MONTGOMERY — Melba Lou Fitzwater White, mayor of Montgomery and a longtime community leader here, died early Monday morning following a 16-month battle with cancer, according to friends and associates.

White had been absent from Montgomery city government on a medical leave of absence for just over a month, tendering a letter to that effect to city council on Jan. 22.

Council members handed over the reins of government to City Recorder James Higgins Jr. who has effectively served as mayor since Feb. 1.

“I’m not the mayor,” Higgins was quick to emphasize when contacted on Monday.

“She was the mayor and died in office. She was on medical leave of absence, and I was simply performing the duties of the mayor’s job. Had she returned to office, I would have returned to the recorder’s position.”

As a former mayor himself, Higgins said that he admired anyone who was willing to put themselves through the responsibilities and daily stress of that position. “I did this job for 14 years. For that, I admire her,” he noted.

“Even more so, I admired her for the grace and dignity with which she battled this disease and how well she handled it. She was always very positive about it. She loved the city and its residents, and she felt that she made a commitment to them that she wanted to fulfill. She was a fine lady.”

According to Higgins, White had every intention of whipping her ailment and returning to office. She believed, he said, that she had made a commitment to serve the voters of Montgomery and didn’t take that responsibility lightly.

Barbara Hickman, mayor of Oak Hill, had become fast friends with White over the past decade, both professionally and personally.

In fact, Hickman was with White on the autumn day in 2005 when she received the tragic news of her condition. It was the day the West Virginia state quarter was unveiled, and both ladies were together in Charleston for the occasion.

“It was devastating for both of us. The doctor called and wanted her to come in. She asked, ‘Good or bad news?’ He said, ‘We’ll discuss it when you get here,’” Hickman explained.

“She was very devoted to her city, to her friends, and to the West Virginia Municipal League. She was a really good lady. I’ll miss her terribly. I wish all mayors in Fayette County would try to go to her funeral. I’ll be there.”

White, elected in 2000 as Montgomery’s first female mayor and reelected in 2004, appointed the city’s first black police chief in 2001. Lawrence Washington described his relationship with White as a positive one, despite the occasional and inevitable ups and downs.

“She was very civic-minded and very interested in the community. We agreed to disagree, as far as the ups and downs are concerned,” added Washington.

“We seemed to get along really well, and I enjoy the fact that she gave me the opportunity to do this job. I’m going to miss her. I really will miss her. She was an everyday person. I send my condolences to her family. I’m sure they will miss her very much. She was like the core of that family.”

Higgins said that Montgomery city council members will appoint someone to complete the rest of White’s term — which expires June 30, 2008 — at the March 13 council meeting.

White is survived by her husband, William B. White; children, William B. White III of Charleston, Elizabeth Ann Neese and her husband, Michael, of Pratt, John F. White of Montgomery, and Alice Lee White of Savannah, Ga.; sister, Helen Lodge of Charleston; grandchildren, Christopher Neese of Montgomery and Ashley Neese of Charleston, S.C.; and brother-in-law, Thomas L. Carson of Montgomery.

Her funeral arrangements are being handled by O’Dell Funeral Home in Montgomery.

Service will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday, March 1 at the Montgomery Presbyterian Church with Rev. Joan Stewart officiating. Burial will follow in Montgomery Memorial Park at London. Friends may call three hours prior to the service at the church.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that a donation be made to The Fitzwater Sisters’ Nursing Scholarship Fund, c/o Tech Foundation, Inc., Old Main, WVU Tech, Montgomery, WV 25136.

— E-mail: mhill@register-herald.com

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