From the moment he knew his hometown could do better, Mayor Don Hardy has dedicated his life to Kinston with a born-to-serve approach.
Don Hardy’s route to the Mayor’s office began in waist-high water.
It was five years ago. Jumping from his SUV, he waded into the homes of friends and neighbors trapped by the flood of Hurricane Matthew. He’d maneuver the rising rains, arrive at a house in need, find the residents hiding upstairs, and walk them out. The scene played out, as Hardy remembers, six or seven times. The call comes in, and he’s on his way. For especially frightened Kinstonians, he’d hold their hands as he guided them through the waters into the car. One trip was for an emergency pickup to get the local surgeon to the hospital. And at the end of it, there was nowhere to return to, as the floods had reached his home as well. “I will never forget the water line on the wall of the apartment complex. Three, four feet of water,” Hardy says.
This was a turning point. “That moment, that night, I knew I had to run,” Hardy said. “After the water receded, I started calling folks.”
Since that day, Hardy has dedicated his life to advocating for Kinston and eastern North Carolina, at every level of government and every opportunity. He figured he would eventually take this route, and the community figured, too—after all, it was him they knew they could call for help.
He was a more-than-active citizen already. A sergeant at the UNC Lenoir Health Center, Hardy had been a staple in the Kinston community, leaving only for his military service and a brief stint in Virginia. “I always liked being around people,” Hardy said. He even briefly took a job with the county sheriff’s office that allowed him to be in the courtroom. “I wanted to be there to talk to folks, individually, that were classified as repeat offenders. I’d have a conversation with them and say, ’Look, you have to do better. You can’t keep coming here.’” Elected office was the natural progression for a public servant who fills nearly every waking hour with just that—service.
Hardy’s resume is crowded, as though his goal is to serve everyone, everywhere, all the time. That aligns with his favorite quote and personal mission statement: “We must do whatever we can, whenever we can, however we can to help impact the lives of others for the better.” From a practical perspective, this manifests as involvement on as many committees as a near 24/7 schedule allows. On top of serving as a board member for the North Carolina League of Municipalities, there’s the National League of Cities, its public safety and crime federal advocacy board, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Fraternal Order of Police, its national diversity committee, the North Carolina Mayors Association and, incredibly, more. Federal, state, county, and local officials hear his voice.
The epicenter is Kinston. Born and raised in the city he now oversees as Mayor, Hardy never wavered from the idea of a career of leadership, as he remembers it. “Basically, I’ve been serving all my life.” Growing up, he thought of the FBI and of police departments, of “putting the bad guys away—that sort of thing,” he says. After high school, he joined the U.S. Navy, then became a police officer, serving for the City of Kinston, and then later began the courtroom job. From there, he spent two years out of state as a Federal Police Officer for the Department of Defense, and then finally returned home to become Police Sergeant at UNC Lenoir Health Care—a position he held the night the hurricane hit, and the position he still holds today.
It was the storm that pieced the puzzle together. “At that moment in time, all I could think was, ’We have to do better than we’re doing,’” Hardy said. Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina on October 8, 2016, and less than a week later, the eastern part of the state experienced some of the worst flooding in its history. “Homes were destroyed, business was interrupted, lives were upended, and the recovery and healing process began,” the city’s website reads. Hardy describes his campaign for mayor as “the greatest they’ve ever seen, because it was grassroots.” If he could be relied upon in the midst of a hurricane, he could have their vote too. Called a “decided underdog” by local media, Hardy won, beating a two-term incumbent.
The disaster informed his priorities, which focus on flood prevention, infrastructure and emergency preparedness, but also include nearly anything that falls into the category of local representation. It’s why he immediately joined so many organizations, like NLC and NCLM. “I wanted to be at every table possible that could help bring resources to our state and, even more so, cities and towns just like Kinston. That’s my job. That’s the motivating force behind me, to see communities develop and move beyond where we are.”
The early days were primarily a learning experience. Typical for Hardy, it was learning through involvement. “I nosedived,” he said. “I had to learn a lot for myself. I went out to find folks to help me. I decided, I’m going to join every organization I can to learn all I can. I’ll order the books, I’ll learn the rules, I’ll take the classes—whatever I can.” He remembers attending as many local events as possible too, admitting that he was well over-booked.
Those early days also informed how he’s responded to the crises of his tenure. There have since been four hurricanes: Florence, Michael, Dorian and Isaias. “We did a tremendous job,” Hardy said. “We were proactive. We got through them with a proper response and were able to rebuild… I felt really good about the team efforts we all took to get through those storms.” With the COVID-19 pandemic over the last 18 months, Hardy has taken a similar quick-acting approach in both advocating and leading his hometown. That advocacy earned a hard-fought victory with the passage of the federal American Rescue Plan this past spring, which will bring Kinston roughly $6.4 million. In the interim, Kinston was, by Hardy’s recollection, the third local government to apply for and receive COVID-19 relief from the state in a round of funding that ultimately awarded $26.8 million to 34 communities. He also helped organize vaccination and testing clinics—and, remembering the hardship that followed Hurricane Matthew, he was sure to have those events serve as a food drive, too.
His schedule still dedicates an immense amount of working time to the mayoral role. Monday through Thursday, that’s his focus, with the hospital job scheduled for the weekend. “If I do take off a weekend, it’s because I’m working for the city.” The only time he really steps back, Hardy notes, is in June, since that month holds both his anniversary and his wife, Angela’s, birthday. Otherwise, his vacations are just different bits of work. “If I do take off a weekend, I’m probably out somewhere advocating for the city.”
Recapping the dozens of projects, initiatives and groups he’s involved with, Hardy pauses for a second and laughs. It’s the only style he knows. It was a busy night when the hurricane hit, and it’s been busy every day since.
“You gotta do something versus nothing,” Hardy said.