Surry County’s representative to the North Carolina Senate died early Monday morning following what sources described as a routine back surgery.
According to East’s long-time friend Van Tucker, State Sen. Don East died after a blood clot broke loose following the procedure and entered his brain.
He had reportedly entered the hospital to have surgery for a pinched nerve in his back.
“There were unexpected post-surgery complications,” Tucker said. “He had an old, nagging back injury that involved a pinched nerve, and went in for a routine surgery. He was fine for three or four days, but unfortunately wound up dying of a blood clot.”
East was 67, and his record of public service to the county goes back decades.
According to Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), East was a Pilot Mountain farmer who also served as a career police officer in Winston Salem prior to being elected to the legislature.
He served as a Surry County Commissioner from 1984-1992, and was elected to the North Carolina Senate in 1995, where he served until 2000.
After taking a break from public life, East once again returned to the Senate when he was elected to another term in the legislature in 2005, where he served continuously until his death.
East served as the co-chair of the Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and also co-chaired the Appropriation Committee’s sub-committee on Natural and Economic Resources.
In addition, East was a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Insurance Committee and the Judiciary’s Criminal Committee.
He also served as a member of the Senate’s State and Local Government Committee, the Subcommittee on Justice and Public Safety and the Transportation Committee.
East was married to the late Connie Needham.
He is survived by his daughter, Gina Southern; son-in-law Mickey Southern and two grandsons, Matt and Jake Southern.
East served seven terms as the representative to the Senate for the state’s 30th District, which encompasses Surry, Stokes and Wilkes counties, and was seeking an eighth term during November’s election, where he was being challenged by Democrat Ric Marshall.
Marshall said he was “shocked” to learn of East’s death.
“Sen. East’s passing was an unexpected shock to all of us and and my condolences go out to his family and friends,” he said. “Despite the fact that Sen. East and I disagreed on issues of policy and politics, we agreed that service to the citizens of North Carolina is an honorable and worthwhile endeavor.
“His service and dedication to the people of Alleghany, Stokes, Surry, and Yadkin counties – both as an elected official and a police officer – will not soon be forgotten. Some things are just more important than politics and my thoughts and prayers go out to Sen. East’s family and friends.”
Stokes County Board of Commissioners Chair Ernest Lankford said, “It was shocking news to hear. We very much feel for the family … He served (our district) well for seven terms, and we’re just sorry to hear about it.”
Rep. Bryan Holloway, who represents Stokes County in the North Carolina House, said of East, “He was a good friend, and he wore many hats. He was a father and a grandfather and a husband, but I knew him as state senator. The district is certainly going to miss him. The news is definitely unexpected.”
Pilot Mountain businessman Tucker said East’s service shouldn’t be forgotten.
“I was his friend, and I’ve been his constituent for many, many years,” he said. “I admired him both for his conservative approach on the issues and his blue collar identity with the common folk.
“Don was a long-serving representative for the citizens of his district and was a bigger-than-life character who struck fear in his enemies and demonstrated compassion for those who felt like the system was running them over.
“He stood up for the small man, the rural people who had real, everyday issues. And he worked tirelessly on those issues,” Tucker added.
Sen. Berger, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, said East will be missed by his colleagues.
“Sen. Don East was a dedicated public servant whose life’s work was looking after the people he represented,” he said. “From his time as a police officer and county commissioner to his years in the legislature, Sen. East always put the interests of the people of his region above his own. He will be sorely missed by his family, constituents and colleagues.”
Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time, and will be announced at a later date.
Meghann Evans contributed to this article.