The passing of Dean Smith reminds us that he was much more than a celebrated basketball coach – he was the lens through which much of the nation saw us.
What they saw was a highly intelligent, ethical, religious and caring man who was ahead of his time on the difficult issue of race. As such, Citizen Smith was a priceless ambassador for his basketball program, his university and his state.
Most people around the country could not on a bet have named whoever North Carolina’s governor was at the time. But many had no trouble identifying Carolina’s basketball coach.
It is often prominent citizens such as Dean Smith – rather than political leaders – that have helped set the tone for the state. One could argue that coaches, college presidents, bankers, actors and preachers have had just as much influence as governors and senators.
Actor Andy Griffith, through his various roles, but particularly his TV sitcom set in the fictional town of Mayberry, had a large influence on the public perception of North Carolina as a place of friendly small towns where common sense prevails.
Focus: the future
Think of the influence of University of North Carolina presidents such as William C. Friday and Frank Porter Graham (briefly a U.S. senator) who helped shape generations of Tar Heel leaders. They were more than college administrators. They were also people who were always thinking about the future of the state.
Although not as well-known, I think a large factor in the development of the state has been a forward-looking business community that has been able to look beyond today’s bottom line and see the value of a first-rate university system, community colleges and the Research Triangle Park. I am thinking of people like George Watts Hill, J. Spencer Love, Archie Davis, Hugh McColl, Bill Lee, Charles Cannon and Ed Crutchfield, to name just a very few. It is one of the things that has helped separate North Carolina from the rest of the South.
Probably the most famous and admired North Carolinian alive is the Rev. Billy Graham, who lives in Montreat.
Graham is known for saving souls. But people sometimes forget that Graham used his great moral force to help break the color line at a very difficult time in the South’s history.
During a 1953 rally in Chattanooga, Tenn., Graham told two ushers to leave the barriers separating the races down “or you can go on and have the revival without me.” The barriers were kept down, and subsequent revivals were integrated.
“We have been proud and thought we were better than any other race any other people,” Graham told a white audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going straight into hell because of our pride.”
He befriended the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader whom he called by his nickname Mike, invited him to appear at his crusades, and posted bail for King when he was arrested during the Birmingham protests.
Graham, like Smith, was a man ahead of his time.
Smith was also a deeply religious man who integrated Chapel Hill restaurants, broke the color line for the Carolina basketball squad, made sure nearly all his players graduated and displayed a highly developed social conscience throughout his life. And through all of his achievements on the hardcourt, he maintained a becoming modesty.
North Carolina’s history, of course, is not a straight line. It is often two steps forward and one step back.
But citizens such as Smith represented our best foot forward.