Janet Mason is dealing with grief and hope.
Not counting the 12 years she spent as a student here, she worked for Rutherford County Schools for 33 years as a teacher and administrator. Except for part of her three years as an Appalachian undergraduate, she was in a Rutherford County school.
She talked about her transition from award-winning superintendent to Forest City's city manager on the first day of school.
"This is weird. I feel like I'm in one of those dreams where you know you're supposed to be somewhere or doing something and you can't remember what or where," she said.
She said the hardest thing is leaving behind a great team. With a little emotion breaking through, she said, "It's a team I helped build."
There's the grief. The hope is to bring her same love of innovation and creativity to bustling and growing Forest City.
"I've always loved Forest City. My parents were living in the Arlington Apartments when I was born. My husband and I looked for a house in Forest City and kept at it until we found one."
Her grandparents, Jim and Lydia Harris, worked at Florence Mill and as the POPS has opened and drawn fans from around the region, she "wonders what they would think of all this."
One couple she met at the POPS was from Shelby. "Nobody expected the splash pads to be as popular as they are. People are coming from all over. This couple from Shelby told me they like to eat at Copper Penny and their kids love the splash pads."
Leaving a world-class school system to take over management of a growing city government feels like a natural progression. She feels like the team at town hall is another good one.
Just in the last few years, she was named North Carolina's Superintendent of the Year. She said the people making the decision looked at academic improvement and Rutherford County looked good.
"The board (of education) set goals and we reached them," she said. Like any effective leader, she enjoys sharing credit. He praised both the board and her colleagues.
Lisa Bralley runs the backpack program for the county, the effort to send backpacks home with kids who may not have enough to eat over weekends.
Dr. Mason and Bralley recently took a trip to Savannah.
"She was on the phone the whole weekend," meeting the needs of kids who were not ready to start school because of a lack of school supplies. Bralley not only has food for the nutritionally fragile, but also school supplies for those who are behind in that department.
"We made progress not only because we challenged our students to reach higher academic goals, but because we told them we would be there for them in a supportive role," she said.
Among the brightest stars in the county crown is high school seniors who graduate with associate degrees from colleges. The REACH program is set up to do exactly that for its students, but she said roughly 10 seniors each at Chase, Central and East graduated with associate degrees this past spring. Others earned college credits.
Such high school excellence is possible because of one-to-one digital learning, a program that puts a computer in the hands of every student in the system.
Kindergarten through fifth grades get iPads. Sixth through eighth graders get iPad pros; and ninth through 12th students get Macbook Airs. These computer tools allow high school students to take online college courses.
She also credits her predecessors for laying the foundations for innovative growth and change. Among them is Buck Petty who, at the urging of local leaders like Dr. Bob England, put an emphasis on early childhood education.
Listening to her talk about work, there is so much evidence of quality leadership. "So many times I would just say, 'Here we go,' and they would come along. They have to come along. It doesn't work if they don't come along."
She agrees with Lincoln that one key to leadership is to figure out which way the crowd is going, and then get out in front of them. That's mostly a joke. Mostly.
But she also emphasized her being from Rutherford County as a key to the system working well.
"So many teachers have said to me, 'We're not sure this is going to work, but we know you; and if you think it might work, we're willing to give it a try.' They came along," she said.
She also had high praise for her predecessor at town hall, former City Manager John Condrey. "He's done great things for Forest City."
Both Mason and Condrey have, in recent months, been inducted into The Order Of The Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina's highest civilian honor.
Again, Mason emphasizes the importance of those with whom she has worked and those she has served.
She could not quote the county's dropout rate from memory, but she added, "It's the best it's ever been. Over the past few years, we've been able to lower the rate every year and today it is the lowest. One factor is that kids are not dropping out to get a job. It used to be you could get a fairly decent job, a job that you could support yourself with, even if you didn't have a high school diploma. Today most good jobs require a high school diploma and some form of additional education like an associate's degree or a certificate from a trade school."
A rare leader and thinker, Mason looks forward to the next challenge.