Our choice a lender, a leader

Martin Eakes has been nominated for Tar Heel of the Year every year since N&O editors launched the feature in 1997.

This is the point where it's OK to ask: Who's Martin Eakes?

Our Page 1 story today tells you not just who Eakes is but also how he has helped extend home and business loans to tens of thousands of low- and moderate-income people and small companies over the past 20 years.

The story explains one of the signature achievements of Self-Help, which Eakes and his wife co-founded in 1980: engineering a complex deal to buy $3.6 billion in mortgage loans to low-to-moderate-income home buyers from banks and other lenders, freeing them up to make more loans of this kind.

The profile by Jim Nesbitt also describes Eakes' growing national impact and the views of some critics, who question his motives as well as his policy positions surrounding the current fight over government regulation of high-interest lending.

The Tar Heel of the Year recognizes leadership by individual North Carolinians.

Our prior picks: Banker Hugh McColl; historian John Hope Franklin; evangelist Franklin Graham; N.C. Museum of Art director Larry Wheeler; UNC system President Molly Broad; N.C. State women's basketball coach Kay Yow; Capitol Broadcasting executive Jim Goodmon and Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr.

Eakes' name has come up annually because of the visible and ongoing impact of the Self-Help organization, based in Durham.

The work of Self-Help, which originated with the Community Center for Self-Help and now includes a lobbying and policy group called the Center for Responsible Lending, branches into many areas of finance, community development and public policy.

We put the spotlight on leadership as part of our role, as the state capital newspaper, in the public life of our region and state.

Few people make things happen all by themselves, but a look behind most landmark events or programs often finds one or two individuals who had ideas and the passion to see them through. We look for the impact such leaders have on the life of this place.

Editors who select the Tar Heel of the Year also lean toward people whose stories amplify broader realities in North Carolina.

Eakes and Self-Help connect to ongoing issues about how best to offer credit to those with modest incomes, and they illustrate some unconventional thinking about helping poor people. Eakes describes himself as a "bleeding heart conservative."

The "Tar Heel of the Year" name and concept extend from our Sunday Tar Heel of the Week feature, which recognizes people making an impact in their communities in a variety of ways.

(Old-timers know that "Tar Heel" was a nickname for North Carolinians first and university teams in Chapel Hill second.)

If you have comments on the Eakes story or suggestions on others who should be recognized, please send them along.