Chapel Hill News

Former Chapel Hill Mayor Roland ‘Sandy’ McClamroch dead at 90

Roland “Sandy” McClamroch poses for a portrait with his wife Bets McClamroch after he was named a Town Treasure by the Chapel Hill Historical Society in 2009.
Roland “Sandy” McClamroch poses for a portrait with his wife Bets McClamroch after he was named a Town Treasure by the Chapel Hill Historical Society in 2009. Contributed

Former Mayor Roland P. “Sandy” McClamroch Jr., 90, died Wednesday at home in the Carol Woods Retirement Community.

A funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, at University Presbyterian Church, 209 E. Franklin St., McClamroch’s friend and former partner Jim Heavner said.

McClamroch, the founder of WCHL radio, a two-term Chapel Hill alderman and mayor from 1961 to 1968, was born in Chapel Hill on July 6, 1925.

He was drafted into World War II in 1943, serving as a U.S. Army private first class in the European Theater and at the Battle of the Bulge. He returned home in 1946 and earned a business degree from UNC before marrying Elizabeth “Bet” Pou.

McClamroch founded Carol Woods in 1979, serving as its first president, and had an active role the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Jaycees and Chapel Hill-Carrboro Junior Chamber of Commerce.

He became president of the Chamber of Commerce, which inducted him in 2013 into its Business Hall of Fame. In 2009, he was recognized as a Town Treasure by the Chapel Hill Historical Society.

His wish for the future, McClamroch said at the time, was that the community preserve the charm that was part of the Chapel Hill in which he grew up and continue to offer great things to its residents.

“He didn’t come across as someone who was pushy in any way but very gentle,” said the Rev. Robert Seymour. “He was very effective and had a distinguished career in Chapel Hill.”

McClamroch also was active in the Democratic Party and served as chairman in 1993 of Triangle Service Center Inc., a subsidiary of Research Triangle Park developer, Research Triangle Foundation.

WCHL went on the air as a 5,000-watt AM station in 1953. He didn’t know much about radio, McClamroch said in a 2014 interview, but he knew a lot of business people and that he had to get more money than he spent.

The station launched many careers, including those of future owner Heavner, Charles Kuralt, Carl Cassell and Ty Boyd.

McClamroch made a rich and wonderful contribution to the community, said Heavner, who was hired while a college student in 1958. He and McClamroch were longtime partners and also started the Village Advocate, which they sold to the News & Observer in 1996.

“For me to try to talk about what he did for me and what I think he did to establish the tone for the radio station is incalculable,” Heavner said.

He eventually bought McClamroch’s shares in the station, inviting his former partner back in 2013 for WCHL’s 60th anniversary broadcast.

“I thought what a great opportunity for Sandy to talk about his vision,” Heavner said. “Sandy said, ‘Well, I was selling sheet metal down in eastern North Carolina and I had a chance to ask these folks for the opportunity to get this frequency and it seemed like that would be better’.”

McClamroch was modest to a fault, patient and a man of few words, Heavner and others said. Those traits helped him guide Chapel Hill at a time when civil rights activists were facing great danger, they said.

Heavner recalled when McClamroch went to then-Gov. Terry Sanford and arranged to have a Highway Patrol training session come to UNC during a time of civil rights protests. Every time a car filled with troublemakers showed up to harass the activists on Franklin Street, he said, a Highway Patrol officer would be dropped off. The troublemakers never got out of their cars, he said.

“At a time when there were loud voices everywhere, Sandy had the greatest patience and the greatest ability to listen to them in a way and to understand those points of view in a way that caused others to want to help him,” he said.

That attitude and willingness to step up – and that of former Police Chief William Blake – kept the peace in Chapel Hill, said former mayor and state Sen. Howard Lee. He was elected the state’s first black mayor in 1969.

“I was not here, of course, but I learned about it after I got here,” Lee said. “While it was very nasty in many ways, it was not violent, and I think that’s due largely to Sandy’s leadership at that time.”

McClamroch was always available to talk, even if they disagreed, Lee said, particularly about the need for buses.

McClamroch had studied the possibility but thought it wasn’t a good idea, Lee said. A couple of years after Lee helped to establish Chapel Hill Transit, however, McClamroch came to him and thanked him, he said. Eye surgery had left McClamroch unable to drive, so he started using the bus, Lee said.

“I thought that took a really big person to do what he did, but that was Sandy,” Lee said. “He was always a very gracious man and certainly one that expressed warmth but also caring and always approached with moderation.”

Heavner, who last visited with McClamroch on Sunday, said his friend spent the years out of the limelight playing golf, on his boat and reading.

McClamroch is survived by his wife, with whom he also shared a home in Morehead City.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb