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DG MARTIN COLUMN: Lessons from famous and ordinary people

What North Carolinians would you most like to be subject to a new biography? People whose lives are lessons or inspirations?

D.G. Martin

My suggestions include the late Sen. Robert Morgan, the late Gov. Jim Holshouser, Erskine Bowles, Betty Rae McCain, Bill Johnson and Mary Carol Michie.

I would love to hear your suggestions.

Robert Morgan was a puzzle. Was he liberal or conservative? He was an enthusiastic supporter of liberal Frank Porter Graham in his 1950 U.S. Senate campaign and then 10 years later managed the campaign of segregationist Dr. I. Beverly Lake for governor.

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974 as a moderate, with considerable support from conservatives, he was defeated six years later by a campaign that defined him as an ultra-liberal. A few years later Morgan worked for liberal Walter Mondale’s campaign for president.

So what was Morgan — a conservative or a liberal?

I think his biographer would find that he was both, and he was neither, like many other North Carolinians.

In 1972, Jim Holshouser, a mountain Republican lawyer, was elected his party’s first governor since 1896. He was the youngest North Carolina governor ever elected. Limited to one term, he continued to serve the state in many ways, including as a member of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors. There he helped the board’s Democratic majority deal with growing Republican strength in the General Assembly. His reasonableness and kindness opened avenues of trust that helped bring adversaries under the same tent.

Erskine Bowles’ father, Skipper, was the Democratic candidate who lost to Holshouser. Erskine learned lessons of public service and respect for those of the other side from his dad and from Holshouser. Bill Clinton persuaded him to raise funds for the Clinton campaign and to serve in the White House as Chief of Staff. Bowles’ supporters persuaded him to twice run for the U.S. Senate. While neither effort was successful, Bowles had shown his strength and ability to lead, resulting in a call to serve as UNC’s president for five productive years. His life experiences would have many lessons for us.

Betty Ray McCain grew up in Faison, but she became well-known and by people across the state due to her numerous statewide roles. Living in Wilson, she became a good friend of Jim Hunt in his campaigns for governor and his efforts to change the state’s constitution to permit a governor to run for a second term. She left a permanent mark in our state’s life, serving for eight years as secretary of Cultural Resources and 14 years on the UNC Board of Governors.

The late Bill Johnson was owner and editor of the Charlotte Post (Charlotte’s Black newspaper) until his death in 1986. I was his lawyer and his student for several years. He taught me about the incredible complications that a Black business owner faced in a white dominated world. His hard work and perseverance helped him make his newspaper serve his community that was still afflicted by traditions of racism and inequality. Johnson’s biographer would have the opportunity to tell an important story of persistence and good will.

Mary Carol Michie died June 25 in Swannanoa near Black Mountain. Beginning in 1967, she and her husband George were mainstays of Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. The church was across the street from the Piedmont Courts public housing project. The church and the project were transitioning from all-white to majority Black. Mary Carol devoted her life to the people in the project and the church. Just as important, she recruited people from all over Charlotte to help her. For those she helped and those who helped with her, she was the Mother Teresa of Charlotte. In her determined unselfishness, there are lessons for the rest of us.

If you know someone whose life could teach us important lessons, write the editor of this paper and explain why.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch” Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. and other times.