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Passionate persona


Former Raleigh Mayor Isabella Walton Cannon's departing gift to those who loved her was a meticulously planned funeral service that celebrated her zest for life and urged us all to continue her legacy of civic involvement. A decade ago, she started coming to terms with her mortality. So whenever she happened upon a fitting melody or other thought, she dropped a cassette or a note into an ever-growing file at her church.

Among her picks were Louis Armstrong's "It's a Wonderful World" and a little-known version of "Auld Lang Syne" that she said poet Robert Burns had also liked. Graciously, she left the choice of scripture to the officiating pastor, who uncannily turned out to be her favorite, Ann C. "Cally" Rogers-Witte. Still, Isabella set the tone for the service, one that Cally reminded us should include "no long faces here."

The memorial's moments of sharing affirmed the whole spectrum of Isabella, from assertive public servant to devoted private friend. Those lines crossed on occasion: We learned that she imposed a "proper" name on a friend's baby, and that she insisted that her church pay for fire and police services that most nonprofits expect to receive gratis. Such crossings illuminate the risks Isabella was willing to take to move us toward her ideal democracy in which the political is passionate and personal.

Isabella also flirted with persona and caricature. All of Raleigh remembers her as "the little old lady in tennis shoes." A self-confessed ham, she recalls being bit by the acting bug around 1918, when an itinerant director appeared at the Kannapolis YMCA and cast her as Peter Pan. Performing at the Raleigh Little Theater nurtured and sustained her spirit as she played the supportive role of executive wife in the 1930s and '40s.

Certainly the skills she learned onstage boosted Isabella's mayoral campaign and her term of office as the city's first and only female mayor. A favorite speech, delivered often, was titled, "How to be a Pain in the Neck of City Government."

Yet there was more to her than a projected veneer. The "little old lady in tennis shoes" worked 18-hour days and battled bravely against what she saw as an "old boy network" that favored ruthless development. In this mission, and in the loving endeavor of inspiring students at Elon University through a special leadership program she funded there, Isabella remained anchored in substance until the very end.

For many a friend and neighbor, it will not be easy to pass by her Brooks Avenue home. Many of us will slow, hoping to glimpse her tiny form leaning over a Lenten rose or pointing out shades of pink in a white dogwood. But if anything is to be learned from the way she arranged her life--right down to the final goodbye--it was the folly of selfishness, and the waste of inaction.

See you out in the world, Isabella!

Isabella Cannon died last week at age 97. Duncan, Cannon's authorized biographer, is looking for stories about this well-loved public figure. Call her at (919) 760-2291 or write, 309 Coorsdale Drive, Cary, 27511.

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