Birdsongs reflect on First Citizen nomination

Published 7:22 pm Friday, August 18, 2023

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“Amazed” and “Humbled.” These were the reactions of both McLemore and Sandra Birdsong following word of their nominations for Suffolk’s First Citizen award. The couple have been massive contributors to the community over the years. 

McLemore “Mac” Birdsong has a nearly 50 year career with Birdsong Peanuts from 1965 through 2013 and has also served as Chairman of the American Peanut Council. Likewise, Sandra Birdsong has had a flourishing career in education, serving as a Suffolk Public School teacher before her 20 year career at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, which saw her become the school’s director of instruction. Likewise, they have a vast list of charity and community work including Mac serving on the board for Paul D. Camp Community College and Sandra’s work with the YMCA. The couple both talked about how they felt about the nominations, with Mac noting how unexpected it was.

“It came out of left field. I certainly didn’t expect it, haven’t even thought about it. It never crossed my mind,” he said. “We were both very surprised and stunned, and pleased.”

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Sandra also noted how unexpected the news was for her.

“I certainly did not expect anything of this magnitude,” she said. “It was nice to be thought of… we were very pleased, and honored. Humbled and honored.”

Married for a “delightful” 58 years as stated by Sandra, the Birdsongs met and dated while they were in high school and throughout their college careers. They married following their college graduation.Originally from Charlottesville and Crozet respectively, Mac and Sandra moved to Suffolk in 1966, to which Mac expressed his connection was very “tight.”

“My father was in medicine, he was a pediatrician and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Virginia, so I was born and raised in Charlottesville as were my two brothers. I visited here all the time, all of his brothers and sisters lived here and we came every Christmas and came down the summer…,” he said. “I had a connection to Suffolk since I was a kid.”

Mac himself follows a family legacy with Birdsong Peanuts being operated by his uncles which today continues to be a generational family business. He reflected on how he got the job during his early days.

“I wanted to get into the sales side of business… so I’d ask for it in my senior year in college could they take me on, and they agreed to do it. And I came down, they put a broom in my hand and I went to work,” he reflected with laughter. “I wasn’t selling anything.”

From starting with a broom, Mac worked in weighting in and out trucks and purchasing farmers stock. However, one of the Birdsongs who was in charge of sales came down with an illness, which saw Mac finally being put into sales in his early 30s. This led to his nearly 50 year career with Birdsong Peanuts and in the peanut business. For Sandra, her work as a Suffolk Public School teacher soon led her to Nansemond-Suffolk Academy in 1981 which led to a 20 year career.

“I went out there at the very beginning as the person to start a lower school guidance program, and then left because I had children,” she said. “And then I went back to teach, and then I was appointed director of instruction for a number of years.”

Sandra also served as a part of Nansemond-Suffolk Academy’s Board of Trustees, as committee member for NSA’s “Our Saints. Our Future” Capital Campaign, and as a member of the Nansemond-Suffolk Academy Advancement Committee. 

Work with the community

Among their work within the community, both talked about projects that resonate with them with Sandra reflecting on over 20 years with the YMCA. She serves as a member of the local and metro YMCA Metropolitan Board and raises money annually for Camp Arrowhead. She talked about her work raising funds for scholarships.

“At the local level, I was just asking yesterday how much money they really have in scholarships. How much we raised, for example last year. And it was right at $110,000… This is the amount that’s raised from the community,” she said. “The community is wonderful, they always say yes. Because they, like I, want to see children grow up in a healthy environment.” 

For Mac, he talked about his efforts for the Suffolk Cultural Arts Center. During his first two days of retirement, he got a call from them asking to serve on the board where he served two terms as Chairman for over 10 years. He reflected on the board’s mission to repair the 100-year-old building.

“It was literally falling apart and if we didn’t do something pretty damn quick, it was going to be a real problem. You’re going to get to the point where you can’t fix it,” he reflected.

In 2020, Birdsong found himself being made the Chairman of the center’s campaign committee to raise $4.5 million for the repairs. Following a pledge from TowneBanke and Birdsong Peanuts, COVID hit and stopped everything. In 2021 however, people started seeing each other again, and support from the city council came along as well. Despite this progress, Birdsong noted that they still had a “long way to go” following these contributions.

“We were about halfway home when we got there. And the rest of it… 100 people or more have contributed to this thing. It’s been huge. I mean, 2 and a half million dollars we’ve gotten from individuals in the city,” Birdsong reflected. “If I had to list successes, that would be right there at the top. The fact that we were able to get that done. And I use the word ‘we,’ I really mean ‘we”…”

Message for Supporters

Finally, the couple gave a message for all the support they’ve received throughout the years. Sandra said a simple “Thank you.”

“They always say yes, they are so generous and love their city, love the people in their city and want to always support it,” she said. “I don’t think you can say that for every city. They want Suffolk to be a wonderful place to live, and grow and pray… that’s a community effort. Not an individual effort.”

Likewise, Mac expressed his thanks for all the help they have given him.

“Particularly to all the people of Suffolk that welcomed Sandra and I here when we moved… It was great. It really was.”