APEX — Keith Weatherly’s surprise was evident as he stepped to the podium. He had just received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of the highest honors a North Carolina resident can receive from the governor.
Weather’s father received the award a few decades ago.
It was a fitting tribute to Weatherly, who has more than 30 years of experience in public service, including 18 years as Apex’s mayor. He resigned his mayoral post in January to take a job with the N.C. Department of Transportation.
“The Order of the Long Leaf Pine is really special,” Weatherly said during a ceremony in Apex on Friday.
Dignitaries and residents gathered at Town Hall to thank Weatherly for his help ushering Apex through two decades of unprecedented growth.
“Keith saw the town (grow) from 5,500 to 25,000 when I was town manager to over 40,000 now,” said Bill Sutton, who was recently appointed by the Town Council to serve the remainder of Weatherly’s mayoral term. “That’s quite a change in a short amount of time, and he represented the town well.”
Sutton recalled a time in the late 1990s when Weatherly contemplated running for mayor. At that point, Weatherly had only been on the town’s governing board for two years.
“I was out in my backyard one day,” Sutton said. “He said, ‘Bill ... I’m thinking about running for mayor. You think I can win? I said, ‘Yeah, I think you can.’ ... You were one of my bosses. What else could I say?”
Sutton’s jokes set the tone for other stories about Weatherly’s time as an Apex leader.
When Councilman Gene Schulze moved to town in the 1990s, Weatherly asked if he could put a sign in his yard. Schulze didn’t want political signs cluttering up his new yard, so he said no.
“He’s never let me live that down,” said Schulze, who has since had a Weatherly sign in his yard for every election cycle.
Schulze credited Weatherly with inspiring him to run for office.
“I thank him for everything he’s done for me, for the citizens of this town,” Schulze said.
Councilman Scott Lassiter is another politician Weatherly has mentored. Lassiter, now 26, was the youngest councilman in the town’s history when he was elected in 2011.
“I can say, somewhat as a joke and somewhat as a reality, I don’t remember Apex before Keith was the mayor,” Lassiter said. “But that speaks to your commitment to service to the town. It’s hard to argue with what you’ve done.”
During Weatherly’s tenure, Apex restored its historic downtown, started the Apex Peakway and opened fire stations and parks.
Weatherly led the town during a 2006 warehouse explosion at EQ Industrial Services, which resulted in the evacuation of about 15,000 residents.
Last year, Apex ranked ninth in Money Magazine’s list of best places to live in America.
“I think the Apex Peakway and improvements in infrastructure, a lot of the credit for that goes to Keith,” said former Councilman Mike Jones.
N.C. Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin has gotten to know Weatherly at public events throughout Wake County.
“It’s good for citizens to come together and to show our appreciation for a person who gave so much for his community,” Martin said. “He felt very strongly that Apex did everything with the best practices possible. When you come through Apex, you see this well-preserved downtown. You see a well-planned community.”
Weatherly was humbled as he took the podium, but his trademark humor was still there.
“I really didn’t want y’all to do all this,” he said. “Let me be honest with you, I know you think politicians are going to lie, but the pleasure has been all mine. It’s been my privilege and honor to serve through the 20 years I’ve been on the council.”
Ramos: 919-460-2609; Twitter: @AlianaCaryNews