C.D. Spangler Jr., the Charlotte businessman and former president of the University of North Carolina, died Sunday at the age of 86.
He led the public university system in North Carolina for 11 years, from 1986 to 1997. The billionaire business tycoon was a staunch advocate for low tuition, in solidarity with his predecessor, the late William Friday.
Spangler was so committed to keeping student costs down, he had a mantra etched into his official portrait, which now graces the walls of the UNC headquarters building that bears his name. In it, Spangler, with his trademark slicked back hair and pinstripe suit, holds a Rubik’s cube. Behind him, in the background, is a laptop screen with the faint words, “Article IX, Section 9.” It’s a reference to the state constitutional provision mandating that a UNC education be extended to the people, as far as practicable, free of expense.
In 1996, he told a News & Observer reporter, “The argument to raise tuition comes from a small group of very wealthy people who think they know something about running a business. But they don’t know much about the economic status of the families of North Carolina.”
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When he took the helm of the university in 1986, he followed the beloved Friday — not an enviable assignment — and brought a businessman’s sensibility to the job. At the time, there was plenty of skepticism about a Harvard business school graduate better known for high profile deals than higher education.
He didn’t accept a presidential salary, donating it to the campuses instead. Much of his philanthropy focused on the smaller campuses and historically black universities. Spangler and his family foundation have contributed to 120 distinguished professorship endowments across the state.
‘A giant of our state’
In a statement Monday, UNC President Margaret Spellings called Spangler “a great North Carolinian, and he will forever be a giant of our state.”
“He will be remembered as a gifted business leader, a compassionate philanthropist, and above all as a public servant who answered the call of the University at a critical time in its history,” Spellings said. “He believed in the power of education to change lives and transform a state, and he made those possibilities into reality through his life’s work.”
Former UNC President Tom Ross said Spangler always fought for the university’s principles — low tuition and academic freedom, for example. “To me, it was remarkable that he was both interested in and willing to accept the job as president, given his position in life,” Ross said Monday.
Spangler, who engineered the $1.2-billion buyout of Charlotte-based National Gypsum in 1995, had a Forbes-estimated net worth of $4.2 billion.
In 1958, he joined and became president of C.D. Spangler Construction Co., a post he held for 28 years. In 1973, he became chairman of Bank of North Carolina, which he returned to profitability. In 1983, BNC merged with NCNB, and Spangler became the merged bank’s largest shareholder. The company would go on to become NationsBank and later, through more mergers, Bank of America. He joined other major boards, including Jefferson-Pilot Corp. and BellSouth.
His Charlotte roots ran deep.
Public school advocate
Clemmie Dixon Spangler Jr. was born in 1932 at Charlotte’s Presbyterian Hospital, and attended Dilworth Elementary and Alexander Graham. He attended Woodberry Forest School, a boy’s prep school in Virginia, and then enrolled at UNC. He went on to Harvard Business School for a graduate degree.
Spangler gave back to the public schools in his hometown, becoming vice chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, during the difficult days of integration. He also chaired the State Board of Education and the Governor’s Commission on Education for Economic Growth.
Spangler was elected to the school board in 1972, the year after civil rights attorney Julius Chambers sued the board and won the landmark desegregation case Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.
Former Observer publisher Rolfe Neill first got to know Spangler during the 1950s and then again when he returned in 1975 after more than a decade working in other cities. Neill got lunch with Spangler the day after he moved back.
“We had hardly gotten seated at the table when he said, ‘I beg you please, put your children in the public schools,’” said Neill. “He was pitching to try to hold the public school system together.”
The day after a night of bombings targeted the homes of several civil rights leaders and prominent African-Americans in Charlotte, volunteer workers were at the bombed homes repairing brick walls and damaged roofs. Many were from Spangler’s construction company.
“We are trying to make amends,” Spangler told a reporter at the time. “Even though it doesn’t completely heal the wound, maybe it will go a long way toward helping.”
Spangler’s business career included companies from construction to gypsum wallboard to tobacco. In 1988, he was part of a group that made an exploratory offer to buy RJR Nabisco Co. The company rejected that offer as too low, and the episode helped touch off the takeover battle for RJR Nabisco, immortalized in the classic book “Barbarians at the Gate.”
‘He brought leadership’
Former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl said Spangler’s contribution to keeping CMS from flying apart in the wake of the contentious ruling on busing was essential.
“During a very critical period for our school system, he brought leadership,” said McColl, whose business relationship and friendship with Spangler stretched back 50 years.
McColl said Spangler had wide-ranging interests, from astronomy to history to cartography. He loved the intricate machinery of old grandfather clocks, and he read ferociously.
“He would fix any old clock — I’m talking real, real old clocks,” McColl said. “He would replicate parts made by hand 200 years ago. He was a meticulous engineer. ... I had one that didn’t work that I purchased, and he fixed mine.”
McColl said Spangler was an intellectual, but people didn’t really know it.
“He knew more about the subway systems around the world than anyone I know of,” said McColl. One time when they traveled to Paris, Spangler rode every train in the subway to the end of its line and back. “He was just interested.”
McColl added, “If I expressed any interest in something, a week later I’d have books and maps of everything we talked about. It could be Civil War battlefields, it could be anything.”
A discussion of numbers and how you could put the most ping-pong balls in a given space led Spangler to send him two books on the mathematician Fibonacci.
“Which, of course, forced me to read them,” said McColl.
Above all, Spangler loved North Carolina, and his hometown. He gave to a number of philanthropic causes in Charlotte, including major gifts to support the Charlotte Symphony and the Project LIFT effort to help struggling schools in west Charlotte.
Best job in the world
Spangler reinvented his businesses all the time, McColl said. “When he would go into something, he never took a small position. ... He put his money where his brain was.”
But he always said being president of the UNC system was the best job in the world, according to Wyndham Robertson, who served as vice president for communications under Spangler.
“As president of the UNC System, Dick Spangler fought against tuition increases, understanding that many North Carolinians can’t afford what others consider the modest cost of attending a state university,” Robertson said in a statement. “He made the System a more comfortable place for women and minorities; he sought them out and pushed them into positions of leadership. He was a great boss. As the first female vice president of the UNC System, I had some tricky moments, but I always knew he had my back.”
During his tenure at UNC, the funding for research tripled, and the university system’s operating budget almost doubled. The university also launched minimum admission requirements and reforms to intercollegiate athletics.
At the end of his tenure, some grumbled that his focus on raising the fortunes of the smaller institutions, particularly the historically black universities, had hurt the flagships of UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University.
But he had an affinity for his undergraduate alma mater and the Chapel Hill campus. He bought a home on Franklin Street, in walking distance to the Morehead Planetarium, and frequented Lenoir Dining Hall, where he liked to drink chocolate milk and dine with students.
Former UNC President Erskine Bowles said North Carolina has lost “a leader like no other.”
“He was strong, he was forthright, thoughtful, caring,” Bowles said. “Throughout his life, he never varied a degree from his true north in any decision he made or any relationship he had. Every student who enters the university for generations will benefit from those deep values that guided each and every decision that he made.”
Spangler is survived by his wife, Meredith, and daughters Abigail Spangler and Anna Spangler Nelson, who currently serves on the UNC Board of Governors.
News researcher Maria David contributed to this report.