To an untrained eye, the oil paintings that adorn the walls of Thomas Stevens Gallery in downtown Hillsborough might appear to be random skylines and dirt roads.
But to Tom Stevens and the community of Hillsborough, these paintings are recognizable landscapes whose real-life inspiration can be found around the town, one just steps away from the gallery itself.
As mayor of Hillsborough, Stevens spent 14 years working to give back to the town that has long inspired his art and daily life. After announcing he won’t be running for an eighth term, he said he hopes someone else can come into the role and provide a new perspective.
Seven successful terms
Stevens has been a resident of the area for over 40 years, and he’s lived in Hillsborough for over 20 years. Originally from Virginia, Stevens came to North Carolina to go to UNC in 1972.
“I didn’t grow up here,” Stevens said. “But I got here as soon as I could.”
And once he got here, Stevens barely left. Since 1972, Stevens has lived in Orange and Durham counties, aside from a small amount of time he spent traveling the country.
A Tar Heel twice, Stevens graduated with his undergraduate degree in 1976, and returned for his master’s degree from 1981-83.
His undergraduate degree was an interdisciplinary studies degree that combined English, writing and psychology courses that supported his then-dream of writing children’s books. Still pursuing that dream, he went to work at the Community School for People Under Six, a day school serving the Chapel Hill and Carrboro areas.
What he found most enjoyable about working at the school, he said, was the daily interactions with people in the community. It was then that he decided to pursue social work.
He spent 15 years working for a family counseling services organization in Durham before starting his own leadership consulting company in 2001.
After running his business out of his downtown-Hillsborough home for almost five years, Stevens noticed the town was beginning to develop and wanted to get more involved in the community.
So, with little knowledge about what exactly the role entailed, he ran for mayor in 2005.
“It was, in many ways, a way of exercising my leadership skills and getting really, seriously involved in the community,” Stevens said. “I wasn’t driven by any particular issues other than as a community, we really needed to think about what the vision for Hillsborough was as it started developing.”
During his campaign, the question Stevens said he was asked the most was, “What’s your vision for Hillsborough?”
His response was always the same.
“My vision for Hillsborough isn’t that important,” he said. “What’s important is our vision for Hillsborough.”
And then he won.
Over the past 14 years, Hillsborough has changed dramatically.
“When I first became mayor, Hillsborough was a pretty big secret,” Stevens said.
With the development of instrumental community amenities such as the Weaver Street Market, farmers market pavilion, neighborhoods, the senior center and the UNC Hospitals Hillsborough Campus, the landscape of Hillsborough looks quite different.
Part of the town’s vision, Stevens said, was to be sure these developments didn’t overshadow Hillsborough’s town-like character. One of the ways they did that was by focusing on connectivity and ensuring that places of work, residence and recreation were easily accessible to each other.
Stevens’ tenure also saw the addition of the Riverwalk, an accessible, urban greenway that stretches about 1.8 miles along the Eno River.
“Riverwalk is probably one of the most exciting, wonderful, transformative addition to Hillsborough, probably for this half of the 21st century,” Stevens said.
In many ways, Hillsborough is similar to many small towns in North Carolina. But, to Stevens, the town’s uniqueness can be seen by those who experience it most closely.
“Hillsborough is distinctive in what it weaves together,” he said. “In some ways it’s generic, in the best way, kind of the best of small-town America.”
It’s a place where people are friendly, he said, and a place with many historical and commercial assets. It’s proximal to prominent colleges, universities and transportation hubs.
“What makes Hillsborough really special is the weaving of five things,” Stevens said. “There’s a deep history in North Carolina, a passion for the arts, great food and recreation, outdoor amenities — and those are wonderful whether you’re a visitor or living here. The fifth element is the neighborhoods and the sense of community.”
An impact across municipalities
The governments of Orange County’s three towns - Hillsborough, Chapel Hill and Carrboro - work closely together and Stevens made an effort during his time in office to encourage cross-municipal collaboration.
Chapel Hill’s Mayor, Pam Hemminger, said Stevens was welcoming and supportive when she took office in 2015. His perspective, eagerness and willingness has been appreciated with the change that the towns have experienced over the past few years.
“It’s been very helpful to have his wisdom and his history and his perspective,” Hemminger said.
Lydia Lavelle, mayor of Carrboro, said she’ll always remember and appreciate the time and effort he put in to making her feel welcomed and supported when she took office.
“He’s been a tremendous mentor to me,” Lavelle said.
Both mayors said they appreciate the dedication Stevens has given to his role and to the town of Hillsborough, and the impact he’s had on the town’s time of growth and renewal.
“I also love that he’s just the biggest cheerleader in the world for Hillsborough,” Hemminger said. “He’s going to be missed.”
‘Best thing I’ve ever done’
Throughout his mayoral tenure, Stevens said he consistently made an effort to encourage representation of perspective and voices. Now, he said, it’s time to move out of the mayor role to make room for a new perspective.
Hillsborough saw a lot of growth and development over his seven terms as mayor, but Stevens said there’s still room to improve the connectivity and affordability of the town. Even with the development the town has seen in the past two decades and the development it will see in the future, Stevens said he is optimistic that the town will keep its charm and character.
In his extra time, Stevens said, he hopes to dedicate more hours to his other passions, including gardening and, of course, his artwork.
“I could talk about Hillsborough forever,” Stevens said. “But the bottom line, really, is that being mayor was the best thing I’ve ever done.”