Marshall, 49, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in April 2012 and retired in January when her family determined she would never be able to return to work.
Her husband of 27 years, Lee Marshall, said she had endured a 15-month struggle with her illness and the aftereffects of brain surgery, which left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak.
“She fought a good fight,” he said. “She was definitely a trooper. She did well, but I feel she has gone to a better place now.”
A lifelong Appling resident, Marshall had been an elections staffer since 1984 and was appointed executive director of the Board of Elections in 2000.
Friends and colleagues described her as a warm and generous person who was dedicated to her job and to helping residents of Columbia County.
“The one thing she loved was her job and Columbia County,” said Nancy Gay, who worked for Marshall at the Board of Elections office for more than a decade and was appointed executive director in March. “She was the county’s biggest cheerleader. You would be hard-pressed to find a person who loved the county more.”
Gay said Marshall’s warmth and dedication to her job provided an example of leadership and character she will always remember.
“I’m a better person for having spent 13 years with her,” she said. “She helped me grow in my faith and in my marriage. And she helped me grow as a mom. She loved people.”
Jim Whitehead, who was county commission chairman when Marshall was appointed to the election director’s post, said the county had lost a beloved “family member.”
“I always looked forward to visiting her because I knew she was going to come out with a smile and hug my neck and really show me not only respect, but love that she showed everyone she met,” Whitehead said.
He said Marshall took on the elections post at a time of rapid growth and change in the county but never wavered from her task and always gave her best. Whitehead said political leaders are often criticized for decisions they make, but he doubted anyone could find fault in him for advocating for Marshall’s appointment.
“If somebody wants to give me credit for appointing her to that position, I certainly will take it,” he said.
Barry Paschal, a former publisher of the Columbia County News-Times and a fellow graduate of Harlem High School, said he was deeply saddened at the loss of his friend.
“Debbie Marshall not only was one of the nicest, kindest people you could ever meet, but she was also a wonderful example of a true public servant who set a fine example for Columbia County,” Paschal said. “She successfully led her staff and volunteers in navigating years of changes in election laws, including the transition from punch-card ballots to electronic voting. I’m honored to have known her and worked with her.”
Neal Johnson, a long-time member of the Board of Elections, said Marshall, the county’s first black female department director, was “an exceptional young lady” whose loss will be felt throughout the community.
“She did a great job and she was a great person, a good Christian girl,” he said. “I loved her like a daughter.”
Lee Marshall said even in the midst of his wife’s battle with debilitating illness, she remained most concerned with the welfare of the people around her, especially their three children, Nifateria, 32; Tiffany, 26; and Derenzo, 19.
“The night before she passed, I told her, ‘I know you have made peace with your Lord and savior, but there is one thing I want you to know, honey, is that you don’t have to worry about anything here. Everything back here is taken care of,’ ” he said. “You could just see the relief on her face.”
Funeral arrangements are being made with D.T. Brown Memorial Mortuary in Thomson.