P.H. Craig has the kind of no-nonsense attitude one might expect from a retired Navy commander – until you ask him about his babies.
He has 25, including a cherry red and white 1958 Dodge, vintage World War II military vehicles and a 1960 Chrysler 300F black coupe that NASCAR legend Junior Johnson raced through the Carolina hills with a load of moonshine and revenuers in his dust.
Then there’s the cream-colored 1947 Chrysler DeSoto Custom with a chocolate mohair interior and waterfall-style chrome grille.
It was the classic New York City taxicab, Craig said, with a kick-down gear for easy passing. His father had one, he said, and a 1938 Dodge four-door sedan that’s still on his wish list.
“They are handsome cars,” Craig said. “Even the ’40 Fords and the ’40 Lincoln Zephyrs, they’re going to be in museums one day, because they’re such beautiful artwork.”
Craig, a local Realtor for 50-plus years, is almost as passionate about Orange County’s people and places, including a 77-acre forest off Seawell School Road that’s one of Chapel Hill’s last remaining, large swaths of undeveloped land.
It’s one of 17 county properties he owns and largely the reason Craig was honored in November with the state’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine. The award, established in 1963, honors people with a proven record of service to North Carolina or another special achievement.
The Hillsborough native bought the land and an old homesite along Bolin Creek in 1965 with plans for a cow pasture. He instead spent the next 15 years battling his former partner to hang onto the land.
Craig meant to become a lawyer when he enrolled in UNC’s accelerated law program in 1963. He already had a bachelor’s degree in business administration from UNC and a broker’s license acquired in 1961 after two years aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Purdy.
But a summer job in real estate showed him there was more money in land than legal fees, he said.
His subsequent work earned him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, Realtor Office of the Year in 2006 and Realtor Emeritus in 2008. He retired from the Naval Reserves in 1985, a former commanding officer and executive officer of units in Durham and Raleigh.
His journey, and his Orange County ties, made Craig a lot of friends in high places. The former Orange County Republican Party chairman got to know others through his political work and an unsuccessful 1998 N.C. Senate campaign against former Chapel Hill Mayor and then-Sen. Howard Lee.
Lee was among the many politicos at Craig’s November ceremony. Former Republican Lt. Gov. and U.S. Congressman Jim Gardner, chair of the state ABC Commission, and Bill Cobey, a former congressman, UNC athletic director and chair of the State Board of Education, presented the award.
Gardner met Craig during his 1966 congressional campaign. Craig remembers burning up a Volkswagon that year stuffing mailboxes for Gardner.
“(Craig) said, we’re going to knock on every door in Chapel Hill, and we’re going to ask for their support,” Gardner said. “We knocked on every door in Chapel Hill for about six months. I could go to the houses in Chapel Hill, close my eyes and see the people there.”
“If we had more citizens who cared about our state and local communities like P.H. has done, then we’d have a much better state,” he said.
The ceremony for Craig was a moment to remember family and dear friends, former UNC President Bill Friday and Chapel Hill Mayor Jonathan Howes, who have died. Craig survived his own brush with death years ago when doctors revived him three times after his heart stopped.
They cooled his body temperature with an experimental procedure, leaving him on life support for five days but averting brain damage, he said.
“I believe in God, I believe in prayer, and I believe in miracles, because I am one,” Craig said.
He also remembers the regular folks, including Percy Tuck, the houseboy at his Lambda Chi fraternity house in the 1960s, who introduced him to many of the local black families at a time when the races rarely mixed.
Craig sold one of his first houses to Charlie Mason, owner of Mason Grocery store and Mason’s Motor Court and Starlight Supper Club, where James Brown and Ella Fitzgerald performed in the 1960s.
Builder Charles Brooks recommended one of his first downtown purchases – a former “piccolo” house on Basnight Lane where folks danced to the jukebox and drank bootleg whiskey. Ladies entertained upstairs, Craig said, and they would hide the liquor in a false floor when the cops showed up.
“These were my damn good friends,” he said. “They were not political. They were very fine people.”
At 77, Craig’s not planning to retire. He lives a bachelor’s life on an old farm just outside town, working from a paper-filled desk in the kitchen. He still enjoys the challenge of commercial real estate, which lets him exercise the “little bit of a frustrated lawyer in me,” he said.
He also works out every day and regularly hits the floor to shag dance with friends. He gives back by teaching others to dance and fixing up classic cars to raise money for local groups and causes. And he’s handy with a hammer, too – “I’m a good framer. I’m not a good finisher,” he said.
He likes that people enjoy walking his land along the creek, despite past damage from mountain bikes, he said. While he has never cut the trees, there may be a thinning in the future to reduce the fire hazard and make the forest healthier, he said.
He rejects interested developers but remains guarded about the future.
“I don’t mind telling you I have trouble grappling with that. Who wants to think about what happens when you die,” he said. “It is the most developable piece of property in town, but I want to see that the area around the creek is not touched, and I’ve left instructions for that.”