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When Leonora Martin penned the poem “A Toast” in 1904, she had no idea that her homage to the “land of the long leaf pine” would be recognized by the General Assembly as the official toast of North Carolina 53 years later.

The poem would also become the basis of a prestigious award, by which the governor recognizes citizens by naming them “Ambassadors Extraordinary.” The society, The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, borrows its name from the opening stanza of the poem.

Created in 1963, The Order of the Long Leaf Pine is given to North Carolinians who have a proven record of service to the state.

Nelson Higgins recalls learning what he came to know as the “Tarheel Toast” as a student at Oakley Elementary in Asheville. But the words came back to him clearly March 18 when he and his wife Ruth Higgins were bestowed the honor while surrounded by friends in front of their business, HealthRidge Pharmacy.

“I learned that way back many, many years ago,” Nelson said of the toast that he recited as he was presented the award. “In the third or fourth grade we had to learn how to recite that.”

The moment was an emotional one for Nelson, who was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in January.

“The timing of it is incredible, and it’s something that’s difficult to talk about,” he said. “For this to be happening right now certainly enhances its significance in my own mind and makes me even more humbled by it. It’s something that not only means a great deal to me right now, but I hope my family will remember this after I’m gone.”

Ruth, a native of Hudson, met Nelson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was studying chemistry, and she was in the pharmacy program. The couple returned to Western North Carolina in 1985, fulfilling 10 years later their dream to open their own pharmacy.

“Coming out of school Nelson had an opportunity to get a job in Virginia, but he wanted to come back to Western North Carolina specifically,” Ruth said. “He chose a different career path because he wanted to stay in North Carolina.”

Danny Starnes, one of the many Swannanoa Valley residents that patronizes the pharmacy, nominated the Higginses for the award.

“They recently received an award from the chamber of commerce in Black Mountain for their years of service there,” Starnes said. “Since 1995 they have served the Swannanoa Valley greatly, and I thought they should be recognized for that.”

Starnes gathered friends of the Higginses, as well as pharmacy employees, in front of the business on Blue Ridge Road and U.S. 70. Overhead, the pharmacy’s sign flashed “We are proud of you.”

“Seeing everyone there touched us in a great way,” Nelson said. “Ruth and I have been there from the beginning, but we have been successful because of the people that work there and their dedication to helping other people. It was a great reinforcement to see how much this matters to other people besides us.”

Among those gathered was Andy Gibson, the director of Children & Friends Enrichment Center, the next door neighbor of HealthRidge Pharmacy. Nelson has served on the daycare’s board for six months.

Ruth’s contributions to the pharmaceutical community in the region have been significant. She was one of the first pharmacists to participate in the Asheville Project, which assessed the clinical and economic outcomes of community-based medication therapy management.

HealthRidge’s doctor of pharmacy, Drew Parker, has been working with the Higginses since 2011. He believes their approach to the business is precisely why the couple is worthy of an honor like The Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

“They put such a priority on customer service,” Parker said. “They tell every employee here to treat customers as family. That stands out to me as a different way of practicing because you’re no longer treating a customer, you’re treating family.”

That concept has endeared the Higginses to the community, Parker said.

“Anyone who has come here and has a relationship with Ruth knows her approach to pharmacy,” he said. “She’s going to come out around the counter and have a conversation with that person and get to know them. And as the business has grown over the years, you would think that there wouldn’t be enough time for that. But Ruth always makes the time.

“Nelson is a guiding force for the pharmacy,” he continued. “He’s the person that’s at 35,000 feet calling the shots. He’s the visionary. Without him I have no doubt that we would not be where we are today. He takes care of employees as well as he takes care of the patients. And that’s why we have one of the most experienced staffs in the area, because once people start here they don’t want to leave.”

The Order of the Long Leaf Pine toast

Here’s to the land

of the long leaf pine,

The summer land

where the sun doth shine,

Where the weak grow strong

and the strong grow great,

Here’s to “down home,”

the Old North State!”

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