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For nearly six decades, C. Bruce Rose has served Wilson and its people with a singular selflessness. Today, Wilsonians offer their gratitude for a job well done.
It’s Bruce Rose Day in the city of Wilson. Mayor Pro-tem James Johnson and the Wilson City Council made the ceremonial designation during a meeting last month, announcing that Wilson Fire/Rescue Services’ headquarters station would be named in his honor.
That’s a fitting tribute for Wilson’s outgoing mayor, who devoted his career to saving people and property as a firefighter, then rose through the ranks and served as fire chief for seven years before retiring and entering city politics.
Rose joined the fire department in 1960, became a captain in 1968, was named fire training officer in 1974, became assistant chief in 1981 and earned the chief’s hat in 1985.
“As fire chief, Rose was instrumental in helping the department achieve many goals in fire science technology,” according to an April 1991 Times story on his retirement. “Developments included the first responder program, the physical fitness program, an improved citywide fire insurance rating and construction of new headquarters and No. 2 fire stations. Twice during Rose’s tenure, the city successfully competed to serve as host of the statewide North Carolina Fire College.”
Rose retired on Dec. 31, 1991. On May 5, 1992, he defeated six-term incumbent Ralph El Ramey to win the Wilson mayor’s gavel. He was swept into office in a wave election that saw four new city councilmen. Only incumbent A.P. Coleman had retained his seat.
In the 27 years that followed, Rose remained at City Hall and redefined the mayor’s role. In a council-manager form of government, the post is more honorary than executive. The council-appointed city manager runs Wilson’s day-to-day business, and the mayor represents city government as its ceremonial head.
Rose did more than sign proclamations and cut ribbons. He relished his role as Wilson’s chief ambassador and maintained a grueling schedule of meetings, speeches and appearances. He treated the elective office like a full-time job, and his visibility and popularity helped him amass more influence over Wilson City Council policy than is customary for the officeholder who only votes to break a tie.
As a business booster, Rose rallied support for the J. Burt Gillette Athletic Complex and helped drive Wilson’s #DowntownTurnaround, from the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park to the new Wilson Family YMCA and mixed-use residential development planned for the BB&T towers’ site.
Working behind the scenes with city staff, Rose wasn’t shy about lobbying state lawmakers and congressmen or twisting developers’ and grantmakers’ arms to make things happen for his beloved Wilson. We wouldn’t say he ever used the mayorship as a bully pulpit, but on some occasions, his voice served as Wilson’s civic conscience.
Rose was a vocal supporter of John McNeil, the Wilson native who was freed from prison in 2013. A Georgia jury convicted him of murder in a self-defense homicide, and the NAACP said racial bias led to the African American man’s prosecution in the killing of a white man who lunged at McNeil with a knife. Rose has also advocated for Charles Ray Finch, who was exonerated and released this spring following a wrongful murder conviction that kept him behind bars for 43 years.
“None of this is fair and it’s the craziest thing I have ever heard of in my life,” Rose told the Times for a story about McNeil’s fight for freedom. “We have to do something about it.”
We admire and appreciate Rose’s nearly three decades of work for Wilson. He transformed the post of small-town mayor into an outsize, larger-than-life role. Rose leaves a gargantuan set of shoes to fill.
Just as voters decided El Ramey’s six terms as mayor were enough when they handed Rose the gavel, Wilsonians chose to elect Carlton Stevens Jr. as the city’s new leader, capping Rose’s service at eight terms. Rose has handled the loss graciously and continues to assist Stevens with the transition.
On Dec. 12, Stevens will take office and begin building his own mayoral legacy. Today, Wilson reflects on the past 27 years with Rose at the helm and gives its longest-serving mayor in city history a fond farewell with a final round of thunderous applause.
Thank you, Mayor Rose, for all you’ve done for Wilson. Our city wouldn’t be the same without your dedicated service.