North Carolina’s highways are dotted with historic markers, reminders of the past like that on Indian Town Road south of Shawboro, Thomas McKnight, colonial merchant and legislator, a Loyalist during the Revolution, operated a large shipyard nearby.
It’s a small nugget of history, but Jerry Cashion felt each morsel was relevant in its own way, and worth remembering.
During his long tenure as research supervisor for the N.C. Division of Archives and History, the highway historical marker program was among his responsibilities. Colleagues admired not only his passion for preserving the story of North Carolina, but the standards he set.
In the 1990s, when others might have been ready to name the sunken ship found off the Carolina coast the Queen Anne’s Revenge, it was Cashion who insisted upon restraint – and more evidence – before he was willing to concede it was indeed Blackbeard’s vessel.
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“That was typical of Jerry,” said Jeffrey Crow, former deputy secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources. “He was very careful, very precise, wanted to get the facts right, didn’t want to make claims that couldn’t be supported. And he was a very fine historian because of that.”
Cashion, 74, died last month after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. Not only does he leave a legacy as one of the most respected historians in the history of the state, but he also leaves a history of kindness that his loved ones are eager to preserve.
Friends and family would find a historic marker outside Cashion’s home in the Mordecai neighborhood of downtown Raleigh a nice tribute one day. It might read something like “Jerry ‘Pop’ Cashion: North Carolina historian, friend, never one to turn away those in need.”
Lifetime link to fraternity
Cashion was born and reared in Statesville, one of two sons, and was given the nickname “Pop.”
One of his early historic interests was Gov. Zebulon Vance, North Carolina’s governor during the Civil War. Vance had a home near Cashion’s hometown, and while studying history at UNC-Chapel Hill, Cashion pledged Phi Gamma Delta – Vance’s former fraternity.
Cashion loved being a UNC student, continuing graduate studies there, teaching history courses, and serving as the advisor to the fraternity, where many deep friendships evolved.
Former Gov. Mike Easley was among those longtime friends. Easley has a reading disorder and appreciated Cashion’s teaching method – storytelling.
“You couldn’t wait to tell people about it, repeat the stories,” Easley said. “He didn’t want us just to learn history, he wanted us to learn from history. He made history come alive.”
“You could always go to Pop for help, guidance, comfort – whatever you needed Pop was there. And he was a heck of a lot of fun, too,” said fraternity brother Dr. Fred Dula of Salisbury. “To us he struck an amazing balance between pursuing a Ph.D. in history and being one of the guys.”
Cashion loved children, and was quick to babysit for friends and colleagues. He married Rita Adams Cashion in his late 40s, and welcomed the roll of stepfather to her two children. When she battled cancer the last few years of her life, friends say he took constant care of her.
‘Hundreds of children’
He did the same for his brother’s family when he died, said niece Chrissy Bauer.
“He’s always been kind of like my step-in Dad,” she said.
Though he never had biological children, loved ones insist he was a member of many families.
“He had hundreds of children,” Dula said. “Us.”
Only two portraits hang in the Phi Delta Gamma house at UNC’s Chapel Hill campus, Dula said. One of Gov. Vance, and one of Pop Cashion.
When Easley needed to appoint a chairman of the North Carolina Historical Commission, the choice was clear. Cashion served two six-year terms, advising lawmakers on issues by putting them into historic context.
For example, when Easley was faced with making budget cuts to the state education system, he appreciated information that showed how a “people’s university” helped elevate a sleepy, uneducated state, and that the state constitution required education be “as free as practical.”
Colleagues like Kevin Cherry, deputy secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources and director of the Office of Archives of History, marvel at the impact a man like Cashion can have on a community.
“It’s really amazing to think that one man could have such a lasting impact on the state of North Carolina and what we choose to remember and how we remember it,” Cherry said. “The lessons that we draw from the stories that we tell ourselves.”
Jerry Clyde “Pop” Cashion
Born: Nov. 18, 1940, in Statesville.
Family: Marries Rita Cashion in 1988; stepfather to Tiffany Berner Willard and Jay P. Berner; step-grandfather to two children.
Education: Earns bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in history at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Career: Spends the early part of his career teaching college history courses at UNC-Chapel Hill and NCSU while a graduate student. Joins the N.C. Department of Cultural resources in 1974, spending many years as research supervisor for the N.C. Division of Archives and History, retiring in 2000. Is appointed by Gov. Easley as chairman of the N.C. Historical Commission from 2001 to 2013.
Awards: Durance award from the International Fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta; Christopher Crittenden Award for the preservation of North Carolina history; Order of the Longleaf Pine; and the North Carolina Award in 2007.
Dies April 17, in Raleigh.