County manager hits the job running

Published 9:39 am Thursday, February 2, 2017

There’s a binder full of printed documents on John Eller’s desk. It’s a couple of inches thick.

And it’s all about Davie County.

Even before he applied for the job, Davie County’s newest manager started a file on all things Davie. He searched online, read newspapers and magazines, looked at the schools. “Anything I could get my hands on.”

Not only did he like what he found out, so did his family: wife Amy, son Noah, 15, and daughters Brooke and Eva Grace, 13 and 11.

They first found out about Davie County while driving through on the way to 4-H camp for his children. “We stopped here. We ate here and we drove around,” he said.

His children said they liked it.

And that was before the job of Davie County manager became open.

Working as social services director for Catawba County, as well as an interim associate county manager, Eller was already thinking about changing his career choice of social work.

Social work is important to Eller, who grew up poor in Ashe County. His parents Cathy and Kenny Eller worked – his mother three jobs – and then he came along.

His mother was in tears. There was no way she could work three jobs and take care of a baby. She went to her foreman and told him she had to quit.

The foreman would have none of that, and arranged for young John to be cared for by his wife. But his wife had suffered from polio, and was in a wheelchair. She had also taken in a homeless woman.

That foreman’s wife, Eva Blevins, became Eller’s beloved “Mumsey.” She had been a teacher, and read to him, told him stories.

Even in high school, his friends knew about Mumsey. She gave Eller the confidence and start he needed to go to college, something no one in his family had ever done.

He graduated from Northwest Ashe High School, then earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Appalachian State University. People had helped him to succeed, and he wanted to help others.

Mumsey couldn’t make it to his college graduation, but he borrowed one of those first, huge cell phones and gave her a call.

After he was married and they had their first child, Mumsey was on her death bed. He didn’t waste time taking Noah to see her. “She wanted to hold my baby. She held Noah, and a few days later, passed away. She told me she was holding on for that.

“The reason I wanted to be a social worker was because of her. She had taken other kids in, too. I just knew I was going to help people. I’ve been blessed with people who have invested in me.”

He succeeded as a social worker, and found out when he got a chance in management that he could succeed at that, too. And he was still helping people.

His chance encounters with Davie County were more than those drive throughs.

Davie Manager Mike Ruffin called him, asking questions about operation of a program in the social services department. He was serving on a state board with Davie Commissioner Dan Barrett.

Then the Davie County manager’s job became open.

“I prayed and prayed more. I did a lot of research because I’m not one to  jump from job to job and uproot my family. God led me to this job,” he said. “I didn’t want them (county commissioners) to waste their time on me, and I wanted to be 100 percent in.

“This place drew us here. The people are great, a great spirit, great values,” he said. “What I thought is no different from what I’m experiencing now.”

Eller says he’s looking through the front windshield, not the rear-view mirror.

“I plan on partnering with our citizens.”

That partnering, he said, will include all town and county governments, schools, non-profit groups, community groups, even everyday folks – to form a strategic plan for all of the county.

“My commitment is to make the best decisions and get the input we need. We need to look at Davie County as a whole,” he said. “Government can’t solve all problems, so I want to include our non-profits. We all need a collective vision – a path.”

Eller says he looks at government similar to a household budget. You spend wisely. He’s earned his master’s of business administration, and completed the Senior Executive Institute at the University of Virginia.

At age 40, he says he’s not planning on going anywhere else.

“I’m not looking for anything more. I’m blessed to be called manager. Now I’m looking forward to becoming a citizen, a volunteer.”

He’s been busy in his first weeks on the job, and plans to stay busy. Church is important to the family, and they’re looking for a small farm to buy here.

Eller said he’s lived the “straight and narrow,” and credits God, his parents, Mumsey and his community for his success.

“I want everything I do, not to glorify myself.”