Former judge dies at 86

Hedrick lost his sight at age 13

Staff WriterJuly 19, 2009 

Judge Robert Alfred "Fred" Hedrick, who served for 24 years on the N.C. Court of Appeals despite being unable to see, died Saturday morning at the age of 86.

Hedrick was one of the nine original members named to the state's second-highest court in 1969 and later served for eight years as the court's chief judge.

But Hedrick was almost as well known for his love of music and a deep baritone voice that could often be heard singing at civic clubs, weddings, funerals and in church choirs. He once sang with UNC classmate Andy Griffith before Griffith went on to television and movie fame.

Hedrick did all that despite losing his sight at the age of 13, when a wood sliver went into one eye while he was splitting wood. An infection spread to the optic nerve, causing him to lose sight in his other eye.

He graduated from the Gov. Morehead School for the Blind in 1943.

"Even though he was blind, he could see the world better than anyone I knew," said Donald Stephens, Wake's senior Superior Court judge.

Stephens' wife, Linda, was Hedrick's first female law clerk, and the Stephenses were married in Hedrick's chambers -- Hedrick gave the bride way. Linda Stephens now serves on the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Hedrick's son, Jeffrey Hedrick, 52, of Banner Elk, said Saturday that the family is not sure what caused his father's death, but they suspect it may have been a heart attack.

He died in his home.

Colleagues and friends described Judge Hedrick, who grew up in Iredell County, as a gruff man who had a big heart. His law clerks' nickname for him was "Grudge." Though Hedrick could not see, they say he was keenly perceptive about people, their moods and the world around him.

"He was in no way limited by the fact that he was blind," said Staci Meyer, one of Hedrick's former law clerks who now serves on the state Industrial Commission.

His former colleagues said Hedrick possessed a brilliant legal mind and an incredible memory. He wrote notes to himself using a Braille typewriter and would dictate his opinions into a recorder to be transcribed. Meyer says he was a perfectionist who insisted on getting his opinions done early.

His outside interests

Outside of court, Hedrick sailed, fished and rode horseback.

Hedrick attended UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was torn between pursuing careers in music or law. He loved to sing and play the piano. In a 1970 article in The News & Observer naming him "Tar Heel of the Week," Hedrick recalled singing in college with Griffith.

Hedrick opted for law, graduating from UNC's law school in two and a half years.

But music became his avocation. He was so well known for singing at weddings that fellow jurist John McLaughlin once said jokingly, "If Fred Hedrick didn't sing at your wedding, you're living in sin."

Before joining the appellate bench, Hedrick served as Iredell County's prosecuting attorney for eight years and as a judge on the Recorder's Court in Statesville for 10 years. In 1969, Gov. Bob Scott appointed Hedrick to the state appeals court.

The next year, when he ran his first statewide campaign, Hedrick paid for 70 billboards across the state, showing himself in black judicial robes seated next to his seeing-eye dog, Candy, a golden retriever.

In 1974, Hedrick ran for the state Supreme Court, losing to James Exum Jr., who went on to become chief justice. Ten years later, Hedrick was appointed chief judge of the appeals court and stayed in that position until he retired in 1993.

In a 1970 newspaper story, Hedrick said, "I don't feel I have accomplished anything unusual that a lot of other people couldn't have done. I just hope that what I have done might serve to help the 10,000 people in North Carolina who are blind."

Survivors and services

Hedrick is survived by his wife, Patricia Owen Hedrick; his children, Jeffrey Miles Hedrick and his wife, Peggy Hedrick, of Banner Elk; Martha Jean Hedrick McCarthy and her husband, Dr. Francis McCarthy, of Edenton; Joanna Rose Hedrick of Siler City; and John Alfred Hedrick and his wife, Tammy Combs Hedrick, of Raleigh; and eight grandchildren, Jason, Rachael, Jamie, Emma, Abby, Jacquelyn, Olivia and Makenzie.

The funeral will be at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at Hudson Memorial Presbyterian Church, 4921 Six Forks Road, Raleigh. A reception will follow.

andrea.weigl@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4848

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