Moore interim county manager remembered
The man chosen as Moore County's interim manager was not just a good man, according to a close colleague and friend — he was a great man.
James Layman Westbrook Jr., 68, was "a true professional," said Moore Board of Commissioners Chair Larry Caddell, "one of those guys who never got excited; he was just so good at what he did."
"He's one of the nicest people you have ever met in your whole life," Caddell continued.
The board chair was one of many shocked and saddened by Westbrook's death Tuesday night in a traffic accident just outside of Vass.
A Moore County news release states that the incident happened on Vass-Carthage Road. According to details released through McClatchy Information Services, Westbrook, of Lake Bay Road in Vass, was heading east when his car struck the trailer portion of an 18-wheeler. The tractor-trailer, which was carrying logs, had reportedly pulled out of a private driveway.
Michael Aaron Overton, 22, of Biscoe, reported to be driving the tractor-trailer, was turning into the westbound lane. Neither Overton nor his passenger, Christopher Michael Brown, 36, of Greensboro, was reported to be injured, and no charges have been filed.
Caddell said he was on the phone with Westbrook shortly before the crash was reported around 5:30 p.m.— comparing notes about farming and arranging to meet Wednesday morning.
"It's hard to imagine; you talk to someone, and 20 minutes later, they're no longer with us," Caddell said, noting that Westbrook was on his way home at the time of the crash.
Westbrook had taken office as of Monday, Caddell said, and Tuesday would have been his first board of commissioners' meeting in his new position. Westbrook was chosen to fill in for retiring County Manager Cary McSwain, who called Westbrook a good friend and "a very experienced, professional public manager."
Westbrook graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a bachelor of arts degree in political science and from Appalachian State University with a master of arts degree in political science with an emphasis in public administration. He was formerly a city manager in Cary and Asheville and recently acted as interim assistant manager in Fayetteville.
Westbrook had served Moore County well in various capacities for several years, McSwain said — filling in for various department directors as vacancies arose — including public works director, human resources and public safety director, as well as assistant county manager.
"He was very happy to step up when I needed him and asked him," the county manager said. "He greatly enjoyed his experience working in Moore County; he told me that many times."
Westbrook served the city of Asheville from 1995-2005, and leaders expressed their condolences in a prepared statement from the city.
"Jim Westbrook was a principle-centered leader who led with integrity and devoted his entire life to public sector leadership,” said City Attorney Bob Oast. “His commitment to his profession was unwavering, and he will be highly missed by those who knew him.”
Besides his role in Asheville, Westbrook held management positions with Catawba County, the City of Petersburg, Va., the city of High Point and Burlington Industries Inc., according to the statement. He was also a retired colonel of the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm. His list of distinctions included the International City Manager's Association (ICMA) In-Service Training Award in 2001, an organization for which he also served as a senior advisor, and the Land-of-Sky Regional Council’s Robert G. Parrish Sr. Intergovernmental Relations Award in 2003.
“We are all better people for having known and worked with Mr. Westbrook. His leadership and commitment to excellent public service helped Asheville continue its growth into the vibrant city it is today,” said Mayor Terry Bellamy. “My heart goes out to the Westbrook family.”
Lee County Manager John Crumpton said he had known Westbrook for about 20 years and saw him Tuesday at a managers' meeting in Durham, shaking his hand and telling him he'd see him soon.
"He was a great guy, a very professional manager," Crumpton said. "Away from work, he was a strong family man."
On both a professional and personal level, McSwain said, "He was very well thought of, on many boards and foundations; he's done very well in his career. It's very difficult to lose a friend, very difficult for his family. ... I ask that everyone keep all of his family in their prayers."
How Moore County and its leaders will go forward in Westbrook's absence, Caddell said, "is the $64,000 question."
"I've talked to the commissioners personally," he said, "Right now, [we're] just in a state of limbo."
McSwain said any decisions concerning the future would be made at the appropriate time.
"The county will be covered," he said. "Right now, we're focusing on Jim and his family."