RALEIGH — Wallace Hyde, the shrewd, cigar-smoking Raleigh businessman who for decades was a major power behind the scenes in state and national Democratic Party politics, died Monday after years of declining health. He was 89 and had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Hyde was such an insider that he watched the 1984 convention from Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale’s San Francisco hotel room. Vice President Al Gore, a frequent guest at his home, was instrumental in arranging for the nomination of his wife, Jeannette, also a force in Democratic politics, to be named U.S. ambassador to Barbados.
But it was in North Carolina where Hyde had his biggest impact, helping several generations of Democrats win office.
“He was really one of those people who helped Terry Sanford get elected and carry forward a new modern progressive politics in the last half century,” former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt said. “Wallace Hyde was a highly successful businessman. He had a real influence on the Democratic Party being mainstream and being business-friendly in this state. He was one of the best Democratic strategists and prime movers that North Carolina has ever seen.”
Hyde, a Graham County country boy, started his career as high school football coach, eventually earning a doctorate in education from New York University. He would spend much of his life in his beloved mountains, starting an insurance agency, a savings and loan and other business interests. He was always close and supportive of Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.
At one time, he owned Bill Stanley’s Barbecue and Bluegrass, one of Asheville’s best-known nightclubs, where he was known to belt out such bluegrass favorites as “Knoxville Girl” with Bill Monroe.
He entered politics in 1960 to help Sanford get elected governor, and as a protégé of Bert Bennett, the Winston-Salem oil jobber who built the Democratic organization that would elect both Sanford and Hunt. When Sanford became governor, Bennett became state party chairman, and Hyde became the party’s executive director – a team that would include a millionaire and a future millionaire who became at ease rubbing elbows with presidents.
“He loves politics,” Bennett once remarked. “I’d say he’s good at it and can afford it.”
‘Tough as nails’
Hyde was particularly good at raising money. Among those he raised money for were the gubernatorial campaigns of L. Richardson Preyer in 1964, Robert W. Scott in 1968, Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles in 1972, and all of Hunt’s campaigns.
“Wallace was an old coach,” Hunt said. “He was tough as nails. When you got in a fight, you’d love to have him by your side because he was tough to whip, and he didn’t lose many.”
The list of politicians whom the Hydes entertained in their home included Mondale, Gore, Bill Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, Dick Gephardt, Florida Sen. Lawton Chiles, and Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn.
To help entertain, the Hydes purchased the home of Raleigh retail executive Art Pope, now the budget chief of Gov. Pat McCrory. The rotunda makes the home particularly well-suited for large crowds.
When President Jimmy Carter wanted to put on a $1 million fundraiser at home in Plains, Ga., he asked Hyde to head it up.
Hyde said he never asked for any personal favors, but he did enjoy making political calls for other people.
Hunt said he often accompanied Hyde on industry recruiting trips around the world, even when Hyde was in his 80s. But Hyde would always play down his political influence. “I’ve never considered myself to be a political boss,” Hyde once remarked. “I’m just a political helper.”
Visitation is scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Brown-Wynne Funeral Home in Raleigh. A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Friday at White Memorial Presbyterian Church.