension for 31 years now.

Jones: Really?

Hight: I graduated in June of 1977 and went to work with Extension in July.

Jones: Where did you go to school?

Hight: East Carolina.

Jones: East Carolina. And what did you major in?

Hight: My undergraduate degree is actually in home economics education, and I have a master's degree in housing.

Jones: In housing. What is master's degree in housing?

Hight: Well, my master's thesis, at the time, I graduated in 1990 with my master's degree, was in researching what people were doing in the kitchen at that time.

Jones: Oh, because you did home economics.

Hight: Right. Well, in Cooperative Extension, my areas of responsibility, at the time, were in housing and family resource management, which meant we helped people with budgeting and with, you know, all the things that pertained to houses, from, you know, household pests to remodeling and things like that. That was another point in my career. The good thing about Cooperative Extension and the connection with NC State University is that you are almost required, strongly encouraged, to go back and work on a master's degree. And at the time, I had those two areas of responsibility. And the choice was to go into one of those areas because it would help me with my work, working on master's degree in housing or family resource management. My true love was foods and nutrition. Loved to cook. I cooked from the time I was 11 years old for my whole family. My mother was an outdoor person. And we would come home from school. I remember it a lot, coming home from school. And she would say, "Beans need to be picked in the garden," or, "Need to go, you know, hoe the garden and pick those beans."

Jones: You were really hands-on there.

Hight: Yeah. She would say, "Do you want to pick the beans, or you want to cook supper?" Well, it wasn't a choice for me. It was, "I want to cook supper." So I cooked supper for the family, I mean, almost full-time, almost every night. And I loved it.

Jones: But you enjoyed it.

Hight: Oh, absolutely loved it.

Jones: So you created, or did you follow recipes?

Hight: Well, I was pretty creative. But, you know, we still have a joke in my family. And it's called a fritter joke, because I could take any kind of leftover in the refrigerator and put some egg and flour and milk with it and make a fritter out of it and fry it in the frying pan. We ate a lot of fritters. And so to this day, my mother, every once in a while, she'll say something about it, "You cooked any fritters lately?" But, yeah, you could put butter beans and corn and potatoes and all kinds of things and just put a little flour and milk in it. So we did a lot of fritters with leftovers. But, you know, I talk with my husband a lot about, when we were growing up, the things that we used to eat.

Jones: Where's he from?

Hight: He's actually from near the Virginia border, up in Warren County, which is near Lake Gaston.

Jones: He's a northerner.

Hight: Yeah, somewhat. When we were growing up, both of us, our families were not wealthy. Course, you know, having the connection with the military that you do, you know that's not a--in most cases, my dad was just an enlisted person. I think, when he left the military, he was an E-7 I believe. So he was not an officer. And we grew a lot of our own things, but there were certain things that we used to eat. I remember going to school. This is going to sound kooky. But I remember taking my lunch to school, and normally we would have sliced ham sandwiches or something like that. Or my mother would buy this olive, pimento cream cheese, pimento cheese, that was in a little glass, and so we ate a lot of that. And we talk about the things we ate. I ate a lot of asparagus when I was growing up, but it was in a can. Mother would buy it in the commissary in cans. And it was that slimy canned asparagus, you know no comparison to the stuff that you can grow. But some of the things we ate. And me going to college and eating my first sub and my first bagel and really, you know, how much it broadened my horizons just going to Greenville, North Carolina and getting out around people that had lived differently than me. But I digress anyway.

Jones: No, no, that's all right.

Hight: I can't remember where I was.

Jones: No, that's all right.

Hight: But I did cook a lot for the family. And my younger sister, course, was much younger, and my other sister was not very interested in cooking. So I got to do that. So we did that, and we also learned to sew. We all three learned to sew and could do fairly well with making our own clothes. And, I mean, we didn't have an extravagant lifestyle at all.

Jones: But it sounds like it was a happy lifestyle.

Hight: Pretty much, if living with a marine is a happy lifestyle. You know how that goes. They're very structured at times. But, no, I did. I had, I think my childhood is what shaped me, my work ethic, you know, generally how I look at things. It wasn't perfect. No one's was.

Jones: No.

Hight: But it was pretty good.

Jones: Little more realistic look at life.

Hight: Absolutely.

Jones: You need that.

Hight: These days that's not happening. The people . . .

Jones: No.

Hight: . . . we're hiring now just--it's immediate gratification. They don't want to pay their dues.

Jones: Their parents raised them this way you know.

Hight: They want everything.

Jones: The designer child, the perfect child, you never fail, you never do wrong. It's a mistake.

Hight: Exactly. And you didn't lose. You participated. And I've seen that happen. In Cooperative Extension, we have a youth program component, which is 4-H. And lots of times when I ask people have you heard of Cooperative Extension, they probably haven't, a lot of them. But they have heard of 4-H. That's pretty well-known. I grew up in 4-H. I participated in 4-H projects. I learned to do public speaking. I learned how to show people how to do things. And that's really what shaped the career that I went into. But these days, that's not what's happening. I've seen it develop from when I competed and you won or you didn't win or you got second place and you will do better next time or you learn from it to you participated, we're not going to choose a winner, everybody is a winner.

Jones: Everybody gets a . . . yeah.

Hight: And I think that's really--

Jones: That's wrong.

Hight: Yeah, I think that's been a real challenge for kids these days, because not everybody is the same.

Jones: Unh-unh.

Hight: And there's got to be some kind of incentive I think. And I'm philosophizing here.

Jones: No, you're right . . .

Hight: But really an incentive to go beyond.

Jones: . . . because it does take the incentive away from those whose parents are saying, look, you just goofed up, sorry, you pay the price, you know, or, you broke it, too bad.

Hight: Yeah. Well, we learned to deal with disappointment. And with somebody else doing a little bit better than you or maybe somebody else didn't really do better than you but they just happened to, for some reason, win and you didn't, you learn to deal with that.

Jones: Disappointment.

Hight: Right, that's the way it was. But growing up in 4-H, I did learn all of those skills, including, you know, sewing. I learned how to write, which is a huge thing for me, grammar. I've got a real hang-up with people who don't use the English language correctly, both in written form and speaking. And I have a 26-year-old. And when he was in high school, I remember him telling me, "Well, mom, it doesn't really matter. It's the thought. It's what's written there, and it doesn't really matter how it's written." Well, he has learned since then that it does matter. You know, you don't mimic up the English language. And I think the thing that really drives me nuts is hearing someone say I seen so-and-so, or, I done so-and-so. And it's like what happened to--

Jones: That was a couple of generations. Well, no, not really.

Hight: Now. It's really prevalent now. Very seldom do you hear anybody--I would say more people say I done something than say I have done something. It's kind of creepy. Recently, got involved in Facebook, which is kind of a neat thing on the internet. We have a Rotary group.

Jones: Is that right?

Hight: There's all kinds of groups that you can join, and there's a group that says I judge you by the way you write and talk or something like that. It's some kind of group that's on there. And it's quite funny, because you go on there and you click on the group. And it lists these mistakes that people make, you know, confusing T-H-E-Y-R-E and you're, you know, you're my, you, apostrophe, R-E, with, you know, Y-O-U-R. And it says if this drives you crazy, join this group, you know.

Jones: Do you think people write the way they speak or they hear people, which is colloquialisms? Everywhere you go, there's an accent.

Hight: Probably so. I don't know. I don't think people pay attention to the written word. But in the organization that I work with was doing newsletters and press releases and things like that. To me, what I tell employees is, "People judge you by the way you write. You can be the most intelligent person in the world. But if you do not write like an intelligent person, people are going to form an opinion." So, anyway, that's just one of my philosophies in life. And one of the things that I learned growing up was grammar. My dad took me aside, when I was six years old--he has absolutely beautiful handwriting, calligraphy.

Jones: That's unusual for a man, don't you think?

Hight: It's something he's taken great pride in. And he decided when I was in the third grade, I think, that my handwriting was not up to par. I was doing the chicken scratch thing. And my mother's handwriting is not wonderful. I guess he thought maybe I was going to turn into her. So we sat down. I remember it so well. We had this little table that was a little white table with a red seat on either end. He sat at one end, I sat at the other, night after night after night, and I wrote.

Jones: Practiced penmanship.

Hight: Yes. And he critiqued. And I get a little scratchy sometimes now. But I think I probably have the best handwriting of anybody in the family. Because after me, I think he gave up on everybody else.

Jones: You can read your handwriting.

Hight: Yeah, when I take my time and try to write, but very seldom do. I do think about him when I write sometimes. It's like, you know, I really need to shore this up a little bit, Daddy would not be real happy. But, anyway, I did learn, you know, how to express myself, how to show people how to do things. I grew up in a family where I helped daddy grease the car.

Jones: You were his boy.

Hight: Well, all three of us were. And to this day, if something comes in the mail or I buy something that has to be put together, I can probably put it together better than Al can, yeah, because I learned those skills. You know, you had to do it. And I enjoy doing things like that. Most of the time, I read the directions after. After I put it together and they have a few screws left, it's like, ooh, wonder where these go. But I can remember helping Daddy lube the car. And we had this big can of grease. And with the line that went under the car, he'd get under the car and he would--

Jones: Drain it first with a pan.

Hight: Right. Well, this was like greasing the wheels and all the fittings and stuff, and so he would tell us when to pump it. And sometimes he'd get really upset with us because we'd pump it too much. Sometimes I think we did it just out of being malicious. But my dad was an interesting person. I feel like I inherited a lot of his personality. He didn't have a real long patience span. He could be short-tempered at times, not very tolerant at times of things that he didn't consider to be good behavior. And I blame him for the fact that I have a really hard time with left and right to this day, because he would never say left or right. He would always point. When you were driving, which he thought he was, like, the best driver in the world, I'd say, "What do I do up here?" And he would point. I can see his face to this day. Because, like, you know, he had high expectations, which is good.

Jones: Well, that's fine. You turned out fine.

Hight: Well, I don't know about that. But, I mean, I definitely have flaws. But at least I knew where it came from.

Jones: So where did you meet your husband since you're both in the--another thing, we'll get back to that. Did you go to work? Right out of college, where did you go to work?

Hight: I went to work in Johnston County with Cooperative Extension. I did an internship between my junior and senior year at East Carolina. At that time, they had internships with Cooperative Extension. And I didn't have a regular internship. The 4-H agent, who had been my 4-H agent the entire time I was growing up, got some money, it was CETA money, C-E-T-A funds, it was like local funds, so that I could do my internship in my home county. When I was first hired 31 years ago, you could not go to work. Your first job with Extension could not be in your home county. They made you go to another county, and the internship was the same way. But she wanted me to be an intern in Onslow County. So she went and got funds for me to do that, and I did a summer internship. And the thing that happened that summer was unfortunately she got pretty sick. She had an illness that prevented her from working that summer. We had an exchange trip planned with some 4-H'ers to Middletown, Pennsylvania and the usual stuff, during the summer, 4-H camp, 4-H congress at NC State. I ended up being the 4-H agent, because she was not able to do it. So I was kind of thrust in a place where I had some really hands-on learning that most people don't get in an internship.

Jones: No, I guess not.

Hight: So I was ready to work right out of college. And I was starting to get a little depressed because I didn't have anything lined up right out of school. And I interviewed for a job, in Allegheny County, with 4-H. And that same day, I had a district director that came--

Jones: Is this Pennsylvania?

Hight: No, here in North Carolina.

Jones: Here?

Hight: Yeah. There is an Allegheny County. It's up in the mountains. And that same day, after I interviewed, another district director came by and said, "I have a job open in Johnston County. Would you be interested in that?" Well, I was from Jacksonville. Allegheny County was light years away. We didn't move around then like we do now. If I had, I mean, now I would take a job if they offered it to me in California, because I love to travel and see new things. But at that time, Allegheny County was a long way away. So I did go to Johnston County. I worked there for 18 months. I was in a situation with a senior--there was another 4-H agent and it was not really a very good situation for me to be in as a young person, and so I requested to leave there. And the only position that was available at the time they would let me leave--I had to work 18 months. My county director, then, said, "Melissa, you cannot move, if you want to stay in this organization, until you have worked at least 18 months." So I worked 18 months. There was a position open in Lenoir County, which is Kinston. But unfortunately it was not in 4-H. It was in adult work. Back then we called it home economics. Now, it's family consumer sciences. But I went to work there as a home economist doing the clothing and, I mean, yeah, clothing and housing and family resource management.

Jones: Let me ask you. When you went there, now this is in Lenoir County. And you worked for who?

Hight: Same organization, Cooperative Extension. Cooperative Extension has different program areas. There are four main program areas, 4-H, at the time, home economics. There's agriculture . . .

Jones: That explains it.

Hight: . . . and community resource development.

Jones: I'm learning something and most of our audience will hear this for the first time. So it's four different--

Hight: Right, four different program areas. And so I was actually working in the home economics program area. Now, if you wanted to be a 4-H agent, you could major in practically anything and be a 4-H agent because it was youth development work. A lot of the 4-H agents, at the time, did major in home economics if they were female. There are people that went into, that are 4-H agents that are still in the organization now that are about the same age. Males who were in parks and recreation, you know, they could've even majored in agriculture. But 4-H was not program specific where you had to have a specific degree to be able to be a 4-H agent. Family consumer sciences or home economics, you did have to have a home economics degree in, you know, foods and nutrition or--in Lenoir County, we were fortunate because there were two of us in home economics. So the agent that was already there was doing family resource management, at that time, and foods and nutrition. I did clothing and housing in Lenoir County.

Jones: You taught to what age group?

Hight: Well, I didn't mention that Cooperative Extension is strictly an educational organization because of our connection with the university. We're connected to NC State and A and T State University. Those are the two land grant colleges in North Carolina. So everything we do is educational. As far as audiences, I would teach sewing classes for 4-H'ers. When I was in home economics, doing that work, I would teach sewing classes for older people. At the time, we were doing more with the heritage skills, basket weaving and stained glass and a lot of the things that really, I think, are going to be lost.

Jones: Did you have people come in to teach those things? Don't tell me you do basket weaving and stained glass.

Hight: I have done basket weaving but not stained glass. But we would have these workshops, these heritage skills workshops, where people would go and learn to do quilting and all sorts of things. That was even back when they were doing macrame. But lots of different heritage skills that people aren't doing so much anymore. But we had classes like that. We taught classes in budgeting . . .

Jones: I had no idea.

Hight: . . . in extending your wardrobe. Oh, I can remember doing classes on how to take a scarf and wear it to dress up your wardrobe and how to tie scarves in different ways. We even did color, you know, what colors look good on you, anything educational that people were interested in. The interesting thing, I think, about Extension is that you don't get up in the morning and say, oh, I think I'll do such and such, or, I think I'll teach a class on such and such. You teach classes and do educational programs based on advisory groups that say this is something that's needed here in New Hanover County or in whatever county you're in. Everything is based on local needs. Even though it's university connected, you determine needs locally. And, you know, for here, environment is a huge issue.

Jones: I was just going to say bring us up to par on what's going on here in New Hanover County. The needs some of us think we know.

Hight: Well, there are some things that Extension can do, and there are some things that we really can't do. We can't do anything about traffic . . .

Jones: No.

Hight: . . . but we can address environmental issues. One of the biggest issues, in New Hanover County, is storm water, managing storm water, because we have so many impervious surfaces. And people have been allowed to mitigate. You know, they develop areas, and then they, you know, buy up land over here. We actually built a house when we first came here. We sold it. But it was built in an area that was a swamp. It was wetlands, and you could dig forever and just come up with black muck. And they have people that move here thinking that this is just a sandpit, and it's not. We have all kinds of different soils here. And I've learned a lot, since I've been here, in the area of horticulture and the environment because that's not my background. I would say storm water is a big issue. Youth, programs for youth, getting youth involved in positive activities, helping them to develop life skills, is a big thing here. Wellness, we do a lot with nutrition and wellness, helping people learn to exercise and to eat better and to avoid some of the--

Jones: Do medical groups send people to you for this education?

Hight: Sometimes.

Jones: I'm thinking of the high population of diabetics.

Hight: That is a huge issue. One thing, we have the person who is a family consumer sciences agent here, which is a position that I used to have in the counties that I was in before. After I was in Lenoir, I went to Craven County and I taught a lot of nutrition classes. That was the first time I had an opportunity to teach the thing that I really loved. And so we would teach things like a program called Give Your Heart a Healthy Beat, where you would do an hour of instruction. Either I would do it or I had a dietician friend at the health department. We do a lot of collaborating. Then we'd include exercise afterwards. We'd do it at the YMCA and include exercise. But, here, Diane's focus has been a lot with city and county employees. She's done quite a few wellness programs with groups like that. And what we've found, in Extension, is you can do programs that improve or increase people's knowledge. But what we're aiming for is changing their behavior. You know, you don't just learn what is a good thing to eat or how to maybe cut down on your risk of becoming a diabetic. But you learn what to do over the long term, and you actually incorporate that into your lifestyle.

Jones: Becomes . . .

Hight: Right. It has to become a part of your behavior.

Jones: Along this line, let me ask you something. I was told by a very well-known pulmonologist here that this area is one of the worst areas for people to live who might be susceptible to pulmonary diseases of any kind because the Longleaf Pine has the worst type pollen.

Hight: Oh, my goodness, that's a new one.

Jones: And the confluence of all the various waterways, many are not clean, and the sludge and so forth. I never thought of that.

Hight: I really don't know.

Jones: You don't know that?

Hight: Yeah, that's a good question.

Jones: There are a number of people who've complained of allergies since they've moved here.

Hight: Oh, allergies are terrible here.

Jones: He was incorporating all these different things. I'm one of his patients. The hospital runs pulmonary rehab, which is a ten-week course actually. And they have a little school for 45 minutes on the various things that affect you. Then the exercise program. And you're talking about the sludge and all that sort of thing and changing people's lifestyle. I'm just wondering if you've run into that, but you haven't.

Hight: Not really. But the thing with me is that I've been away from that area for some time now, probably for close to eight years, because I've been in the administrative role both for Lenoir County and here. After going to Craven County for seven years, I moved back to Lenoir County as the director and I stayed there for a year and a half before this position came open. So for the six years I've been here and then the year and a half before that, I really haven't done a lot with foods and nutrition.

Jones: But that's a good part of it. People have got to learn.

Hight: Absolutely. So now I manage the people that did the jobs that I used to do with the actual hands-on instruction. I'm more the person who makes sure they have the resources to do their jobs, that makes sure we have a good relationship with county government so that we get money in our budget, we get the things we need.

Jones: I was going to ask you how do you get money?

Hight: Our Cooperative Extension is a partnership between NC State and New Hanover County.

Jones: Right, okay, it's a partnership.

Hight: Right. Just to make things simple, about half of our salaries are New Hanover County, half are NC State. We have positions that have money, soft money, money from other areas, the Arboretum Foundation, the Ability Garden. But, in general, the county provides our facilities, telephones, computers, where we actually are. We're on about a seven-acre property that's a very expensive property in New Hanover County. So we have to show our work every day, in my opinion, in order for them not to decide that the budget deficit will benefit from selling it for condominiums.

Jones: Explain what the Ability Garden is.

Hight: The Ability Garden is, well, let me go back just a little bit further. The arboretum, I call it a horticultural laboratory. Everything we do is educational. When I first came here, I think the biggest issue we faced was that we weren't seen as being educational and the arboretum was not. It was more a cultural, an attraction.

Jones: I thought that way.

Hight: It is. But we do what we call open-ended learning. Whether we're having a class or if you come out there on a Sunday afternoon and you decide I want to redo my turf, what kind of grass do I want to put in, there are plots that you can look at and choose if you like the way the grass looks or there's information in a little box there that tells you what the different requirements are, if it grows in the shade or the sun. So you can make a choice whether I'm there or our, you know, consumer horticulture agent is there, volunteers are there. You can make a decision on what you want to plant. Also, we plant the arboretum so that it looks like your own landscape would. You can see what things grow together well, what the textures look like, what the colors look like together, how big a plant gets. So you go home and you say I saw this plant, this was the name of it and I really liked it and that's what I want to grow and it grows well in the sun, you know, that sort of thing. That's what the arboretum does, educational. The Ability Garden is located there. It's an extension program just like home economics, you know, family consumer sciences. It's part of horticulture. But it's to provide access to gardening for people who can't garden by the regular ways, you know, get out there and bend over and, you know, and pull up weeds or things of that sort. We have all kinds of audiences, everything from at-risk youths to adults who have had strokes, that are in rehabilitation to special needs, exceptional children in schools, lots of school programs. We actually have a little place out at the Hospice Care Center, where some juvenile day treatment youth are working on a garden there for the people that are there. It just makes gardening accessible to anyone who's interested in gardening. And probably the benefits, more than the physical, are mental in a lot of cases, being able to connect with nature. And it's really interesting to watch a class, because there are so many things that happen in that class that really aren't even related to plant and dirt. It's the asking someone who's very withdrawn to pass out aprons to the other participants or to hand out spoons or to fill up a container with soil. Everybody has a job according to their ability, and it kind of pulls them out of maybe some of their learned behavior. It stretches them and helps them to learn other behaviors. We are working now on a program where we're trying to do more training, job skills, so that possibly some of the higher functioning youth will actually get to the point where they can work, they can be in the workplace doing some task. So basically the Ability Garden provides access to gardening for people that are not our, I guess you'd call them, regular volunteers.

Jones: I think that's marvelous. I used to be a passionate gardener. I had to stop, which kills them.

Hight: Well, there are lots of tools. We actually have a trial tool shed, where you can go out and try out all the accessible tools.

Jones: I'm going to come out there. I've heard about this from various friends. You'd probably know who they are if I mention their names. Some of them were, I guess, working on them.

Hight: Gardening is probably the favorite pastime in New Hanover County. There are more gardeners here. You know, we have the second largest garden club in the United States.

Jones: You know, I know this. They are marvelous in what they do. We think of a garden club as being something different than what they're calling as that.

Hight: They do a lot of good in the community.

Jones: But they raise an awful lot of money, and I know a lot of ladies who are members. But they make a commitment. They have a commitment.

Hight: Yeah, absolutely. There's a waiting list to get in there. I mean, we just received a 10,000-dollar grant from the Cape Fear Garden Club for our parking lot expansion, when we get to working on that.

Jones: They're very good that way.

Hight: Oh, absolutely. And there were a lot of different groups there. I was amazed that they gave away something like $80,000. They work hard. They really do. It's not just a tea party.

Jones: And their meetings are well run.

Hight: Yes, they are. They definitely are. But gardening is something that we've tapped into, because people here love to garden. We get a lot of different volunteers than volunteers that I have experienced in other Extension offices. I did work in New Bern. New Bern is more similar, of course, to New Hanover County than Kinston is. Kinston is a town that the kids go away to school and never come back. And it's much more rural. It's a nice place. There are lots of nice people there. New Bern is more of a retirement community, somewhat like New Hanover County. But I've noticed that, even in New Hanover County, our volunteers are at a different level. A lot of them have held very high positions in corporations.

Jones: They probably come from the group that I was speaking about earlier, where we call a lot of our interviews from. And I have found that an awful lot of men have become good gardeners too.

Hight: Yeah, well, they have an opportunity now to do it probably for the first time, to really concentrate on it, because they've been concentrating on careers. You know how that goes.

Jones: There's something about--of course this soil is different from other places. There's something about getting out there and making something grow that's beautiful, that is good for the community, good for the earth, good for your yard, and it's a piece of satisfaction.

Hight: It's good for your mind, and that's what I was talking about with the Ability Garden. There's just something about being that connected to nature and seeing something happen as a result of your work. It's very satisfying. And our goal, at the arboretum, is to make sure that people are successful when they come here. Because a lot of people want to grow things they grew in Connecticut or New Jersey . . .

Jones: You can't always.

Hight: . . . and you can't. So we want to help them be successful and to say, no, you can't grow that here but you can grow this and you couldn't grow this up there, so, you know, try this, and then to teach them how to plant it, how to take care of it, the right plant in the right place.

Jones: Do you get questions by telephone, answer, field questions--I've heard that the biggest mystery is what kind of grass. In my neighborhood, beginning two years ago, because of a drought, we had to cut back on water. We had creeping brown spots all down the neighborhood. And then we had two neighbors that hired landscape people that came in, dug up everything and started all over. And we've learned to hate those people. That's just a joke.

Hight: I know. I know. I think the thing that we're most known for, other than the arboretum, is the plant clinic. And we do have a Master Gardener Program that a lot of retirees go through. It's normally a 12-week program. The commitment there, I think we've raised the bar on that. In the beginning, the Master Gardener Program was more someone who came down here and said, oh, I want to learn what to do in my yard and I'll go take this Master Gardener class. Well, we screen. We have applications now, and we screen them. And what we want to make sure is that people not only want to improve their own landscapes but that they want to give back to the community, because that's a very important part of it. We will train you, but we want you to help us. And what the Master Gardener Program is designed to do is to extend the horticultural efforts, educational efforts. So they should be doing speaking engagements, talking about, you know . . .

Jones: I think some do.

Hight: . . . they do, or doing off-site clinics, maybe going to someplace like Lowe's or Home Depot and, you know, talking to people about problems that they might have. But we do have the clinic on-site, in the Hutaff Building. And, those volunteers, what we require them to do, after they graduate, is they have to put 25 hours into the plant clinic. Now a lot of people--we do have some who that's not their cup of tea. So what we try to do is find other things that they do enjoy doing. They might want to be in a speakers' bureau. They might want to help develop a PowerPoint presentation or other things. But they are required to do at least 25 hours, that first year, in the plant clinic. And people bring things into the plant clinic. They might bring in a twig that's got one leaf on it and want to know what's bothering him, a plant dying. We get lots of phone calls. I report that at the end of the year, but I don't have that in my head. Thousands of hours of time that is given to answering questions from the public. And a lot of the people that come in are the people who end up eventually getting into the Master Gardener Program. But the Master Gardener Program itself is to extend the horticultural program efforts, educational efforts.

Jones: Melissa, as executive director, do you oversee all these little things that go on?

Hight: Well, pretty much. I mean--

Jones: Do you just sit there and read all this all day long, or do you have people come report to you? Or are you wondering around peering over the shoulder?

Hight: No.

Jones: How do you do it?

Hight: I have the best office in the whole place, and it overlooks the arboretum. And that's my perk, and I love to look out there. Because I could see the water garden. We have a huge water garden, three-quarters of an acre. It's tremendous, because it used to be a ball field when it was an elementary school. The arboretum is located at Bradley Creek elementary school that burned, and they didn't think they could grow anything on a packed baseball field. So they dug a great big hole, and that's one of our claims to fame. But what I do is we have agents in each of those areas I told you about. We have a consumer horticulture agent that actually has an office, right beside the plant clinic, that opens up into the plant clinic. He trains the volunteers and oversees them. We have a volunteer coordinator who coordinates the Master Gardeners and all the other volunteers that work on the grounds and in the gift shop. We have a commercial horticulture person who works with the green industry, the landscapers, trying to make sure that, when you call somebody up, you can ask them for their credentials, do they have training, you know, to try to raise the bar on the types of services that are offered. Because we have more people in the landscape maintenance and installation business in this town than any place I've ever been in my life.

Jones: We just figure that every guy who graduates and doesn't get a job suddenly gets a truck and they're landscaping.

Hight: And their lawn mower, yeah. Well, you know what you find here? And this is a real plus for UNCW. I have not found this anyplace else. The kids who come to school here do not want to leave. And when I have a position open, it might be a secretarial position, support staff, I have people with four-year degrees that apply for that because they just want to stay here and they can't find anything else to do, which I think just says everything about Wilmington. I didn't know that much about UNCW when I moved here. I knew about East Carolina and stayed in Carolina.

Jones: When you first moved here, it was probably jokingly referred to as UNC by the Sea, the party school.

Hight: I thought that was East Carolina, the den of iniquity that it is. But I have come to respect this university so much. It's changed even in the six years I've lived here.

Jones: Well, I think Jennifer DePaolo is a lot different than the fellow we had before, but I think that she's really done a great deal.

Hight: Yeah. Well, it's a great place, and it's a wonderful place to live. I can't imagine why people wouldn't want to live here. But the fact that--

Jones: They can't afford it.

Hight: Yeah, well, I know. That's true. But it's such a good university I think. It's way up there. And I really didn't have any idea until I got more involved in some of the things that were going on here.

Jones: Let's switch gears for just a few minutes. Oh, I want to ask you this, does your husband go through basically the same thing in Brunswick County that you are?

Hight: Somewhat.

Jones: It's different over there. It's a bigger county, number one . . .

Hight: Rural.

Jones: . . . and growing and growing and growing. There's probably not going to be rural anything by the time--

Hight: The Green Swamp. Well, it is a little different. That's the thing. There's an Extension office in every county in North Carolina and the Cherokee Indian Reservation, and each office reflects the needs of the county. So what works here--we do not have a agricultural agent in New Hanover County. Because what we do is horticulture. So every, you know, all of our agents have a horticultural bent. If you go to another county, they might have a horticulture agent that does everything, commercial, consumer, everything. Now, Al did start a botanical garden in Brunswick County, which is pretty neat. It's nothing like the arboretum, on that scale. But it's a demonstration garden that people can go look at. But he still has that rural component, where he goes out and works with nurseries.

Jones: But you understand that, because you were doing that kind of thing years back.

Hight: Right. And he actually has subject matter. He is the commercial horticulture person. Most of the county directors have subject matter as well. Because of the size of the staff and what we try to accomplish in New Hanover County, I do mainly administration. Sometimes it's really good. I enjoy it because I love being able to facilitate other people doing a great job. But sometimes I miss being able to do that, you know, grassroots education and seeing differences in people, not through somebody else. But mainly I oversee the staff, and they do the actual work.

Jones: How do you have time for that and also being president of the largest Rotary Club? Let me see, it used to be several counties, I'm not sure if it is still. I accessed all the rotary papers. I thought it wasn't going on for years. Particularly after John Capps brought all his stuff down. They said, "Carroll, got a present for you." But it was fascinating and, up to a point, and of course Mimi was president at one time. But you now become, I don't remember who's going to be president next year.

Hight: Jeff Newman.

Jones: A male?

Hight: Mm-hmm, yeah.

Jones: After, what, four in a row?

Hight: Mm-hmm.

Jones: Four females in a row. And, of course, every time I think about this, having done the papers for the Rotary group, all that to-do, really not that many years ago, over whether or not they should even admit a woman.

Hight: Yeah, yeah, it was just the early '90s when they started admitting women.

Jones: Yes, they had to. The law got down on them evidently. But I read all the correspondence and all 'cause I had to. And I'm just chuckling my head off to see what it's become and wondering what the percentage of male to female eventually is going to end up.

Hight: I don't know.

Jones: So here you are, four in a row. And I know that's practically a full-time job.

Hight: You know, Royce Angel considered himself responsible for bringing women into the . . .

Jones: Really?

Hight: . . . Rotary Club. Yeah.

Jones: Did you tell his wife that?

Hight: Of course. He told everybody that. He was very proud of it. Because, the thing that we get from most of the men, they will say, wow, you know, why didn't we let women in earlier, because they're actually the ones that do the work. Big surprise there. But, yeah, it is the largest Rotary Club--it's one of the largest ones actually in North Carolina. It's interesting.

Jones: How many members do you have now?

Hight: We have about 180.

Jones: Alright, now let me ask you this. Have you had to broaden the scope of designations? You have 180 members. That's a lot.

Hight: Yeah, it is. And, you know, at one time, you could only have two members in each classification but that's changed. You can have, I think it's, 17 percent in any one classification. If there were 15 Extension directors here in New Hanover County, we could have all 15 of them. So that's not an issue anymore. I think Rotary began to see, a few years ago, that membership, especially in the United States, was dropping a little bit. Now, it's very prestigious in other countries. Places like Japan and lots of other countries, it's huge. People are waiting in line to get in the Rotary. And in the United States, I think it's dropped a little bit. Our club, I was looking at the records back in the line. Patrice was the first female president we had, Patrice Willis. And Donna Shower was second and then Connie Majure-Rhett. And I followed Connie. When Donna filled out the paperwork for the club, we had 200 members. That was three years ago. So we've dropped back to--we were in-between 170 and 175. That was one of the things that I really wanted to do this year. The problem with membership is that we get in members all the time.

Jones: There's a commitment to membership.

Hight: There is, but you lose members through . . .

Jones: Retirement.

Hight: . . . retirement.

Jones: Illness.

Hight: It becomes a financial burden, especially in these economic times. I think we're going to see more of that.

Jones: Oh, you probably will with donations and involvement. Right, everybody is.

Hight: We have quite a few, I think more so than we've ever had in the past, nonprofits represented.

Jones: I was going to ask you about that.

Hight: And that creates a unique situation. Because the nonprofits, you know, a lot of the members of the club, their business or their nonprofit pays their dues. And in tough times, that becomes hard to justify.

Jones: I know that Wilber Chuck has taken three different people as guests to be members. Two out of the three really wanted to join. Their companies that were going to pay for them said, unh-unh, can't do it this year.

Hight: Yeah, well, I'm hoping that things will eventually improve. I know everyone is. You have to stay on top of the membership in order to just break even most of the time. I wanted to get us back closer to 200. And really and truly, that's probably enough for our club. Because meeting space around here and actually logistics . . .

Jones: That's no problem.

Hight: Our club, I think, is interesting. Because some of the smaller clubs have a different focus than we do. Our club is kind of half-and-half. We have the people who have been there, done that and would like to write you a check if you're interested in raising money. But then we have the newer ones coming in, which I consider myself to be a part of because I've only been a member five years, that don't have the financial means but really want to get involved and do something that makes a difference. So that's been my main focus this year is moving us from if you want to write a check, that's great, but let's get these other people involved, the newer people, younger people involved, and do some community projects that we can hang our hat on and say that's something we did in our community.

Jones: Who sets the tone or makes the suggestions or whatever you want to call it for the involvement in various community activities? For example, with that Iraqi marine thing, it was local, if you want to call Jacksonville that. But it was going overseas. And I know that they no longer are involved with--when Jim Hundley, for example, was president and involved with the fellow that used to provide artificial limbs and so forth. That's passed. There's always something else that comes to take the place.

Hight: We did have that orthopedic clinic. And interestingly enough, I can't remember, I think it was last year, we actually took--there was about $10,000 left in that money appropriated for doing that. We actually gave that money to ElderHouse to buy some equipment, because of the tie-in, for some of the older people to use for exercising. So the tone is actually set by the president, I would say, and the board.

Jones: That was what I thought. So tell us, what was your focus when you came on?

Hight: Well, a couple of things. First of all, I would like to say our club is unique in another way. Some of the clubs don't have the means to be able to provide the leadership support that our club does. For instance, when we go to president-elect training, in March, it's a requirement that you go as a president-elect. We also send our presidential nominee. I knew 18 months ago that I was going to be president July 1, 2008. So Jeff Newman went with me this past year to Greensboro for the president-elect training. So you've got some leadership continuity there, and you've got the person behind you that you're working with. And you're establishing focuses that you know are not going to just happen in your year, but you've got the buy-in from the person behind you. I did the same thing with Connie, coming behind her. I went with Connie to the president-elect training, and we talked a lot about things that we wanted to concentrate on. And we worked together a lot. It makes a huge difference. My focus, for this year, with the board, was membership and community involvement. I wanted to see us get more involved in community projects.

Jones: Did you have any in mind?

Hight: Not really. Not in particular. I think what we've been doing in the past-- we've been raising money and we've been doling it out to other nonprofits. We're essentially a nonprofit doling out money to other nonprofits. And unfortunately we haven't been able to give anybody very much money. So it's just kind of a drop in the bucket. So what I wanted to see us do is to pull back, raise some money and come up with some smaller projects that would require a little bit of money. We set aside $5,000, the board did, to begin this. And members could come up with these projects. It might be at their church or local park or might be a neighbor they have that needs a rent bill, something that would require a little bit of money and materials but a lot of sweat equity from members to have a workday on Saturday morning, get out there, work together, not just because of the community projects but because of the fellowship. That's something that I think really makes a difference in whether a Rotary Club is successful or not. You do the work, but you got to do the fun stuff too.

Jones: That doesn't give you a lot of time as president. You only have what, one year?

Hight: Yeah.

Jones: Sometimes it takes half that time or more to get something going.

Hight: It does. You have to think about a lot of things ahead of time. And even if you know 18 months ahead of time that you're going to be the president, it slips up on you. And you, you know, you just run with it. I knew that, starting July 1, that that was a huge commitment for me. And I told the staff, I said, "You're going to have to understand that this is a commitment." But Rotary has been a wonderful organization for me. We tell people don't go into Rotary, if you're going into Rotary because you want to get some more business, that's the wrong reason, you go into Rotary because you want to get to know people, because you want to serve, so you don't go just for the purpose of building your business, you won't last very long. So the thing that you really want to do is to make sure that people have a chance to fellowship, to work together, to get to know other people. And it has benefitted me, in my job and in the community, so much. Because I've had opportunities I would've never had. If someone had told me five years ago I would be president of that Rotary Club, I would've never believed it. And, to me, it's a high point in my career. It's like, you know, I've worked for 31 years, and I feel like I've had some accomplishments there. Being in the Rotary Club and earning the respect of that group and giving it the commitment that I have given it, it's just been icing on the cake in my opinion.

Jones: Could we stop here and pick up with another tape in a few minutes. Could we have you talk a little bit more about some of the things that you've personally been involved in, with Rotary, that have been outreached and also what plans are coming up? I'd like to know more about the question of nonprofits being a member and the fact that we have so many nonprofits in this town. What do you think? Let's just stop right here.

(Tape Change)

Jones: This is Carroll Jones again interviewing Melissa Hight. This is tape 2 and we're talking now about her involvement with Rotary as president of the Rotary Club. We've just established that someone who is president is there just too short a time, only a year. And we're talking about what her plans were, what she hopes to see and also, some of the nonprofits that are members of this club which, in a way, is almost an oxymoron because Rotary's key, I think, is to do for others. So, Melissa pick it up and let's go.

Hight: Well, you know, our motto is "Service above selves," and I think that everything we do in Rotary we, of course, we have our four-way test and, you know, lots of times you'll ask a question and they'll say, "Well, four-way test it." You know, is it fair, you know, to all concerned? And really and truly, it's a good principle to live by, thinking about whether something's going to be fair or beneficial to people. But we do have a lot of nonprofits. I think people want to be a part of our organization because there are so varied, there's so many different people in there. And it's amazing to me that people that you would never think about going and asking to do something for you, if it's related to Rotary and you say, you ask them to step up, they don't even hesitate.

Jones: I think it's a privilege to be asked.

Hight: I think so too. People want to be involved and I think that--

Jones: I have always felt that way.

Hight: I think that the nonprofits, as well as other people, see that and that's just something you want to be a part of. Our club, I don't think has had the focus on the international programs as much as some of the other clubs. You'll see some smaller clubs throughout the world that will do huge things. We're right now working on the possibility of doing a water project in Honduras and there are some club members, I think, that are going to do that with helping get clean water equipment to make sure these people have clean water. You have to have a commitment from the country that you're going to as well as the people that are going to do it. And actually, this will require our Rotarians to actually put out money themselves. Hopefully, the club will help offset some of that--

Jones: To go down there?

Hight: For that and for their training, as well. You have to be trained to do this. But and I like to see us do this, but I think in our club is a little unique in that there's more of a local focus. I've always gotten that sense from them it's--we're part of a huge organization. There's, like, 2.1 million members. And--but, I think people--a lot of people in our club feel like, you know, there are things going on all over the world and we've been instrumental in polio eradication.

Jones: Yes, indeed. That's one of your biggest--

Hight: Huge. We received this year a $100 million challenge grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And the Rotary International has to match that, we had to spend the foundation's money this year and then we have three years to match that money. And we're this close to eradicating polio and this has been going on for 20 years and Rotary has been a huge player with some other worldwide organizations, but just really put a lot of money into it. So, and it just- they think they have it and then it will pop up somewhere. But it is nothing--I mean, the good that has been done through eradicating polio by Rotarians is just tremendous. That's one of the things we're most well-known for. But as far as a lot of other international projects, I think they feel like there's so much that needs to be done right here and there are so many nonprofits here. I forgot, someone told me awhile back, it was several hundred.

Jones: I heard just recently a figure thrown out and I absolutely couldn't believe it and I'm thinking--I'm talking about southeastern North Carolina. And I started to think--I went to a board meeting the other day and I said, "Why do you suppose this area for as small as it is, it's not small, but would need as many of these nonprofits, and every one of them are needed."

Hight: Size wise, I mean, look at--I mean, New Hanover County is very small. But I think that there are expectations here that maybe are different than there are in other places. I mean, you go to someplace like when I lived in Kinston, we didn't expect to have the services that are available here. In New Hanover County there's a demand. They want a children's museum and they want, you know, a Cameron Art Museum and the hospice, hospice is huge here.

Jones: And it's wonderful.

Hight: Oh, it is. It's a wonderful organization--literacy. A lot of those things I think other areas may be have just gotten used to the fact that that's just not something that's available to them. But here, it's kind of a demand. People expect those things to be available and I think they also expect to help contribute, but when you've got hundreds of them with their hands out.

Jones: Well, this is just it. I know that I'm speaking to some people from the Landfall Foundation, for example, and, of course, they have their criteria. Everybody has their criteria. But the question was why are there--and I have asked, "Is it because of the fact that this is sort of a melting pot?" People have come here from somewhere else. They're older. No, because there's just as much needed for the youth, for the ill, for--and things like domestic violence can go on anywhere at any age.

Hight: Yeah, there's a tremendous--well, you look at the arboretum even. I mean, our foundation is not really a foundation. We're actually calling it Friends of the Arboretum now because we don't give away money and a foundation gives away money. But we get about somewhere around $18,000 for maintenance and repairs on our grounds and we have to raise the rest of it, including a salary. So there's--you know, we're another one with our hands out through memberships, lots of memberships in different organizations. And that's- sometimes that's how organizations sustain themselves. But I think that there are a lot. Probably one reason people move here because there are so many things going on.

Jones: You can become involved in all kinds of things.

Hight: You can. On any one weekend, we've tried--we have two major events, the Wilmington Garden Show and we also have Art in the Arboretum. And we've tried to find weekends that there were not so many other things going on. Forget it. There is never a weekend there aren't several large things going on. You just learn to complement each other. But back to what we were talking about Rotary and I do think that our focus is more local, trying to do some things locally. And we have supported things, like the Literacy Council, but we--you do have to be careful in Rotary because you're not in Rotary for your business, you're in Rotary for what it does for you.

Jones: For someone else.

Hight: And yeah, and for other people. It's the leadership that you develop and the relationships that you develop with people. And, you know, when you first join Rotary the thing that stuck in my head the morning I had my orientation breakfast was don't sit at the same table. Always sit at a different table so you learn--

Jones: That's an outstanding, really, kind of--well, it's not a rule. I know that because there is some people that always sit together.

Hight: Yeah, we have one table in the back that always sits together and it's kind of--I sat with them one day because I had to lead. This has been a couple of years ago. And when I sat down they kind of looked at me like--

Jones: You're an intruder.

Hight: Yeah, but they didn't mean anything by it. But you do because oh, the people that you meet and learn about, it's just, it's amazing. But you can't be in there because my nonprofit is going to benefit from this. So, that got to be kind of a thing when we started having more and more nonprofits when you're raising money, you know, how do you not give to Davis Healthcare. You know, Davis Healthcare is a nonprofit, or hospice. We have the hospice foundation person, or the medical center foundation person is in our club. Literacy, we have all those. And so that's why I think the focus with actually getting out and doing some work that requires, you know, some money for supplies. But doing the more hands-on kind of thing that you work with people that maybe you don't know so well. I tell people, "I go pick up trash when we do it quarterly on Saturday mornings because I just like to go out and clean up the highway." That's certainly a motivating factor, but I always get to work with a different person and you talk and you learn. And after you pick up trash with that person for that one hour and a half on Saturday morning, you have a different relationship with them than you ever had before.

Jones: What do you think, for you personally, now you're after your year is up you'll still be in a position to call some shots, I'm sure, but for you, personally, what do you think are the greatest things that this particular club--and I've got all--narrow it down to that because that's what you're a member of and it's the largest one. What are you particularly proud of, of the group itself, how you go about doing your business, accomplishments, that kind of thing?

Hight: Well, one thing that we have done this year that we have not done in the five years I've been a member is we've had club assemblies. And I know that sounds like a, you know, an uninteresting thing. And I was terrified the first time we had a club assembly because they will tell you when you go to president-elect training you need to have club assemblies, at least quarterly, conduct the business. I don't think our club was of a mindset that our board makes decisions and we need to let everybody know about those decisions. The board makes decisions and we move on them. Well, coming from the background that I came from with cooperative extension, we do everything because of people advising us and we keep people informed, that way you have advocates. So, to me, knowledge is power. So, what I started doing was I thought, "You know, we're making these decisions at a board meeting each month and the general member that's not on the board may have no idea what we're deciding to do." So, I started these club assemblies. And the first one we did I thought, "Oh my gosh, this is just, you know, people are not going to show up. They'll probably boycott the meeting," especially the old-timers. That's what people scare you about when you're coming in. It's like, you know, you're a newbie and these people that have been around for years and years really don't want to get involved in this and they don't want to hear it and you just need to do this and this and this. But you plunge in. And so the first assembly we had Jeff and I worked on it and we decided we have a little gain in a couple of spots and bought a couple bottles of wine to kind of jazz things up and we raffled off a couple bottles of wine. I got the best--that meeting had the best reception. I had members who emailed me and said, "What a great thing to do. We loved hearing about what the committees are doing or what decisions are being made."

Jones: That's right. They were all included.

Hight: Right, and so I think that's a major thing because the one thing you can say about the group is, I think, even though people will tell you, they'll kind of horrify you in the beginning by telling you those things like, "Well, you're not going to get those old-timers to do this." They really are a group that will get on board. They'll do what you ask them to do and if you say, "We need to have a club assembly," they will tolerate it and then they will tell you, "Wow, that was a good thing." So, you don't have--I haven't met with resistance in that club. They pretty much allow you to have your ideas. If you've got an idea, they'll let you try it. If they want to participate, they'll participate. Like the marine project that we did, that was mainly a Melissa and Wilbur thing. And I don't even remember how we came up with the idea but we had some regular people that got involved, got out because we had to get out and collect that stuff to send off, and then we had to--

Jones: That was a massive project, though.

Hight: It was, and but I don't think we even, I never even realized when we were in the midst of it, how big it was and how much we were doing. But you had the regular people that would show up to box the stuff up. And I noticed that each time that kind of grew because people really felt like they were doing something that was important.

Jones: I think they did. And that was at the time I think, was it not, the sort of the peak of the Iraqi involvement in the marines. It touched our hearts so much and it was scary.

Hight: You're amazing. It was scary and to think about from the standpoint of having a son over there or a daughter serving and, you know, the things that they didn't have access, just the personal care items that would make their lives a little bit better. You know, you just felt like you had to do it. There were people that didn't participate in that project, but I never heard the first person say, "We shouldn't be doing that."

Jones: Well, that's good.

Hight: So, I think that's a good thing, having the club assemblies, keeping people more informed. We have a lot of Paul Harris Fellows in our club, compared to other club compared to other clubs. And we were number one in this district in giving this past year. I think the figure was $35,000 that our club members gave to the foundation in the way of Paul Harris Fellows in 2007, the year that ended July 1st.

Jones: Now, anybody can be a Paul Harris Fellow as long as somebody who's a member buys them a membership.

Hight: Right, and, of course, Paul Harris--

Jones: But that does not mean that they can come to the meetings.

Hight: Right. Paul Harris was the founder of Rotary back in 1905. And our club was in 1915, so we're the second oldest club in the state. We were sponsored by the Richmond, Virginia club after the Wake County Club, the one in Raleigh. So, we've been around for a long, long time and we've lost in the last couple of years some really important members that have been around for years and years, you know, Henry Blizzard and--

Jones: Well, yes, his curse is I think that the original collection that came in is named the Blizzard Collection.

Hight: Absolutely. But anyway, I've gotten over--

Jones: No, that's interesting because again, I say, a lot of people really, they see a sign, Rotary. Okay. They don't know. They don't know. And I've heard people say, a couple of people that are members, that when I first came to town people say, "Well, you need to join Rotary." "Aw, come on." And they did and they love it.

Hight: It's one of those things. I've said this a lot of times and it probably sounds kind of corny, but where I'm located out on Oleander near Bradley Creek, is a stretch. It takes me about 20 minutes now with the new freeway it's great. But it's prior to that, I had to drive down Oleander or Market Street and it was--you know, it's a stretch to get down there and you need to get down there in time to get parked and if you don't get there just before the meeting starts, you really miss everything because it's that before the meeting, seeing people and speaking to them and, you know, talking at the tables is where Rotary is, in my opinion. But every time that I would be sitting at my desk at 11:30 and thinking, "Oh, I need to stay here and work," and I made the effort, which I have done, made the effort to go to Rotary, I always left feeling so much better than when I went. You know, I got something, I met a new person or I talked to someone and learned something new or I had someone say something that really just pumped me up. That's, to me, what Rotary is all about. It's just that the relationships that you build.

Jones: It must affect many people that way because of your requirement that if you're gone from your own club, go meet somewhere else, no matter where you are. And people seem to truly enjoy doing that.

Hight: That's the best part of it because it's all over the world. I forgot, it's like 200 countries.

Jones: It's not in Tarija.

Hight: Really? Maybe it is now. Who knows. Well, that's a good thing. And, you know, we used to have a 60% attendance rule. Now they have dropped it to 50% because as we were mentioning earlier I think Rotary International began to see that they had to make some concessions in order for it to evolve with today's society and the way people are today. You know, the attendance, the classifications, letting women in, you know, you have to--if you don't evolve, then you're going to be out of business. So, luckily they have done that. So, things have changed. But I would say the Paul Harris Fellows, you know, and those contributions go to humanitarian efforts through the foundation. You do your first Paul Harris Fellow for yourself and then you can make anyone in your family or friend a Paul Harris Fellow. It's quite prestigious with the medallion and pin. It was a great moment for me. I thought it was wonderful and so I actually did a second Paul Harris Fellow for my husband and he really doesn't understand Rotary that much. He, you know, appreciates the fact that I like it so much. And I was so excited I said, "You know, you're going to become a Paul Harris Fellow." And it was like, "Well, can I have the $1,000?" He was just joking. But it is. It's $1,000 that goes to--

Jones: Right.

Hight: And our club does matching grants. Each year we do at least ten matching grants. And on the district level, recently we've had a 50/50 grant. So, any--if you have $100 in your little account and you still have $900 left, then they'll half that with you if you'll come up with the $450. So, it is $1,000 to become a Paul Harris Fellow and all of those monies go into the foundation for humanitarian efforts throughout the world.

Jones: Melissa, you're a busy lady. You're doing everything right. What would you like to see happen in your for real job if there--I don't know which one is at this point.

Hight: Yeah, Rotary is kind of neck and neck there.

Jones: Yes, it is--that hasn't been done. Where are we headed?

Hight: Well, I think we--

Jones: Project a few years ahead.

Hight: Okay, we've made great strides. I think one of the things I'm most proud of in New Hanover County is that the climate has changed not just for us with county government but also within our staff. I've worked hard with the staff to try to make sure the positions are in place that are needed here just because there are four program areas in another county does mean that's what we need here. So, I think that's been a really good thing. I want to see that continue so that we're addressing the needs that are in New Hanover County. Down the road, I want to see more collaboration with other counties. I think there is huge potential there for regional efforts. We're doing some of that now.

Jones: It's probably needed, I think.

Hight: Pender, Brunswick, and New Hanover, a natural fit, probably even getting into Onslow County. But creating some regional efforts and specializations so that when you got a person that's doing a particular job, they can concentrate and become a real specialist in that area. We, in most counties, I think I mentioned earlier, if you have a horticultural agent, they're doing everything. Here, we're lucky because we have an environmental agent, we have a consumer horticultural agent that works with homeowners, and then we have a commercial horticultural agent. So, we've got the waterfront covered. We don't have a person who's trying to help Joe Homeowner with why their plant has died and is also trying to help the guy in the landscape business with how to, you know, increase his potential. So, I think the area of specialization because the people that are moving into this area expect a lot. They want quality services and if they do not get quality service, then they're going to go somewhere else. That's been an extension issue for some years now. I think we kind of, at one time, were everything to everybody because we started out with corn and tomato clubs years and years ago. And you know, all of that rule stuff, when I was working in Lenoir County, I found needles that were this long and I couldn't figure out what in the world they were, and lots of equipment and cabinets. Extension used to teach people how to make mattresses and hats and all kinds of things. I mean, we're talking basic issues related to living, canning the food that you feed your family, killing hogs, you know, all of those things. We've had to evolve away from that and I think in the process, we kind of--

Jones: You need to have a museum for all these things.

Hight: Well, absolutely. But I think that in the process we got away from being--we got into a point where we were trying to tell everybody we were everything to everybody. We could do everything and we lost, or didn't move into the area of specializing because the world changed. And so we've had to kind of catch up with that.

Jones: That's the problem.

Hight: And really specialize so that if someone calls you with a problem, you're not constantly saying, "I don't know the answer to that. I'll have to find out for you." That's okay to a certain point, but they need to see us as specialists because the one, the value that we bring to New Hanover County or any other county is our university connection. We take the research that's generated on the university level and bring it to the citizens of that county. So, we are the person who takes that information and makes sure that the other people have it, that they can use it in the county. So, we have to remain viable, we have to be specialized, we have to know what we're talking about, be well-trained, professionally developed. And so I want to see us continue to do that. I hope I see the arboretum in the future because that's we talked about earlier, the fact that it's such a valuable piece of property.

Jones: It's beautiful.

Hight: Wanda Copley, our county attorney came out to visit when we had our first Rotary fellowship function out there one evening a couple of months ago, and she was amazed. She is a county employee, has been with the county for years and years and years, had not seen the arboretum and saw what a wonderful place it was. She said, "I can't believe--" she was telling Commissioner Greer yesterday at the meeting, how wonderful it was. She said, "I can't believe we have this."

Jones: It's been awhile since I had been out there and I went to that affair that evening and it's wonderful. And it was so different than it was the time before. It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

Hight: Well, we've--it's--

Jones: Find out who does those birdhouses.

Hight: Oh, that was a local artist. There is so much art here and to tie some of those things in with what we do, or in the arboretum, is just a no-brainer. But I think that the arboretum is on track as far as back to not being just a displayed area for plants or a plant museum, it's back to the educational mission that needs to be there--

Jones: It's a learning place.

Hight: Exactly--for youth, adults. I want to see that continue and evolve and even become more so a resource for New Hanover County. I think we're in a unique position to just really do some great things in the future. My goal is to get us to the point where that continues and I think we're on the cusp.

Jones: You must be. You must be.

Hight: We've accomplished a lot--a great staff. But the people that know--

Jones: You like your job don't you?

Hight: I do. I love my job.

Jones: It shows. You like being in Rotary and you like your job. What a happy life.

Hight: Well, I'm high maintenance in a lot of ways. I really push myself but I'm very passionate about things I get involved with. I try to be selective. I started on the Smart Start board here, also on the Resource Conservation and Development board, which does a lot of ecological things. But I'm really choosy because I want to, if I'm involved in something, I want to give it my all.

Jones: You got to do it. Exactly.

Hight: Rather than stretching myself so thin and then people saying, "Well, she joined this and didn't do squat." And that's how I've gotten to where I am in Rotary. It's not because I had lots of money or lots of influence, it was because I think the member saw that I was passionate and that Rotary was important to me and that I wanted to make a difference and--

Jones: I think you have.

Hight: Well, I don't know. I hope I've done, you know, a small, made a small difference.

Jones: I think so.

Hight: But, you know, lots of people working together can make great things happen.

Jones: Well, that's true but they have to work together. That's the key right there.

Hight: Yeah.

Jones: Melissa, thank you. Now, what do you think? Did you have something to say?

Hight: It's been--about this process? About anything? I think I've said everything, I mean, other than the fact that--yeah.

Jones: Well, that's what I wanted.

Hight: I figured maybe--I mean, I'm all over the place as far as childhood and where I've been and what I've done.

Jones: That's fine because the composite is you.

Hight: I know, but it's, you know, and sitting here going through this, it just makes me realize--

Jones: It makes you realize what you've done. You've been from here to there.

Hight: I've been like a ping-pong ball, or a pinball, all over the place.

Jones: No, you accomplished so much.

Hight: I was the first person in my family to graduate from college and I grew up with parents who never said, "If you go to college," it was, "When you go to college." And they had money saved for me to go to college, which was not enough to pay for it, by any means. But it was the expectation that I would go to college. My family's not well-educated. My dad did not even graduate from high school. He actually completed his degree, or graduated from high school, got a GED in the service. He went in when he was 17. So, that was a major accomplishment. And I've always been the kind of person that was just kind of--I'm an extrovert. I feed on people, not in a bad way, but I get energized by people. And I can't sit in my office. I will sit in my office and think of a reason to get up and go talk to someone. So, being involved in organizations like Rotary and educational organizations like Cooperative Extension, is just a perfect fit for somebody like me and it's been great. And I'm looking forward to--I feel like I'm--there's lots of me left.

Jones: I think so, and I tell you what, you're going to get a copy of this. You get a copy of a DVD I guess, or whatever you want. And show it to your husband, show it to your kids, show it to your family and then tell them, "I don't know what she wanted me for?"

Hight: Well, and they'll probably say the same thing, like, "Cheez, do you have to dredge up all that stuff?"

Jones: Okay, we're going to say goodbye for now and I will see you again soon enough.

Hight: Absolutely.

Jones: But I'm very glad to know more about you and I'm very glad that you shared this with us.

Hight: Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity.

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