Allan Head has been recognized for this work in a number of roles over the years – as longtime director of the N.C. Bar Association, an active supporter of youth through the YMCA and his church, and announcer for football games at Broughton High School.
In just the past two years, he’s been honored with Order of the Long Leaf Pine award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the YMCA of the Triangle.
But he’s now being recognized as a different kind of role model. Since being diagnosed with advanced cancer two years ago, Head has made a point of being open about his illness with his extended circle of family, friends and colleagues.
And he’s told his story widely in order to help others suffering from serious illnesses to better cope with the fear and grief that comes with facing a possibly fatal diagnosis.
I realized quickly that my job at this point was to share my story and to try to be optimistic and positive.
Last weekend, he was awarded the Pete Moffitt Courage Award from the athletics department of his alma mater, Wake Forest University, for spreading this message of optimism in the face of adversity.
“I realized quickly that my job at this point was to share my story and to try to be optimistic and positive,” Head says. “I wanted to be there for other people that are facing similar circumstances in their lives.”
Van Eure, owner of the Angus Barn, who has known Head for decades, says his reaction to illness fits in with his generous personality, whether it’s supporting her various charitable causes or dressing up to get a laugh out of his colleagues at the association dinners at the restaurant.
When Head was diagnosed with cancer, he brought his family to the restaurant before his first surgery. Eure brought out a pie that was intended not for him, but for his doctors, with a note promising more pies if they made her friend well again.
“I don’t believe I have ever seen a person who has handled it with more grace,” Eure says. “He just said, ‘Whatever way this goes, I’m fine,’ and he made everyone else feel at ease.”
Doing his part
Head grew up in Atlanta, and says he inherited his strong faith and commitment to service from his family. He recalls his mother volunteering at schools, Scouts and the Salvation Army.
“You can teach people in school or in the workplace, but what you learn in the home you carry with you,” he says.
Head spent a lot of his own time as a youth playing sports, including football and track, which he says taught him to learn to work on a team. He would go on to run track and field at Wake Forest.
“You learn that you may not be the star or a leader but everyone on the team has to do their part,” he says. “And if we all do our part, we can move the ball down the line.”
He came to North Carolina to go to Wake Forest, where he met his wife of 49 years, Patti. He says he went on to law school mainly to stay at Wake Forest with Patti, who is two years younger.
After law school, the couple went to Germany, where Head worked as an attorney for the U.S. Army Security Agency for three years. He was still there when he heard about an opening with the N.C. Bar Association.
The way Head tells it, he applied and then tried to remove himself as a candidate because he wanted to practice law instead. But when the hiring committee offered to pay half of his ticket home for an in-person interview, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit friends and family.
In the end, he took the job as executive secretary, and a few years later became director.
He’s now headed the association for 43 years, and during that time its membership has grown from 2,000 to more than 20,000. The group is constantly evolving, he says, to help lawyers navigate trends in the industry – and to give back to their communities.
As one of their current projects a group of young attorneys is doing pro-bono work for victims of Hurricane Matthew.
On the other end of the spectrum, a group of older attorneys created a program to help attorneys transition into retirement. That program has become a national model.
Head says these kinds of projects are one reason 70 percent of the practicing lawyers in the state belong to the association – a high percentage nationally.
“They belong because we provide meaningful service and support that will help them be better lawyers and leaders,” he says.
He’s also been active in national and local bar groups, and has headed committees including the Hurricane Katrina Task Force of the American Bar Association.
Outside of his profession, Head has also been active in his church, White Memorial Presbyterian. One of his most rewarding projects there, he says, was leading groups of teenagers to do home improvement projects in impoverished communities through the Appalachian Service Project.
And he’s also been an avid supporter of the YMCA, where he has held several leadership roles over the years.
The opportunity to announce games at Broughton came about by chance but has been rewarding for Head. He’s been doing it for 26 years, and for a few years was an announcer at Wake Forest.
“ ‘Friday Night Lights’ are one of the things that’s right about life today,” he says. “It’s where community comes together. It’s a wholesome environment.”
Head continues to jog and work out, and was in good health when he was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer two years ago – a fact that made the diagnosis more of a shock, but has helped him during the long treatment.
He underwent surgery in October, but was only hospitalized for a few days and missed less than a week of work. He says that being at work has helped him deal with the illness, though he will retire from his position in January – a date set before his diagnosis.
He takes chemotherapy pills daily and was accepted as part of a clinical trial that he hopes will help him recover.
But he’s also using his illness as a chance to help others. He has widely shared the details of his treatment and has spoken openly about the ordeal of dealing with cancer, a subject often shrouded in secrecy.
“My favorite phrase is I’ve tried to leave the campsite better than I’ve found it,” says Head, referring to a common goal among Boy Scouts. “I’ve been able to help other folks to stay optimistic and positive, and that’s a blessing.”
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Allan B. Head
Born: May 1944, Atlanta
Career: Director, N.C. Bar Association
Recent Awards: Pete Moffitt Courage Award, Wake Forest University; YMCA Lifetime Achievement Award, 2016; Order of the Long Leaf Pine, 2015; Father of the Year Award, Raleigh YMCA, 2014; Bolton Award for leadership and professionalism, National Association of Bar Executives, 2010
Education: B.A. and J.D., Wake Forest University
Family: Wife Patricia; three children; eight grandchildren
Fun Fact: Head’s wife, Patti Head, is a former member of the Wake County Board of Education.