Durham News: Opinion

D.G. Martin: Celebrating connections to N.C. Award winners

By D.G. Martin

Finally, something to brag about, I thought as I made my way to the annual dinner for the presentation of this year’s North Carolina Awards.

These awards recognize contributions in the fields of fine art, literature, public service and science. I am always amazed to learn about the accomplishments and contributions of the award winners each year. But most of them usually have been strangers to me. Not this year. Of the six winners, my family and I have close connections with four.

This year’s recipients were Tony Abbott of Davidson for Literature; Dr. Anthony Atala of Winston-Salem for Science; Senator Jim Broyhill of Winston-Salem for Public Service; Dr. Everette James of Chapel Hill for Fine Arts; Howard Lee of Chapel Hill for Public Service; and Patricia McBride of Charlotte for Fine Arts.

One of those I did not know is Dr. Atalia. But his ongoing work could turn out to be most important. He leads an effort at Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine to fabricate human tissue into replacement human organs. If I should need a new bladder, his group can make one for me. I would not have to wait for a donor and, since my tissue would be a building block for the new organ, there would be no risk of rejection.

Ms. McBride is another new acquaintance. Her amazing career as a performing dancer and teacher is inspiring. As the youngest principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, she danced with Baryshnikov. Today, she and her husband, as leaders of the Charlotte Ballet, bring world-class dance to North Carolina.

Perhaps the most inspiring presentation honored Tony Abbott. It featured a stirring reading of his work and his poignant sharing of how the death of his young daughter led him to begin writing poetry. The Abbotts’ Lake Norman home is next door to their good friends, Dottie and former Gov. Jim Martin, who also live next door to the house my parents built. My brother Mike lives there now. Dottie and Jim sat with the Abbotts at the awards dinner. When Jim saw me, he told me he took Mike to the symphony a few nights ago to hear Mahler. I said my brother was lucky to have a former governor taking him to hear his favorite music. “No,” Jim said, “I was the lucky one. Your brother is a smart man.”

My friend and former Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee was honored for his long public service career, including being the first African American to be elected mayor of a predominantly white southern town since Reconstruction. I got to know Lee best when I was representing the UNC System in the General Assembly. Then Senator Lee was chair of the state senate’s higher education appropriations committee. His support for pubic universities was a godsend.

Another award-winning Chapel Hill friend, Dr. Everette James, taught me about how building a focused art collection can make each individual painting more valuable. He once drove me to Robersonville to show me an old Primitive Baptist church he transformed into a museum for collections of North Carolina quilts and pottery.

I did not realize how connected my family is to Senator Jim Broyhill until his daughter and wife, and later the senator himself, enthusiastically told me how wonderful and smart my brother Mike is. Broyhill was honored for his service in the U.S. Congress and Gov. Martin’s cabinet. Mike regularly drives from Lake Norman to Winston Salem to help manage the Broyhills’ gardens.

On the way home I felt great pride in my connections to the honorees and first pretended Mike had nothing to do with it. But then I had to acknowledge my brother’s quiet but dynamic presence in North Carolina made him one of the evening’s big winners.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.