Marilyn Toppins: A Servant Leader Through and Through
“Actions speak louder than words.”
“You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.”
Those were just some of the values instilled in Marilyn Toppins by her mother, and they’re words she lives by to this day.
Frankly, if you’ve not seen Toppins working in Union County, you’re not paying attention. She and husband Wayne are retired now, but that’s not stopping Toppins from putting in as many volunteer hours as she can for organizations like Union County Business and Professional Association, Preservation Union County, the Union County Museum, and the Union County Heritage Festival.
“As far back as I can remember, since I was 11 or 12 years old, I’ve always been involved in something,” she said. “You’ve got to be involved in something that’s bigger than you are. That’s what citizenship in American and making people’s lives better is all about.”
Toppins joked that maybe she shouldn’t remind people that she’s “not from around here.”
“It’s going to ruin everything, because people are just now starting to think that I’m from Union County,” she said. “In the last seven or eight years or so, people are asking me, ‘You’re from Union County, right?’ And to me that was probably the greatest compliment that I’ve ever gotten.”
But all joking aside, Toppins hails from Knoxville, although she and Wayne have lived in their Mountain View Estates home in Plainview since 1972. She grew up in Norwood, attended Central High School and UT, where she and Wayne met in the computer programming department.
Toppins graduated with a major in history and minors in speech, English and secondary education. They moved to the Condon community, which would later become the town of Plainview, on April Fool’s Day. They wanted to find an affordable house with a yard and a country setting. They still live in the house today, a house built by former Union County Sheriff Earl Loy, and they raised two sons there, Jonathan and Jerry, now grown.
Soon, Toppins had a job teaching a 2nd and 3rd grade split with 33 students at Luttrell Elementary School. She stayed at Luttrell for 12 years. In her career with Union County Public Schools, she’s also been a special education teacher at the high school, an adult education teacher, middle school teacher, professional development coordinator and principal at Maynardville Elementary School. She even served as Director of Schools for a time.
She was also active in, and at one point president of, the Union County Educators Association, the teachers’ union. She said one of the great achievements of the union during her involvement was the graduated pay scale for teachers.
“Teachers in Union County never had a graduated pay scale until a group of us at UCEA sat down and wrote one,” Toppins said. “That was a real difference in Union County, and to this day it’s still going on. It made a major improvement in teachers’ lives, and it gave them something to really work for, more incentive to stay in Union County. We were losing teachers drastically, and it really did help to stop the movement. At one time, the lifetime earnings for a teacher in Union County surpassed Knox County.”
She also said she witnessed a change in “spirit” in Union County schools in the early 1990s.
“The people teaching in Union County in the early 1990s, there was a spirit that children just believed that they could take their Union County education and do whatever they wanted to with it,” she said. “Kids who never thought they would do anything more than work on a tobacco farm, and they went on to college and they have good, solid, paying jobs, and they have done really well. In that time frame, you saw the tobacco farms go away and people finding other kinds of work.”
Toppins was also active in government in the town of Plainview for many years. She signed the 1992 petition for incorporation, and she served on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen for 10 years and as chair of the town’s planning commission.
In 1998, Plainview mayor Bill von Schipmann, known to neighbors and friends as “Von,” asked Toppins if she would run for alderman.
“It was the funniest thing,” she said. “I got in my car and drove to Knoxville, and I said, ‘Lord, if you really want me to run for this office, you’ve got to send me a sign.’ On my way back, I stopped at Midway IGA, and a person from Plainview asked me if I was going to run. Then I stopped at the Pit Stop and another person asked. I got in my car and I said, ‘Lord, that’s three in one day, so I guess I’m running.’”
Toppins said she and Wayne plan to stay in Plainview as long as they can.
“To me, it’s like heaven right here. Who can ask for a better place to live? (Plainview government is) so transparent, diverse and progressive. I could go on and on. It’s people who come up with ideas, and they really want to see those ideas be implemented, and they want to pay for them themselves. Government by itself is always so slow, but in Plainview it progresses. It really moves,” she said.
But, it is perhaps her volunteer work for which Toppins is best known. She’s currently board chair of the Union County Business and Professional Association and president of the Union County Heritage Festival, an event that draws thousands of visitors to Wilson Park each year. She’s served on the board of Leadership Union County and still helps out. She also volunteers with the Union County Museum and Preservation Union County, and helps Union County 4-H as a judge for their public speaking contests.
“I love to do those things,” she said, and she speculates that her volunteerism is part of what’s behind her acceptance as a bona fide Union Countian.
“It was many years before I could put a label on what I felt I needed to do, and that was servant leadership,” she said. “As people got to know me, some of my ideas may have seemed radical at first, but we just found more common ground. If we’re going to do something, it’s going to take work, and I’m willing to work, and that’s the way I’ve always done it. I’m committed, and I’ll see it through.”
Just as Toppins plans to stay at home in Plainview as long as she can, she’s also going to keep on volunteering in retirement as long as she can. She’s even picking up some new projects, like writing for HistoricUnionCounty.com.
She invites anyone who wants to get involved in local volunteer opportunities to write her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll get bitten by the servant leadership bug, too.