Aaron Plyler, a Union County businessman who became one of North Carolina’s most powerful state senators and budget writers, died Tuesday, five weeks shy of his 90th birthday.
Plyler was a central figure from an era when Democrats dominated the General Assembly and a small group of lawmakers wielded disproportionate influence over state budgets and policy.
Though he never attended college, Plyler was a strong advocate of higher education and played a pivotal role in the growth of UNC Charlotte.
“There was no better fella in the world,” said Democrat Tony Rand, who served with Plyler in the state Senate. “If Aaron told you something you could take it to the bank. He was absolutely a man of his word. He loved his family. He loved sweet Union.”
The youngest of eight, Plyler grew up on the family farm in Monroe, about a mile from the home of future Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. After working in the family business, he became president of Plyler Grading and Paving. He was elected to the state House in 1974 and Senate in 1982.
He rose to become chairman of a budget committee and a member of the “super-sub,” for super subcommittee, the relative handful of lawmakers who would write the state budget behind closed doors. Republicans, then a distinct minority, called them “the Gang of Eight.”
Plyler likened the group to a legislative board of directors.
“Because, you see, there would be no way in the world that 170 people could sit down and go through all we have to go through,” he once told a reporter. “They wouldn’t put up with all the long hours.”
Despite their often adversarial role, Republican Gov. Jim Martin respected Plyler.
“He was always trustworthy,” Martin said. “He was a straight shooter.”
Colleagues enjoyed his company.
Former Sen. David Hoyle recalled the annual “Dead Ham Breakfast” started by Plyler and lobbyist Zeb Alley. They’d provide country ham and fixins for a cafeteria breakfast for lawmakers and their staffs.
Plyler was an ardent supporter of education, including community colleges and the fledgling university in Charlotte. Former UNCC Chancellor Jim Woodward said the Union County senator once played a big role in sustaining the school’s growth.
In 1994, red tape threatened to block the school’s first doctoral programs, which school officials considered key to the university’s continued growth and to retaining faculty and students. An appeal to Plyler resulted in the necessary budget adjustment. The school now has 23 Ph.D programs.
“His support was critical,” Woodward said Thursday. “Aaron was one of the most important supporters we had in the General Assembly that we had during my time as chancellor.”
Plyler went on to be honored by several colleges, including honorary doctorates from Wingate and Pfeiffer universities. “He had more honorary degrees than a thermometer,” Rand said.
Services for Plyler are scheduled for Friday, Aug. 26 at 3 p.m. at Benton Heights Presbyterian Church. Visitation will precede the service from 12:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.
“He was always fun to be with and he was always looking on the bright side of things,” said Rand.
“He’s one of the people in this world I’m so glad I got to know, because he added to my life immeasurably.”