GARNER — – In1988, Wake County was moving toward tearing down the old Garner Elementary School building, built in 1923. Janice Stephenson read an article in the newspaper: a town employee named Rex Todd wanted to save it.
“Rex put an article in the newspaper, a little clipping that said they’re going to demolish the old school and if anybody cared, give him a call,” Stephenson said. “I called and I happened to be the only one who called.
The two fought together through a 10-year-process that eventually saved the building. The vision, conviction and dedication he displayed – plus a willingness to ruffle some feathers – helped define Todd, the longtime former town employee killed April 26 in a car accident that also hospitalized his wife.
Todd long valued historical sites and preserved multiple buildings in his lifetime; the Capital Preservation Society bestowed upon him a Lifetime Achievement Award. But saving the old school building, which became an elementary school only in 1956 after serving as the school for all grade levels up to high school before that, represents his most prominent save and as he noted is the largest historical building in Garner.
It wasn’t easy to save the first major structure built in Garner since it was rechartered in 1905.
“He was fighting the town board. none of them wanted the project,” Stephenson said. “People were not in favor of this.”
The county owned the school and wanted to build a new elementary school on the site, but Todd had other ideas. He engaged what he called in a 1998 News & Observer article a series of “daily tactical maneuvers.” He considered options, consulted with various experts, looked at the figures and argued with those who wanted to engage the wrecking ball for the deteriorating school.
“I looked at the old Garner Elementary School and said ‘This is a building that needs to be torn down.’ He saw senior citizen housing,” then-alderman Joe Sample admitted. “Rex could think outside the box.”
The school system gave up, and opened Creech Road Elementary up the road in 1992. The town bought the entire property in 1994, and sold the main building’s classroom to a group in 1995 that renovated them into 45 affordable apartments for seniors. Garner held onto and renovated the auditorium and turned it into the Garner Performing Arts Center and uses the detached gym for town recreation space. It rents auxiliary classrooms in the back to Wake County.
The transformation has vindicated the efforts of Todd and his supporters, Stephenson said. Stephenson moved into the apartments herself when they opened in 1998. She had attended school in the same building decades before, as had several residents. The project has since become a model for other former schools.
"We didn't know what [the school] would be in the future, " Todd said in that article. "We just wanted it to have a future."
Eventually they got others behind the effort as well. One key piece came because Stephenson didn’t believe she had the clout and Todd was relatively new in town. They enlisted the help of Dr. Johnny Bagwell, who was well known around the town and regarded the school as a special place.
“All of my family including both of my parents had gone to school there,” Bagwell said. “I really thought a lot of Rex.”
A Garner power couple
Riding alongside him in the accident last month was Todd’s wife, Mary Lou. The two met through the town. Todd took a job with the town in 1984, eventually becoming its first economic development director. Mary Lou Rand had been working her way up from a cashier and clerk since 1971.
The two had been married but later divorced, and around 2000 they started dating. The same year, Mary Lou became the first female town manager in Wake County, and Todd retired from the town to work elsewhere.
By 2001 the two were engaged.
“I’ve never seen two people more in love with each other. Even after all these years,” Sample said.
Sample said he ran into the couple at a Hardee’s just more than a month ago. He said they invited him to join in what turned into an impromptu reunion.
“We sat there and reminisced for two hours over old times and good times. They still seemed so in love. It was one of the most enjoyable evenings I can remember,” Sample said.
As of Friday Mary Lou Todd remained in the hospital after the accident.
Figures around the town expressed sadness over the wreck. Stephenson called Rex Todd a “good Christian man” and said she was devastated by the news. Sample said that “a lot of us would have waded through hell for Mary Todd.”
Multiple people who worked with Rex Todd, including Sample and mayor and former-alderman Ronnie Williams called him a “visionary” who “thought outside the box.” Others, including Stephenson and Sample, added that he “didn’t take no for an answer.”
“He was a little bulldog in getting things done. It was like a piece of raw meat. He made a lot of people mad but he was tenacious,” Stephenson said.
Ultimately, though, the late Todd and his widow were simply regarded as good people.
“If you hear anything bad about them, I’d be very surprised,” Sample said. “(People) are not saying it because of the circumstances. They’re just genuinely good people.”
Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland