Former Gov. Jim Holshouser honored as statesman and consensus builder

ablythe@newsobserver.comJune 21, 2013 

— State dignitaries, friends and family gathered in Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church Friday afternoon to honor the life of former Gov. Jim Holshouser Jr.

Ginny Holshouser Mills, daughter of the former governor, described her father as a humble man who answered to many names.

He was “daddy,” “granddaddy” and “Uncle Jim” to his family, she said. He was “governor” to many in the state who’d come to know him since his election in 1972.

But to many, the man noted for his integrity and passion for working with others from many walks of life and political stances, was just “Jim,” his daughter said.

“Whether you called him Jimmy, or governor, or granddaddy or Uncle Jim, he was the same guy,” Mills told more than 500 people in the open and airy sanctuary. “He’s the guy who loved North Carolina and all. …He never wanted to live anywhere else and he wanted to make it the best place in the world to live.”

Holshouser, a Boone native who lived his last 30 years in Moore County, broke decades of Democratic rule when he was elected governor in 1972 during a GOP sweep that helped make North Carolina a two-party state.

Although restricted then to one term, Holshouser would become a widely respected figure in education, religious and civic circles.

Mills said her father lived by the state motto – “to be rather than to seem” – and wanted to be remembered as a governor who cared about the people of his home state. “He cared about all of us as individuals – our lives, our families, our problems, our dreams, our ideas,” Mills said.

As Mills recounted memorable moments in her father’s life – some humorous and some poignant, politicians from both parties sat in the church pews.

Gov. Pat McCrory was joined by all but one of the state’s four other living governors. Democrats Jim Hunt, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue were in the front rows of the church. Republican Jim Martin was out of the country this week.

With Democrats holding overwhelmingly majorities in the General Assembly in the mid-1970s, Holshouser had to reach out to the other side to get things accomplished.

That kind of consensus building and reaching out characterized Holshouser’s whole life, many said.

“Daddy always knew that it was through relationships that things got done that he couldn’t do it alone,” his daughter said. “Those partnerships symbolized that foundational belief that we’re all in this together and together we can make big things happen.”

Not defined by a title

Erskine Bowles, one of the former UNC system presidents that Holshouser worked with on higher education issues after leaving the governor’s mansion, was singled out by Mills as a Democratic relationship that her father treasured.

Bowles’ father, Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, was the Democrat Holshouser beat to become, at 38, the state’s youngest governor in modern times and first Republican governor since 1896.

Bowles was sitting with former UNC system president Molly Broad and Tom Ross, the president of the UNC system, where Holshouser served on the board of governors for three decades.

Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, 2nd District Congresswoman Renee Ellmers and 6th District Congressman Howard Coble also were among the hundreds at the service.

The Rev. Grady J. Perryman looked out among the politicians and dignitaries in the crowd and said “statesmen and stateswomen” of Holshouser’s “ilk” are rare. “The greatest possible compliment we could pay him was to call him ‘Jim,’ for the title did not define nor limit him,” Perryman said. “We called him ‘Jim’ to honor him not for that title but to honor him as the man he was.”

Holshouser’s daughter, though, recalled her father’s first meeting with the nervous suitor who became his son-in-law. Holshouser’s eyes twinkled. His lips turned up in that recognizable impish grin, his daughter said, and out of his mouth came: “ ‘Your Excellency’ will be just fine.”

Holshouser, who according to many at his funeral set an excellent example for others by the way he lived, died Monday at age 78.

An example to follow

Many who lingered after the service said they hoped others in politics today might follow his example and reach out to others in different parties to work for the betterment of the state, not only their particular party.

“There’s not enough of that today,” said Willis Whichard, a former N.C. Supreme Court justice who served in both houses of the General Assembly. “I wouldn’t want to say it’s lost, but we need more of it. …The state was very fortunate that when we had the first Republican governor we in three quarters of a century, it was him.”

Noel McDevitt, a retired physician in Southern Pines who counted Holshouser among his friends, echoed similar thoughts.

“He was a great man, a great friend,” McDevitt said. “He was a man of moderation. He united everybody. I would hope that same spirit of cooperation and care for people would continue.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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