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We’re in the centennial year of the birth of Terry Sanford. Born Aug. 20, 1917, he fully expected to be around to share this time with us. After all, his mother, Betsy, was a centenarian and still driving to church. Terry saw no reason that her genes wouldn’t carry him the distance as well.

That was not to be. We lost Sanford in 1998. The chapel at Duke University was filled beyond capacity that spring day when North Carolinians from all walks came to remember and help bury the man whose terms as governor and U.S. senator bracketed a 15-year presidency of Duke University. It was quite a run for an Eagle Scout and combat veteran from Laurinburg who believed to his core that public service was an honorable way of life.

So why is it worthwhile to remember Sanford? His name has faded into history; he is truly unknown to many. As a columnist for Raleigh’s News & Observer observed recently, this year’s college freshmen have lived in a world that never knew Jim Hunt as governor or Dean Smith as coach of the Tar Heels. For goodness sakes, Sanford was the man who introduced Hunt to politics in 1960, and as governor and chairman of the UNC trustees, he hired Dean Smith in 1961 to coach at Chapel Hill. He also had something to do with Mike Krzyzewski’s berth at Duke.

terry sanford
Terry Sanford

But you need to think about Sanford when you hear people talking about putting their political careers on the line for education and the future of young people in this state. He learned in his mother Betsy’s classroom that education was the universal economic bootstrap. As governor, just a few months in office, he convinced a legislature that expanding the sales tax was necessary to get North Carolina’s schools in shape for future generations of students. One of the last public appearances he made as governor was before a room full of students at a public school.

Think about Sanford when you hear that, when the South was coming apart in the 1960s, with bombings in Birmingham and violence from St. Augustine to Selma, North Carolina had a governor who was talking about breaking down racial barriers and making sure all people had jobs and opportunity. He held off a segregationist opponent in the Democratic primaries in 1960 largely by parsing words. But when George Wallace declared “Segregation Forever,” Sanford and one of his cabinet members, Greensboro’s Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, were desegregating the public facilities in North Carolina’s state parks, a transition that went smoothly without anyone suffering a scratch.

Think about Sanford when you hear that another graduate of the N.C. School of the Arts has won an Emmy, or an Oscar, or composed a captivating piece of music. Sanford embraced new ideas as if they were old friends. When things got slack around the governor’s office, he brought in big thinkers like Buckminster Fuller to stimulate the conversation. Not many people believed that a Southern state could produce any art worth the price of admission. That is, no one did until Terry’s “toe-dancing” bill passed the General Assembly in 1963 and created the NCSA.

Offended by poverty in a deep and profound way, Sanford saw to it that North Carolina was years ahead of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Sanford combined the resources of the Ford Foundation with those of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and created the North Carolina Fund. During its four creative years, the fund became the nation’s proving ground for anti-poverty programs that later were incorporated into federal initiatives.


Howard E. Covington Jr.

Howard E. Covington Jr. of Greensboro has been writing history and biography for more than 30 years. He is the author, with Marion A. Ellis, of the biography Terry Sanford: Politics, Progress, and Outrageous Ambition (Duke University Press, 1999).

Sanford could have had the top job at the Ford Foundation after he left the governor’s office, but isolation in that ivory tower, all inside work and no heavy lifting, didn’t suit his style. When the trustees at Duke University offered him the presidency, he decided that was the kind of place where he could really exercise his muscles. Some of the academicians sniffed that he didn’t have the pedigree for such a lofty spot. Sanford smiled and said he wouldn’t hold it against them that they didn’t have a UNC law degree.

Remember him as a university president who tamed the passions of students angry about an Asian war. When they blocked an intersection on campus, he waded into the crowd to hear their concerns, the same way he had engaged a night-time crowd of African-Americans a few years before when marchers interrupted a gala he was hosting at the Governor’s Mansion. Sanford turned the students’ energy to go door-to-door in Durham neighborhoods and explain their views. He then arranged for those who were so inclined to travel to Washington and present their case to their elected representatives.

Think about the transition that began in 1970, when Sanford went to work on transforming Duke from a middling Southern university into one of the leading institutions in the world. His formula was simple, as he told a new hire who asked what in the world Sanford was doing at a university. “I am going to identify creativity and leadership and bring it here and make it better,” he replied. He left a worn and tattered rug on the floor in front of his desk as a reminder that Duke desperately needed money to make good on his ambition.

While at Duke, he made two bids for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, both of which ended in disappointment. The last in 1976 put him in the hospital.

He took those experiences, and more, and turned them into a book called “A Danger of Democracy.” It warned of the pitfalls of presidential primaries. Some Republicans should have read it before Donald J. Trump hijacked their party in 2016.

Over the years, Sanford felt the sting of political loss, including defeat for re-election to the Senate in 1992. Throughout it all, Sanford knew that for an old paratrooper who had survived the bloody, frozen hell of Christmas in the Battle of the Bulge, these setbacks didn’t really amount to much. He just kept going and turned his classroom at Duke, where he returned to teach, into a laboratory on running a state with creativity and determination.

I like to remember what Sanford had to say in 1984 when he delivered his farewell to the Duke faculty, a crowd that didn’t always stand with him. (See the Nixon Library fight, for example — a grievous loss, in Sanford’s mind.) He was talking about the university he had come to love as dearly as his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. I think he was also expressing a philosophy that steered his life through the years.

“The stamp of Duke University and its continuing goal ought to be the unrelenting search for excellence in all of its endeavors. Duke aspires to leave its students with an abiding concern for justice, with a resolve for compassion and concern for others, with minds unfettered by racial and other prejudices, with a dedication to service to society, with an intellectual sharpness, and with an ability to think straight now and throughout life. All of these goals are worthy of outrageous ambitions.”

Outrageous, indeed.