Beautification committee recognizes Libba Fairleigh with Willie Headley Award

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News|USA TODAY NETWORKS

Willie Headley had a vision for her hometown before she passed away in 2011 - she thought a town square would be a great addition to Black Mountain. Today, a garden dedicated in her memory can be found on the west side of the square, along Montreat Road.

Willie Headley had a vision for her hometown of Black Mountain that continues to live on.

Headley also envisioned a town with an organization dedicated to enhancing the natural mountain aesthetic. And now there is one - the Black Mountain Beautification Committee, which boasts about 60 volunteers and honors one of them annually with the Willie Headley Award.

Libba Fairleigh holds the Willie Headley Award that the Black Mountain Beautification Committee awarded her June 18.

The committee's highest honor is given to members who share Headley’s energy and vision. This year's recipient is Libba Fairleigh. The Black Mountain resident was presented with the award at the committee’s annual party and potluck dinner June 18.

Unlike Headley, Fairleigh wasn’t born in Black Mountain. But she felt at home as soon as she bought a home here in 2006 with her partner Suzanne Money. They were living in it full-time just three years later.

Money, who has a graduates degree in horticulture, threw herself into working with the local beautification committee. “Suzanne immediately got involved with the beautification committee,” Fairleigh said. “She was working with Willie Headley.”

Money helped Headley with a program in which the women incarcerated at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women grew flowers used to decorate the town. The program was an example of how Headley cared about the people in the community and how their lives could be enriched by beauty, according to her friend Mary Leonard White.

“Beauty touches your soul,” said White, who founded the beautification committee with Headley and others. “And that’s what Willie cared about.”

White, who herself won the award in 2013, first met Headley when they were swimming at the old Warren Wilson College pool.

“She loved to swim,” White said. “I wasn’t much of a swimmer, and we were swimming next to each other and I kept bumping her. She didn’t get mad, she just kept smiling and saying, ‘it’s OK.” That’s how Willie was.”

In addition to the fact that “everyone loved Willie,” according to White, she was tireless in her efforts to improve the town. “She cared so much about the people in the town,” White said. “To her, beautifying the town was about enriching the lives of everyone else.”

Fairleigh feels much the same way. Anyone who has driven through town around Halloween or Christmas is familiar with her work, which adds to the spirit of those seasons with decorative touches.

Fairleigh's annual Deck the Trees event at the Monte Vista Hotel raises money for the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry’s fuel fund, which assists locals in need with heating costs during the winter.

Members of the Black Mountain Beautification Committee hold photos of Libba Fairleigh, center, the winner of this year's Willie Headley Award.

“Libba’s a doer,” said Joyce Ackerman, who serves on the committee’s board. “She rolls up her sleeves and gets things done.”

Fairleigh first got involved with the committee in 2011, when she helped organize the annual garden show, which she now chairs. The event, along with the “clothesline sale” that she implemented several years ago, takes place the third Saturday in May on the grounds of the Monte Vista. It’s the biggest fundraiser for the organization every year.

“The clothesline sale is where members of the committee volunteer their time and talents and people at the garden show pay for those services,” Fairleigh said. “I’m going to someone’s house with another member, and we’re going to weed their garden for a total of four hours. It’s a lot of fun.”

Headley’s vision for the town can be witnessed in the town square that her husband Bob was instrumental in making a reality. Fairleigh helps care for a garden in the square, but her contributions to beautifying the town can be seen in the 42 plant containers that the committee finished installing around Black Mountain earlier this month.

Prior to the installation of the planters - built by William Tolley with iron designs created by local artists Julia Burr and Tekla and Dan Howachyn - decorative flowers and plants were kept in a hodgepodge of baskets and pots.

"We needed a consistent look," Fairleigh said. "I brought it up years ago, and the committee adopted the idea."

Fairleigh believes the containers, which all look similar but slightly different, are symbolic of the town's diversity. 

"I've always wanted to let the unique character of Black Mountain shine through," she said. "Each container is different and the plantings in them are as well. You can walk to each one of them and see that they're all different, and that's kind of the beauty of what Black Mountain is."

The addition of the planters is just one of many ways that Fairleigh has impacted the town and committee, Ackerman said. 

"She's also like an ambassador for the committee," Ackerman said. "She walks up and down the street downtown and knows all the shop owners. And she does everything with a smile.

Fairleigh was certainly all smiles when beautification committee members held up pictures of her face to announce the winner of this year's Willie Headley Award. The moment was a special one. 

"I was surprised how moved I was when they made the announcement," Fairleigh said. "It still makes me cry."

There are "a lot of people" who the committee could've given the award to, Fairleigh said. But Bob Headley thinks they picked the right person. 

"Libba is such a hard worker," he said. "She does a lot for the community and the committee. She and her partner Suzanne are great, and wonderful people."

The plaque, which Fairleigh proudly proclaims has already found a spot on the wall in her home, features the trowel Willie used when she was active in enhancing the beauty of the town. 

"Willie would be tickled to death to see how the town square turned out and all of the work that the beautification committee is doing," her husband said. "She would be so delighted because she loved this place."