Elon’s Isabella Cannon Leadership Program is endowed by the late Dr. Isabella Walton Cannon, former mayor of Raleigh and one of North Carolina’s most distinguished leaders.
Involved in public service most of her life, Cannon made history in 1977 when, at age 73, she became the first woman elected mayor of Raleigh. Known as the “little old lady in tennis shoes,” she had never run for office before her election. Working 16-hour days and using a no-nonsense style, she developed a comprehensive plan that still guides the growth of the city.
Born May 12, 1904 in Dunfermline, Scotland, Cannon emigrated with her family to the United States at age 12. She graduated from Winecoff High School in Concord, N.C., before graduating from Elon in 1924. She was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from Elon in 1978. She married Claude Cannon, Elon’s registrar and business manager, in 1924. His subsequent career in diplomatic service took the couple around the state and the world. They lived in Liberia, West Africa and Iraq before returning to Raleigh, where Claude Cannon died in 1954.
Cannon held jobs in a variety of fields related to education and community service. She was a teacher at Elon College High School and Burlington Business College, served as assistant registrar and manager of the bookstore at Elon College, and was a bookkeeper and payroll manager at WRAL radio station in Raleigh. She also worked in Washington, D.C., as a supervisor with the French Supply Council and as an interviewer with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Cannon was also active in many community organizations and a member of the Community United Church of Christ in Raleigh.
Cannon’s commitment to service earned her recognition and accolades around the state, nation and world. In 1999, she was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine by Gov. Jim Hunt for her dedicated service to North Carolina. She was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998.
She was devoted to her alma mater and served Elon in many ways. In 1999, her $1 million gift endowed the Isabella Cannon Centre for International Studies at Elon, which offers extensive study abroad opportunities for students and recruits international students and visiting scholars to campus. She also endowed two scholarships; the Isabella Cannon Room, which serves as the university’s art gallery and formal meeting space; and the Isabella Cannon Leadership Program, which identifies and prepares students to share their leadership skills with others. She received Elon’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1983 and was awarded the Elon Medallion by President J. Fred Young in 1991.
Cannon was a frequent visitor to Elon and loved to meet students and talk about their life plans. In 2000, at age 96, she delivered the commencement address at Elon, reflecting on her life’s experiences. She urged graduates to think globally and act locally, getting involved in their communities and neighborhoods.
Dr. Cannon passed away on February 13, 2002. Her enormous legacy lives on today.