NORTHPORT, AL. — Northport Mayor Donna Aaron says she "would die" if a landmark or building was ever named after her.
A humble, soft-spoken leader, Aaron may not see a statue erected in her honor, but the one-term mayor's legacy is sure to be felt in the city for years to come.
"To be a politician, as my sister told me one time, 'you’re the most unlikely politician I’ve ever seen,'" Aaron said with a chuckle. "'You don’t fight for the microphone.'"
Aaron, the city's first female mayor and first woman to serve two terms on the City Council, announced in June she would not seek re-election in 2020 and will soon step down from her role as the term comes to an end. True to her sister's words, Aaron is quiet, rarely heard at meetings in her role as mayor, but says she forged a successful political career by being true to her word, putting the interests of Northport residents first and finding issues she could grasp onto.
Born in Wetumpka, Aaron graduated from Wetumpka High School and went on to graduate from the University of Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. After a brief stint teaching in Columbus, Georgia, Aaron returned to Tuscaloosa to get her master’s degree in math education. It was in doing so she met her husband, lifelong Northport native Sonny Aaron — a teacher and coach.
Along with a three-decade teaching career, most of which was spent at Tuscaloosa County High School, Aaron served two terms on the Northport City Council and was council president for five years. She was then elected mayor in October 2016.
Due to the impact on higher education by the COVID-19 pandemic, Aaron also chose to no longer teach part-time at the University of Alabama, a job she enjoyed until the coronavirus forced many classes to go online.
"You'll know when it's time to go and it’s time for me to go, now," she said. "I’ve retired from most everything. I guess this COVID has been a good thing, in a way, because it's made you slow down."
Aaron and her husband both have recently battled a range of health issues, which partially weighed in to her decision not to seek a second term as mayor.
In her final days as mayor, Aaron sat in her office at City Hall and told Patch the feeling was a nostalgic one — sad in some ways, relieving in others.
"It seemed like it was a short four years, but in a way I’m a little sad to go," she said. "There are projects I would have liked to be here for completion, but that’s OK, I’ll still get to see them."
Aaron, who says she is not one to seek credit, gave numerous examples of civic teamwork as crowning achievements during her time in office, particularly the improvement efforts in downtown Northport.
"We were on the Council and helped to raise the money to do what was done and with the idea that we would eventually extend it past City Cafe and we’re doing that," she said. "We’ve got some grant money to do the streetscaping and make it really pretty. The developers are doing an excellent job."
Other highlights the outgoing mayor specifically pointed to were the August groundbreaking of the new $15 million Courtyard by Marriott hotel on Bridge Avenue and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard road improvement project.
"In the 1990s, we obtained an 80/20 grant to redo MLK and we’re just now doing it and I feel that’s a huge accomplishment because it lay dormant for so long and they couldn’t figure out what they wanted to do," she said. "We almost lost that money, but it's going to be done."
Aaron was quick to praise the work of the numerous city officials and Council members who have made Northport's growth possible in recent years and pointed to the city's westward expansion as a reason for optimism.
"Look at Aldi, look at Jack’s, and I have to say I get in the middle of the crowd, too," she said. "And I can’t tell you the number of people in Tuscaloosa who say they come across the bridge to shop at that Aldi."
When asked about hurdles faced during her time in office, Aaron said there were few, if any, that impacted the city's day-to-day operations apart from turnover on City Council seats and in high-level city positions. The lack of contention on political issues, she said, could be attributed to a Council willing to work together to forward the city.
"It was a close-knit group to start with and we were all on the same page," she said. "We all had our strategies throughout. We put our game faces on and went to work."
One issue on the horizon that will need to be addressed, she said, is the hiring of a full-time city administrator — a position occupied by interim City Administrator and retired Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge Hardy McCollum since August 2019.
"They're going to have to find a new city administrator and we’ve been searching for months to find a city engineer," she said, before commending McCollum on his service. "Mr. McCollum says the only reason he is in Northport is because of me ... He’s my blessing."
McCollum also praised Aaron's time in office, saying she had been instrumental in developing a positive workplace culture for city employees at City Hall and for the city's departments.
“I hate to see her go," he said. "Northport’s going to miss her, I promise you that."
Reflecting on the last four years, Aaron was also asked about what she would have done differently during her four years as mayor.
"I would have tried to engage more citizens and in civic activities, getting them more involved in government," she said. "I think that was one thing I really wanted to do, but we could never get around to do it because we had so many other things going on."
While Aaron's name did not appear on the ballot on Aug. 25, the outgoing mayor said had she decided to run and won another term in office, she would have continued the push to gain new retail opportunities in Northport, with the goal of making the city's economy more attractive to people coming across the bridge from Tuscaloosa.
"I can’t tell you all the folks I hear from who come across the bridge to go to Walmart, so we have a lot to offer," she said after previously mentioning the range of newer retail offerings. "We don’t want to get into the industrial side ... because I don't think that is our calling. I think our calling is to have our citizens and support our citizens in the kinds of things they want."
As a trailblazer in Northport politics, Aaron also provided encouragement to the next generation of women looking to serve their communities. Aaron is one of only three women to have served on the Northport City Council, prior to her time as mayor.
"I say have at it honey," she said. "I think if you want to do it and have the right mindset and don’t go into it with the attitude that 'I’m a woman, you need to support me,' I think you can do whatever you want to do."
With her exit from City Hall coming soon, Aaron said she plans to focus on her health, before turning her attention to her yard work and other hobbies, such as reading and crochet. In the midst of describing her interests outside of politics, she counted three unfinished Afghans that require her attention. She also said she intends to spend more time watching her five grandchildren play sports and grow up.
"I’m going to be a part of their sports activities more than I have been able to do," she said. "But I’ll always have a warm, fuzzy feeling for Northport."