North Carolina honors a diverse group of artists, scientists and educators

October 27, 2013 

It’s been a tough year for North Carolina. The state’s national image has taken a beating, what with state lawmakers turning the wheel of government sharply to the right and landing the Tar Heel State on “The Daily Show” and other national media outlets that aren’t exactly travelogues.

Truth is, North Carolina has been on the receiving end of jokes and sarcasm, and to some degree – what with cutting unemployment benefits and limiting Medicaid and getting wrapped up in ideological silliness in the legislature – we’ve earned the unflattering spotlight.

But the North Carolina Awards, which will will be awarded Nov. 21 and will be given for the 50th time next year, remind us that in terms of the people the state produces and nurtures, this is a pretty good place when all’s said and done.

Past recipients of the award exemplify individual stardom, selfless contributions to the state, progress on social issues and just fun. Most notable among award recipients are our performers and artists, people such as James Taylor and Maya Angelou, but no list of winners of every honor the state has to offer would be true without the late William Friday, founding president of what is now the University of North Carolina System.

This year’s recipients are safely wrapped in the award’s traditions.

Myron S. Cohen of Chapel Hill is one of the world’s most respected and famous scientists in the field of HIV/AIDS research, heralded as developing breakthrough research to stop the spread of HIV. For making a difference the world over, he got the award in the science category.

John Cram of Asheville started an art gallery in that city 40 years ago. The mountain town once famed mainly for Thomas Wolfe and the Grove Park Inn now is a paradise for musicians and visual artists in all mediums. Cram’s studio gained much respect, and he’s been active in all sorts of artistic efforts downtown. He’s made his mark.

John Lucas of Durham made his difference close to home, as a school board member and president of Shaw University, and also as the driving force in the formation of the N.C. Association of Educators, a merged organization that formerly had been two teachers’ groups, one black and one white. A middle school in Durham is named for him, and let’s hope those students know his story.

John Hart, now living in Virginia, was a lawyer until he turned writer, and he’s been at the top of the mystery field ever since. His books have been set from the foothills of North Carolina to the mob hangouts of New York City. Hart was educated at a school that’s produced many writers and artists: Davidson College.

Phil Kirk was a state senator, an adviser to Republican governors and, as head of the state’s largest business lobby, a sometimes controversial advocate for public education. He’d been a teacher, you see. Kirk was bold when he ran what’s now the North Carolina Chamber, in that he dared to advocate more investment in public education.

Walt Wolfram of Cary has been an N.C. State professor and linguist for more than 20 years, and thanks to him we all have a better understanding of North Carolina’s many dialects and the nuances of its language – from the flat accents of the mountains to the “hoid toid” inflections still heard on the outer banks. Our language is part of who we are. Wolfram knows us well.

Our chaotic politics aside, it turns out we’re a pretty good place to be after all.

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