Local News

First Female Mayor Of Raleigh Dies At Age 97

Posted February 14, 2002

— Raleigh is remembering one of its most loved leaders as the city mourns the death at age 97 of former Mayor Isabella Cannon.

Cannon, who died at Raleigh Community Hospital on Wednesday, was 73 when she made history by becoming the first woman mayor of Raleigh. She had never previously run for office when she defeated incumbent Jyles Coggins.

As mayor, the 4-foot-8-inch mayor worked 16 hours a day. She was known as the ``Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes'' for her choice of footwear.

``At that time, that was derogatory,'' Cannon said in a 2000 interview. ``Old ladies in tennis shoes were dowdy, not very smart.''

But she changed that image during her two-year term, leading to the creation of a comprehensive growth plan that still is used to guide development in Raleigh.

``Isabella Cannon was a wonderful friend to our neighborhoods in our city,'' said current Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, calling her ``someone who really spoke up for what she believed in.''

But her tenure came with tension as she served with a city council that was sympathetic to business and development interests. She lost her re-election bid in 1979.

She stayed active into her 90s, staying abreast of local politics. In a 1994 interview, Cannon said she hated those stereotypes about old age.

``I've always objected to putting a number tag on people ... because everybody your age is not the same physically or mentally,'' she said.

Born in Scotland, Cannon emigrated with her family to the United States at age 12. She graduated from a Concord high school and later Elon College in 1924. That same year, she married Claude Cannon, Elon's registrar and business manager.

During his career in diplomatic service, the Cannons lived in Liberia, West Africa, and Iraq before returning to Raleigh, where Claude Cannon died in 1954.

Cannon traveled extensively and was in China during the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989.

Cannon was a high school teacher and later worked at Elon College and as a payroll manager at WRAL radio in Raleigh. During her career she also worked as a library administrator at North Carolina State University.

She was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998.

In 1999, then-Mayor Tom Fetzer proclaimed May 12 as Isabella Cannon Day in the City of Raleigh.

Devoted to Elon, Cannon gave the university $1 million in 1999 to endow the Isabella Cannon Centre for International Studies. Another gift in 2001 funded construction of the Isabella Cannon International Studies Pavilion. She also endowed two scholarships.

``I have seen the world, and I know what happens in Moscow and Beijing affects us here in North Carolina,'' she said previously. ``The world is shrinking.''

During frequent visits to the Elon campus, Cannon would visit students and tell them that while she had no children of her own, she considered them her family. At age 96, she delivered the university's 2000 commencement address.

She is survived by her sister, Helen Hughes of Yorktown, Va., four nephews and two nieces.

Visitation is 5-8 p.m. Friday at Brown-Wynne Funeral Home on St. Mary's Street in Raleigh. Her funeral is set for 11 a.m. Saturday at Community United Church of Christ in Raleigh.

Memorial contributions can be made to:

Isabella Cannon Leadership Program or the Isabella Cannon Centre for International Studies Office of Institutional Advancement Campus Box 2600, Elon University Elon, N.C. 27244

The Arboretum Department of Horticultural Science, Box 7609 North Carolina State University Raleigh, N.C. 27695-7609


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