The photograph barely survives, and has been in the bottom of a cardboard box for 40 years now. It’s a fuzzy black and white image, signed to me, of a man jumping out of a training tower for paratroopers. For a time, it was on my den wall and then consigned to the box in favor of more grown-up art, I suppose.
The jumper was North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford, in his first and only term as governor (the limit then), reuniting with his old World War II unit, and the training tower was a compromise with his wife, Margaret Rose. He’d wanted to go out of a plane. She said no. Sanford was a young man then, in his mid-40s, and he’d grown up during the Depression in Scotland County, heavily influenced by his mother, a teacher. (I knew him because my father had spent part of his youth in Scotland County and got to know Sanford the politician while my Pop was a newspaper guy.)
Sanford’s determination about that jump, and his bravery as a combat veteran, reflected the many characteristics his friends — and he had a host of highly accomplished lifelong friends — admired in him all his life. He was afraid of nothing.
Initially an underdog in his 1960 campaign for governor, he won the Democratic nomination. And he endorsed Sen. John F. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination against the wishes of some mainstream North Carolina Democrats who thought the fact that Kennedy was a Catholic would make it difficult for him to win the presidency. That didn’t bother Sanford a bit.
To be fair, Sanford had been preceded by a moderate governor, Luther Hodges, a businessman who had good ideas himself. But Terry Sanford, the idealistic son of the Sandhills region, pushed and pulled the state forward with an agenda that today seems almost unbelievable.
Why is it relevant? Well, today candidates at all levels are not ambitious in terms of big ideas and big goals. Many are preoccupied with so-called wedge issues. Dividing people is the opposite of driving a state that used to pride itself on leading a “New South” out of poverty with great public education from grade school to college.
Sanford helped to create the state’s community college system. He bolstered the University of North Carolina. He helped create the School of the Arts and a fund to help the poor. He pushed a food tax because he saw the state needed revenue, much more of it, to improve public schools.
Sometimes, what he did made him unpopular, the food tax being a prime example, but the label of “tax and spend” liberal didn’t bother him. When you had fought in the Battle of the Bulge and collected a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, a little political name-calling wasn’t much of a concern. And the old Eagle Scout kept on the trail without spending a lot of time looking behind himself.
He didn’t always win, and he wasn’t always right. As president of Duke University, another “big idea” to host Richard Nixon’s presidential library fell short. Two campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination also failed. A term in the U.S. Senate didn’t work out well.
Likely it was because — again, reflecting his preference for those big ideas — the Terry Sanford who would sit upstairs in the governor’s mansion writing out his ideas for new programs and then get them done wasn’t much for being one of 100. In my conversations with him in his later years he seemed most fond of recalling his time in Raleigh.
North Carolina has hit what ought to be its limit on ideological, distracting fusses. We used to demand a high standard in leaders, and in the last half of the 20th century we met that standard in Democrats and Republicans. Terry Sanford could still be a worthy role model. He wasn’t afraid to take a leap in combat — or of faith.
Jenkins: 919-829-4513 or firstname.lastname@example.org