Rob Christensen

He came from small-town origins and gave NC one of the nation's best urban policies

Former Lt. Gov. Pat Taylor, who died last month, was a gifted storyteller and of some his stories involved former Wake Forest basketball coach Bones McKinney.

When one of Bones’ players flunked his test and was ruled ineligible for an important upcoming game, Bones begged the Wake Forest president to show some leniency.

The president said he would reconsider if the player could answer one question. Bones returned with the player, and the president asked: “What is the capital of North Carolina.”

The player thought for a moment and responded, “Cary.”

Before the president could say anything, Bones said, “That’s fine. Cary is only 15 miles from Raleigh, so I’m sure (the president) will give you an 85, which is passing.”

Taylor, who died last month at age 94, was a major North Carolina figure in the 1960s and '70s, serving as an influential legislator, House speaker, lieutenant governor, and a strong, although unsuccessful, Democratic candidate for governor in 1972.

Taylor spent most of his life in Wadesboro where he was a self-proclaimed country lawyer. His house was two blocks from his office, his church was a block away, and he was within three blocks of a doctor and a hospital, the library and post office. His law office was 100 feet from the Anson County Courthouse.

“I attribute my good health and happy life to living in a small town and country community,” Taylor observed near the end of his life.

Despite being a believer in the virtues of small-town North Carolina, Taylor was the architect of one the nation’s best urban policies — the state’s annexation law.

The 1959 law allowed towns and cities to annex contiguous land when it became urbanized in return for providing municipal services. Experts have lauded the law as one reason such Tar Heel cities as Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro were able to expand — annexing new suburbs, shopping centers and suburban office parks — and avoid the deterioration of many landlocked northern cities. In many parts of the country, cities are tax drains; in North Carolina they are tax generators.

Unfortunately, the Republican legislature a few years ago gutted the annexation law. But not before the law benefited North Carolina’s urban areas for more than a half century.

That was not Taylor’s only legacy.

As a key House committee chairman in 1961, Taylor helped push through court reform — replacing some 5,000 justices of the peace with a system of new district court judges and a N.C. Court of Appeals.

Taylor was House speaker when the legislature met in special session in January 1966, to draw new lines in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Baker v. Carr one-man, one vote ruling.

Prior to the change, the state House had 120 members with 100 elected from each of the state’s 100 counties and 20 apportioned to the largest counties. That meant that Tyrrell County with 4,520 people had the same representation as Wayne County with 82,059 people.

The new districts resulted in a shift of political power to the urban areas, and toward the Republicans that is still being felt today.

While he was speaker in 1965, Taylor joined with Gov. Dan Moore and Lt. Gov. Bob Scott in hammering out a political compromise to the Speaker Ban — an ill-conceived law passed by the legislature banning communists and those who refused to testify before Congress from speaking on state campuses.

North Carolina passed the law in reaction to civil rights demonstrations, and there were threats to the accreditation of the state universities. The law was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968.

Annexation, court reform, redistricting and fixing the Speaker Ban is a pretty hefty legacy for any leader.

He never became governor, losing in the 1972 Democratic primary to Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, who in turn lost to Republican Jim Holshouser.

Taylor was a progressive leader with a light, country-boy touch that allowed him to form friendships across ideological lines.

He was a hiking buddy with former Gov. Terry Sanford and a golfing partner with U.S. District Judge James McMillan, who authored a landmark Charlotte-Mecklenburg busing case. But he also befriended many conservatives. He knew most everybody who mattered in North Carolina.

His father, also named Pat Taylor, also served as lieutenant governor, from 1949-53.

Among his friends was the legendary and strong-willed Albert Coates, the founder of the Institute of Government in Chapel Hill, now called the School of Government.

Taylor told the story of when an aging Coates decided it was time to shop for a final resting place at a perpetual care cemetery in Chapel Hill.

Coates was floored when the salesman told him the plot cost $1,500.

“Good God Almighty, boy!” Coates exclaimed. “You could buy a farm in Johnston County for $1,500.’’

The salesman said: “But Dr. Coates, it's not just the lot you are buying. For $1,500 you get the lot and we agree to look after it forever.”

Replied Coates: “Boy, I’m not planning to be out here but three days.”

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532; @oldpolhack