A portrait of NC Gov. Jim Hunt is welcomed by the man himself

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comMarch 12, 2014 

You knew it was coming. It always does. That moment in a speech by Gov. Jim Hunt where, after all the appropriate recognitions and salutations, he calls down the thunder.

“He paved my road!” said Hunt in that stentorian baritone, addressing his gathered friends Monday at the N.C. State library named in his honor. The occasion was the unveiling of a Hunt portrait to hang in the spectacular multimedia library on Centennial Campus. (The portrait, by John Howard Sanden, was funded by prominent local couples Jim and Ann Goodnight and Linda Davis and Ken Eudy. Sanden previously painted official portraits of George W. and Laura Bush, and has done another Hunt portrait.)

The “he,” that road-paver, was Kerr Scott, governor from 1949-1953, a progressive Democrat known as the “good roads governor” for paving so many farm-to-market roads. The road was near the Hunt farm in Wilson County. Young Jim Hunt, then a teenager, remembered thinking about that road as an example of what a governor could do for people.

He will be 77 in May, but comes to work regularly at the library, where his office is on the 3rd floor, tucked away in a corner. Many of the men and women who worked for him during four terms as governor, spread over a 24-year period, marveled then at his energy and still do. One, now a high-powered business executive, recalled that when he left Hunt’s employ on affable terms, he said, “Governor, I tell you, I’m just worn out.”

In anticipation of the portrait unveiling, an exhibit tracing the high points of Hunt’s spectacular North Carolina life has been set up on the ground floor. The young Hunt holding one of his beef cattle, a skinny kid with dark hair. Hunt with his Ag teacher, wearing a Future Farmers jacket. Nice likenesses of a couple of heroes, Gov. Scott and Frank P. Graham, president of the University of North Carolina. Hunt as governor, in meetings about his agenda, tutoring school kids.

Yes, the grand life celebrated herein certainly was contemplated by a young man on the go, who was elected and re-elected as student body president at N.C. State, and thereafter enjoyed a climb to the top in state politics, four terms and 16 years as governor, the last terms devoted to public education. Hunt raised teacher pay to the national average. He started the Smart Start early childhood program. He put together the land for NCSU’s Centennial Campus.

They were big ideas, but he got them done. Just about all of them. Hunt told me long ago: “A governor has to know what he wants, where he is going and how to get there! If you have an idea, do it!” He has no patience with politicians of either major party who stop at just the ideas stage.

Perhaps his energy remains at this age because he has not worn himself out carrying around a lot of regrets. Great marriage to his wife, Carolyn, four kids, grandkids. Big post-politics careers with two major law firms. A host of friends from politics and mostly from home.

Or maybe the secret was trying to maintain a fairly normal life. School principals who had the Hunt children enrolled during the first two terms as governor recall that on the nights parents were asked to help clean up the gym, the governor and the first lady showed up with their own supplies and went to work.

When Hunt was advocating for public education, for people to pitch in to help poor kids, there were photos of him tutoring youngsters in reading.

“A lot of people,” one principal told me, “would have headed out the door once the cameras left. He stayed there and came every week.”

The career, of course, had one unpleasant interruption, a 1984 race for the U.S. Senate which he lost to the incumbent Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. It was perhaps more painful because even today, pundits speculate that if Hunt had won the race, he might well have been the Democratic nominee for president in 1988.

But even after that, he hadn’t had enough and came back for two more terms as governor in 1992.

“Now look over there!” he said to the assembled library crowd this past Monday. “Three engineering buildings! And look over there! A private business! All over this campus!”

The thunder rolled on. He had learned from the best, from his daddy and his mother, from that Ag teacher, from Kerr Scott, from Frank Graham. He always did. A governor, he believes, has to be able to learn and to teach.

Today, when he takes you through the library, explaining exhibits, he holds you by the elbow, firmly. He is teaching. And you learn. You always do.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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