Rob Christensen

Christensen: Recalling those who passed in 2015


Ballenger Staff Photographer

It’s the time of year to remember a few of the people in the world of North Carolina politics and public affairs who left us this year. They included congressmen, state lawmakers, newsmen, political activists and others. As always, it is a flawed list. I always leave out many worthwhile people.

Here are a few of them.

Cass Ballenger, a nine-term Republican former Congressman from Hickory was an American original. His quips were often politically incorrect. But the wealthy manufacturer was also generous in helping high-poverty areas of Central America, starting a foundation that established several medical clinics, sponsoring an orphanage, sending school furniture and textbooks and delivering other relief supplies. Venezuelan strong man Hugo Chavez and his Cabinet once showed up for a barbecue at Ballenger’s Hickory house. Ballenger also served as a county commissioner and legislator.

Henson Barnes always held the reins of power lightly. Barnes served in the legislature from 1975 until 1992, the last two terms as president pro tempore of the Senate. Barnes was never without a broad smile and a cheerful disposition. He wanted to be attorney general, but was cut off at the pass by Mike Easley. The Democrat was a Goldsboro lawyer, a blueberry farmer, and a former Army paratrooper.

Howard Coble, a Greensboro Republican who served in Congress for 30 years. The folksy Coble was a master of retail politics, never missing a Christmas parade or an Eagle Scout ceremony. He is best known for being one of two members of Congress to pledge to not to accept a pension, although it ended up not hurting him too badly since he died within a year of his retirement. A lawyer, Coble was a state legislator and served as secretary of revenue under Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser. He served much of his life in the Coast Guard reserve.

Curtis Gans was part of a remarkable political friendship that helped bring down a president. Gans teamed up with Al Lowenstein who successfully helped him run for editor of The Daily Tar Heel, the student paper at UNC-Chapel Hill. The two liberal activists would team up again in 1967 to begin a Dump Johnson Movement, which played a pivotal role in forcing President Lyndon Johnson out of the 1968 presidential race. In later life, Gans became co-founder and director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington, where he was an expert on voter participation.

Jimmy Goins, was the respected and charismatic Lumbee Tribal chairman from 2004 to 2010. Goins fought unsuccessfully to gain federal recognition for the 55,000-member tribe. He also served two tours of duty in Vietnam as an infantry squad leader with the Army. He was killed in a car accident.

Steve Goss, a Democratic former state senator from western North Carolina, proved you could be a good man and serve in politics. He was a high school teacher, football coach, Baptist missionary to Japan and at the time of his death he was pastor of Fletcher Memorial Baptist Church in Jefferson.

Harold Hardison was as powerful as any legislator in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The Deep Run resident was the budget chief, a key business ally and the enemy of the environmental lobbyists. Hardison ran for lieutenant governor in 1988. Hardison is a reminder that conservative Democrats of yesteryear were not much different from today’s Republicans. Hardison served in the Air Force in the Pacific in World War II.

Dick Hatch was one of the best North Carolina journalists of his generation. The Mississippi native worked for United Press International covering the South from 1955-75, after a stint in U.S. Army counterintelligence. He settled in Raleigh, where he was star of UNC-TV in the 1970’s and 1980’s. There he produced the nightly news of the legislature, moderated gubernatorial debates and produced the Globe Watch series, which took him to Indonesia, Scandinavia, Greece, Turkey and Finland. He retired to his fishing at Oak Island, which is where he died.

Dot Helms was the supporting spouse for one of the most influential political figures North Carolina has ever produced, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. Dot and Jesse Helms met as reporters for The News & Observer. At the time, Jesse was non-political but Dot was a conservative Democrat. She would remain interested in politics the rest of her life.

Jonathan Howes bridged the worlds of town and gown. Howes served as Chapel Hill mayor and as Secretary of the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources under Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. But his main job was as director of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies, where he also co-chaired the development of the campus master plan.

John Kerr III was a Democratic legislative powerhouse serving eight terms in the Senate and three in the House, championing programs for Eastern North Carolina such as the Global TransPark and the East Carolina School of Dental Medicine. The Goldsboro lawyer grew up in Warrenton, a member of a famous North Carolina political family that controlled Warren County politics for decades. His father, John Kerr Jr., as House speaker delivered a speech that was credited with creating the N.C. Museum of Art. His grandfather, John Kerr, was a congressman. Kerr served in the National Guard

Jesse Ledbetter, a Republican former state senator and Buncombe County commissioner, died in November. During World War II, Ledbetter served as a B-24 Liberator pilot who led 50 bombing missions against the Nazis in Europe.

J.K. Sherron, was part of the N.C. State mafia who ran came into power with Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. He was deputy secretary of administration, director of the State Property Office, and director of Purchase and Contract. He served five terms in the state Senate and was instrumental in developing the state park system and creating the Centennial Authority.

Claude Sitton was a legendary civil rights reporter before he became editor of The News and Observer in 1968, a post he would hold until his retirement in 1990. The tough-as -nails editor helped keep state government honest and kept the big boys looking over their shoulders. I was among the many young reporters who counted Sitton as a mentor. He served in the Navy during World War II.

Asa T. Spaulding Jr., was a businessman, TV commentator and newspaper columnist. A member of a prominent Durham family, Spaulding was a pioneer black Republican. He was the Republican nominee for secretary of state in 1976 and ran a competitive campaign for Durham mayor in 1983.

Tim Valentine served six terms in Congress where he was a moderate Democrat. Valentine’s service in politics spanned decades. He served in the N.C. House in the fifties, was legal counsel and state Democratic Chairman under Democratic Gov. Dan Moore in the sixties, and served in Congress in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, the Nashville attorney was an advocate for campaign finance reform. Valentine came from a political family. His father served briefly on the N.C. Supreme Court. Valentine served in the Army Air Force during World War II.