By Stefanie Jackson – Patsy Stith was re-elected mayor of Nassawadox again in November and is about to begin a third two-year term – for the second time.
The story begins decades ago when she met her husband, Dr. Drury Stith, while they both were students at Virginia Commonwealth University, formerly the Medical College of Virginia. She was studying physical therapy and he was in medical school.
They moved to the Eastern Shore in 1975, when Drury Stith accepted a position with Eastern Shore Physicians and Surgeons, in Nassawadox.
Nassawadox became their home since the job required Stith to live nearby. The family home on Rogers Drive was one of only two choices available at the time, Patsy Stith said.
After growing up in cities, staying in a small town on the Eastern Shore was like “living in a storybook,” she said.
“We have loved living in this community,” where people knew their neighbors and everyone was “nice and welcoming,” Stith said.
Nassawadox was one of those towns where you could go to the grocery store, pick up what you needed, return home, and get the bill later, she remembered.
Her first experience on the Nassawadox town council came about four or five years after her family had moved to town, she said.
A colleague of Drury Stith’s, Dr. Bill Burton, was on the town council but was ready to quit and told the Stiths that one of them should run.
Patsy Stith was elected to the town council and remained a member for six or eight years; then she was mayor of Nassawadox for about 10 years, she said.
One of Nassawadox’s greatest accomplishments during her first experience in local government was the mass elimination of substandard housing, a cooperative effort with the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, which wrote the grants that funded the project.
Saw Mill Apartments, located behind the current site of the Peninsula Tractor Organization museum, was one result of the effort.
The grants also paid to rehabilitate old houses and build new houses on property owned by Nassawadox residents.
The project was largely a success, but it wasn’t a perfect solution to the town’s housing issues. Most of the new homes were maintained, but some fell into disrepair.
It was a learning experience for Stith, who says that Habitat for Humanity is “the way to go” to help others who want to live in their own homes.
A successful Habitat for Humanity program applicant purchases a home with a low-interest loan, receives financial coaching, and builds “sweat equity” by helping to construct the home.
These steps help the applicant “buy into” the program, ensuring he or she will be a successful homeowner for the long term, Stith said.
Similar to the substandard houses demolished on Occohannock Neck Road in Exmore this past spring, Nassawadox removed its “poverty row” in the late 1980s or early 1990s, she recalled.
After a decade as mayor of Nassawadox and faced with the financial implications of having three children in college at once, Stith left local government and returned to work. She had retrained to perform physical therapy in both hospital and home care settings.
Four years ago, Ed Gibb was the mayor of Nassawadox and several town council members were age 80 or older.
Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital in Nassawadox was getting ready to close its doors and leave a hole in the heart of the town.
There was talk of unincorporating Nassawadox, but the matter was not pursued. Both Patsy and Drury Stith ran for the Nasssawadox town council in November 2016 and won.
Gibb resigned as mayor in January 2017, and Patsy Stith found herself appointed as interim mayor until a special election was held later that year, which she won. She won re-election in both 2018 and 2020.
Now 75 years old, Stith enjoys serving her hometown as its mayor but would like to see someone younger take over. She is a firm believer that there should be both minimum and maximum age requirements for the U.S. Congress and president, and they should apply to local government, too.
In the meantime, Stith looks forward to serving Nassawadox as its mayor for another two years. Her top priority in 2021 is pursuing solutions to the town’s drainage issues, in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Transportation and private entities.
She noted that residences will continue to rely on septic systems and Nassawadox will not build a townwide sewer system.
The town will not be involved in negotiations between the Hampton Roads Sanitation District and Riverside Medical Group, which owns the sewer system that served the hospital and continues to serve other buildings on Hospital Avenue.
The future of the former hospital remains undetermined.
Stith wants to continue cleaning up the town; two derelict structures have undergone demolition and controlled burning, but more buildings need attention.
There are two new bus shelters in town, and a few new businesses have cropped up thanks to the “energy” and drive of a few local entrepreneurs, Patsy Stith said.
The newest businesses include a yoga studio, a massage therapist, a wound therapist, an upholsterer, and a market and garden center, all located near the Nassawadox post office.
The mayor encouraged anyone interested in starting a business to try it and see what happens. “If you don’t get out and do it, you won’t ever know if it will work or not,” Stith said.
The Nassawadox Free Library has been “a real plus” and the Brownsville Preserve has engaged the community through public events; she acknowledges both as assets to the town.
Local businesses and organizations have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are managing through it, and Stith believes the town can grow.
She sees potential in the empty doctors’ offices on Hospital Avenue, which were practically abandoned after Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital moved to Onancock in February 2017.
The buildings could be converted into affordable apartments for teachers or other members of the local workforce, she said.
Stith would like to see more things for kids to do, such as more offerings at Randy Custis Park or the addition of a town playground.
She glances in the direction of an empty field and envisions a botanical garden highlighting the wide array of landscapes found on the Eastern Shore.
Stith also would like to see a volunteer group form to do yardwork for the elderly residents of Nassawadox.
Her love of nature, gardening, and living near the water is evident in her vision for the future of the town, which seems fitting, since Nassawadox is an American Indian name meaning “land between two waters.”
Patsy and Drury Stith “both feel blessed to have landed here” and want Nassawadox to be “a town that makes God glad.”