Commerce Secretary is Belhaven’s biggest booster

Published 6:57 pm Tuesday, July 6, 2021


Independence Day was always exciting in the Baker household. Young Machelle would scurry around getting organized so she could claim a prime spot along the town’s parade route. Folks on the floats often tossed candy to the crowd and she wanted to be front and center.

Saturday, grown-up Machelle Baker Sanders led that same parade as Grand Marshal in her new role as North Carolina’s Secretary of Commerce.

“It hit me right after the parade started that I, that same young girl who wore her red, white and blue sneakers to the parade every year, was the one in front,” Sanders said. “I never dreamed I would be in this role growing up, but the things I learned here from my parents, teachers, neighbors and others gave me a great foundation.”

Al and Bertha Baker were teachers. Al taught math and science at Pantego High School before he moved into an administrative role at J.A. Wilkinson HS. He was also a highly successful basketball coach, leading Pantego to 1A state titles in 1977, ’80 & ’81, a string interrupted by back-to-back titles from Wilkinson in ’78 and ’79. Baker’s 1981 team finished 32-0 behind MVP Phillip Bunch.

Meanwhile, Bertha Baker taught second grade at Bath Elementary for 35 years.

Machelle, their only child, rode with her mom when it was time to start school and graduated from Bath High School in 1981.

“My parents were sticklers for education and I always tell people I grew up part Pirate (Bath), Warrior (Pantego) and Bulldog (Wilkinson)” Sanders said with a laugh. “My Christmas presents usually had educational value, like the Chemistry Kitchen, and our summer vacations were educational as well.”

As a result, Sanders developed an inquisitive nature that pulled her toward science. Math became a favorite as well.

“My parents always encouraged me to ask questions and understand why,” she said. “I always wanted to know why the tadpole turned into a frog or why the caterpillar became a butterfly. I thought it was so cool to look at algae under a microscope. My neighbor, Frank Ambrose was a math genius and introduced me to solving Geometry proofs. It was very rewarding to work and work and finally get it right. It taught me how to solve problems.”

Bath HS Home Economics teacher Rachel Swindell was another mentor.

“She told me I could be a leader and she helped me with my public speaking skills,” Sanders said. “I ended up being the president of the North Carolina Future Homemakers of America my senior year, which was my first experience in public service.”

Teresa Bunch led the medical explorers club at school and introduced Sanders to health and life sciences. She gravitated toward Chemistry and Biology and ended up combining the two into a Biochemistry degree from North Carolina State.

“It was a given that I was going to college and N.C. State had the program I wanted,” Sanders said. “My dad was the biggest Carolina basketball fan, so it made for some fun phone conversations after we won the championship in ’83.”

After graduation, Sanders began a 30-year career in the Biotechnology and Life Sciences field, then public service came calling when Governor Roy Cooper offered her a job leading the Department of Administration.

“I guess it was a natural next step in my journey,” Sanders said. “I was raised to help others. Folks in Belhaven would call my parents for rides to the doctor and both of them drove people to the polls on Election Day. My dad was a town councilman, sat on community boards and helped with all kinds of community events. My mom still does, so I learned early to serve others.”

The top Commerce post opened in January and Cooper tapped Sanders again.

“There are so many opportunities to help our state in this position,” she said. “Education, employment opportunities, health care, broadband expansion, you name it. It’s my obligation to do whatever it takes to help North Carolinians improve their lives.  This job is a public extension of who I was raised to become and Belhaven played a huge roll. My staff is already tired of hearing about Belhaven, but I’ll never get tired of talking about how great it is.”