It was an unlikely friendship: the left-leaning, America-bashing, Latin American strongman and the conservative Republican congressman from North Carolina.
But Hugo Chavez and Cass Ballenger hit it off. So much so that Chavez was the honored guest at a 2001 barbecue at Ballengers home in Hickory.
He was our friend and he was always like the guy next door, Donna Ballenger recalled Tuesday. He didnt do anything but be nice to us.
Cass Ballenger, who at 86 is ailing, chaired the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of International Relations in the U.S. House. He and his wife Donna met Chavez on one of their several visits to Venezuela over the years.
Cass Ballenger once said he got kind of teed off about one of the statements (Chavez) made about Fidel Castro saying how great he was. So he wrote the Venezuelan leader, saying all he knew of America was New York, Washington and Miami.
I told him thats not the United States, Ballenger later told a reporter. If you want to see the free enterprise and entrepreneurism, why dont you come to Hickory, North Carolina.
So he did.
Returning from the weekend conference in Quebec, Chavez stopped in Hickory.
During a two-day visit, Chavez toured several area businesses, including Ballengers Plastic Packaging Inc., and visited a local day care. To hear Donna Ballenger tell it, Chavez was pleasant and curious, talking to everybody he met and snapping pictures around town. At the barbecue, he drank beer and serenaded her toddler grand-daughter with a Spanish lullaby.
He loved Hickory, said Donna Ballenger. He was a nice man. He was very caring. We knew him on a different stage.