Rob Christensen

Two small-town boys helped run Raleigh for decades

Banks Talley
Banks Talley News & Observer

For much of its history, Raleigh was a pleasant, white-collar town dominated by two large institutions – state government and N.C. State University.

During the post-World War II period, no two men knew more about those institutions than Sam Johnson and Banks Talley, both of whom recently left us at age 90.

Both were small-town Southern boys – Johnson from rural Sampson County and Talley from Bennettsville, S.C., both World War II vets, both family men involved in their churches, both old-school gentlemen whose exceptional skills in dealing with people, high intelligence, and personal integrity enabled them to operate for generations no matter who was in power.

Bringing the arts to N.C. State

Talley’s first job was as assistant dean of students at N.C. State in 1951, rising to become vice chancellor for student affairs. He would spend the next 33 years helping run the university, serving under five chancellors.

To understand Talley’s impact, you must realize that the NCSU student center is not named after a chancellor or some big donor – but after Banks Talley. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the student union is named after Frank Porter Graham, perhaps the university’s most famous president.

Talley was a cultural force. He helped create the Friends of the College series, which from 1959-1993 greatly enriched the lives of people living in Raleigh and Eastern North Carolina by bringing in such performers as pianist Van Cliburn, violinist Itzhak Perlman, the New York Ballet and the Royal Scots Guard.

He was also vital to the creation of the music and theater departments at NCSU, the Thompson Theater, the Craft Center, and the new Gregg Museum in the former chancellor’s home on Hillsborough Street. State may have been a land-grant school best known for turning out people with technical skills such as engineering and textiles, but Talley believed in educating the whole man or woman.

He twice took a year’s leave of absence from NCSU – once to be Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt’s first chief of staff in 1977 and again in 1983 when he was executive vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.

After retiring in 1984, he served 11 years as executive director of the N.C. Symphony.

Talley remembered everyone’s name, was an inveterate letter writer, and had an extrovert’s personality. To be around him was a pleasure.

Powerful lobbyist ‘Mr. Big’

If there was anything that Sam Johnson didn’t know about the legislature, it probably wasn’t worth knowing.

He was an influential legislator, a powerful lobbyist, a legal counsel to legislative leaders, and managed the campaigns of legislative leaders. This was during a time when the N.C. General Assembly was arguably the most powerful in the country.

Johnson, a poor farm boy who became a Raleigh lawyer, served 10 years in the state House (1965-74), rising to become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He was involved in most of the major issues of the era: court reform, liquor laws, automobile inspections, creation of the alcohol studies center at Chapel Hill, protection of the coast.

So powerful was Johnson, when he purchased tickets for himself and several other couples for the Carolina-Duke football game and they came back on the 35-yard line, he returned them, and soon received a new set on the 50-yard line.

Later the same day, Johnson and friends were 15 minutes late for the start of a performance at Playmakers Theater in Chapel Hill. The show was delayed until he arrived – much to Johnson’s embarrassment. At intermission, Johnson was shown the features of the theater that needed improvement.

But despite such stories, it was not Johnson’s way to throw his weight around.

Johnson always paid his own way. In his memoirs, Johnson recalls turning down a lobbyist’s offer to fly his wife and him to watch Carolina play in the Orange Bowl. When he was named Appropriations chairman, he asked a lobbyist for the N.C. Association of Educators to remove the bouquet of flowers sent to his office saying, “Sam Johnson does not need flowers to do his job.”

He also recalls receiving what he viewed as a bribe from a junior bank official. Johnson told the banker it was stupid and if he did it again he would report him to the State Bureau of Investigation. “Since I do not know what he told his colleagues, I told the chairman of the Banking Committee, of which I was a member, that I would vote no on every bill to send a message back to him and his colleagues and I explained to my local friendly bank why, without identifying the persons,’’ Johnson wrote.

After serving in the legislature, Johnson became legal counsel to Jimmy Green, a conservative Democrat, first as House speaker and then as lieutenant governor. He also managed Green’s 1976 campaign for lieutenant governor.

Johnson notes rather dryly that he and Green had somewhat different views on accepting freebies. But he and Green remained friends.

Although Johnson would continue to practice law, he also became a major business lobbyist from 1978 until 2005, and was often rated as the most influential lobbyist. A profile in The Independent Weekly described him as “Mr. Big.”

Johnson held a mid-session “stress breaker” party at the Kerr Scott Building featuring a country band, barbecue and square dancing that was attended by hundreds.

But there was nothing flashy about the slow-talking, soft-spoken Johnson, who would often be among the first people in the Legislative Building to look at copies of bills. His self-deprecating style as a country lawyer wore well in a legislature dominated by small-town conservative Democrats.

They were different men. Talley enjoyed the opera in his spare time; Johnson fishing. Talley was a talker; Johnson chose his words carefully.

But in an era when Raleigh had little industry or corporations, both understood what made the city tick in ways that few of us ever will.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532; robc@newsobserver.com

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