North Carolina said goodbye to trailblazing women and minorities this year. Here are some prominent North Carolinians who made a mark in government and politics who died in 2014.
F.V. Pete Allison of Durham, died in March at age 91. He was a banker, and a community, civic and political leader. He rose to become chairman and CEO of what is now Mutual Community Savings Bank. He also served as chairman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. He and his wife, Lavonia, were powerful voices for black people.
Harris Blake of Pinehurst, who represented Moore, Lee and Harnett counties in the state Senate from 2002 to 2012, died in June at age 84. Blake, a Republican, grew up as an orphan after both his sharecropper parents died when he was 5. He owned a hardware store and then his own real estate business. He was known for his constituent services. To show you what kind of gentleman he was, when my mother died last year, I received a long, heartfelt letter from Blake.
Gene Causby of Clayton who died in November at age 81, spent his life as an educator – teacher, football coach, principle and, in recent decades, an education lobbyist in Raleigh. But perhaps his most important role was in 1969-71, when he and Dudley Flood were North Carolina’s top trouble-shooting team when public schools were undergoing full racial integration. It was a job that required smarts, tact and charm – something that Causby had in spades.
Keith Crisco of Asheboro died in May at age 71. The former state Commerce Secretary and textile executive had just been through a difficult congressional primary battle with pop star Clay Aiken when he collapsed. Before becoming the state’s chief industrial recruiter under Gov. Bev Perdue, Crisco had served his community in many ways, including serving on the Asheboro school board and City Council. Crisco was very North Carolina – camouflaging his Harvard MBA, his White House fellowship, and his CEO credentials under an unassuming country boy demeanor.
Weldon Denny of Raleigh died at 88 in December. Denny was another country boy who knew all there was to know about farm politics, particularly in North Carolina. He worked in a variety of capacities with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was an aide to Gov. Bob Scott and to Agriculture Commissioners Jim Graham and Meg Scott Phipps. The latter posting landed him in some hot water when Phipps was caught up in a political fundraising scandal.
Ralph Edwards, former state prison director, died in June at age 89. Edwards was a lifelong state employee. He began as farm manager for the State School for the Blind and Deaf in 1949. Two years later, he became farm manager for the Caledonia and Odum prisons farm and was with the prison system until his retirement in 1981. But he was truly at home raising cattle on his Franklin County farm.
Jim Fulghum, former state representative from Raleigh, died in July at age 70. Fulghum, a Republican, was one of those rare legislators who had the ability to get along with all kinds of people. Perhaps it had something to being a neurosurgeon or serving in the Gulf War as a major, where he dealt with a broad cross section of people. The legislature does not get many people of his caliber.
Aaron Fussell, former Wake County schools superintendent and state representative, died in July at age 91. Fussell was an educator first and a politician second. I was a young school board reporter when Fussell was superintendent of Wake County schools, where he oversaw the successful racial integration of the schools. I covered him during his 16 years in the state House, where he championed education, and in his retirement, I spoke several times to his civic club. Fussell, a Democrat, had a rare optimistic spirit that I much admired. Perhaps after having received a Bronze Star for having survived 318 days of continuous combat including D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, Fussell figured he had seen early in life the worst that life could throw at him.
James Gallagher, the former director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center in Chapel Hill, died in January at age 87. Gallagher was one of the nation’s leading experts on children with developmental disabilities and also children who were gifted. He was part of Gov. Jim Hunt’s education brain trust, helping design the N.C. School of Science and Math in Durham and chairing the N.C. State Competency Testing Commission.
Becky Heron, the first woman to chair the Durham County commissioners, died in January at age 86. Heron was best known as an environmental advocate, protecting the Eno River and other water resources. She served as county commissioner from 1982 until 2000, except for one term, and was elected chair in 1994.
Col. Richard Holden, the first black commander of the State Highway Patrol, died in August at age 67. Holden was among the first six black troopers hired in 1969. He had a reputation as a straight arrow, who was in charge of internal affairs before getting the top job. Even as the patrol’s top man, the Wendell native was not too proud to stop on a rainy night and help a motorist change a flat tire.
P.R. Latta, a Democratic activist from Raleigh was the very definition of a grass-roots activist. Latta, who died in August at age 95, made an estimated 2 million stakes for yard signs over the years. He was a New Deal, Harry Truman trade unionist who spent his career as an installer and repairman for Southern Bell. When Democratic Gov. Terry Sanford feared his office was being bugged, he had Latta brought in to check the office out.
Ann Majestic, the former Wake County school board attorney, died in August at age 61. Majestic was a nationally recognized expert in education law and she figured in some of North Carolina’s most important legal battles, including the Leandro school funding case and Wake County’s battles over student assignment.
Franklin McCain of Charlotte died in January at age 73. McCain was one of four North Carolina A&T State University students who staged a sit-in protest at Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro on Feb. 1, 1960. The simple protest against segregation reignited the civil rights movement and profoundly changed Southern politics. As the poster at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum says: “Before the march on Washington, Montgomery and Birmingham, there was the walk to Woolworth’s.”
Martin Nesbitt, Senate Democratic leader from Asheville, died in March at age 67. He was a stock-car-loving mountain populist who saw his role as speaking for the average man rather than for the corporate interests in the big cities.
Mary Watson Nooe, a former Raleigh City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate, died in December at age 68. She championed recycling, gay rights, affordable housing and public art.
Mary Horne Odom of Raleigh, died at age 93 in November. The Democrat was the first woman to serve in both houses of the state legislature. Her son John Odom is a Raleigh City Councilman.
Margaret Tennille, a former five-term House member from Winston-Salem, died in July at age 97. Tennille was dedicated to such issues as the justice system, education and women’s rights, and was a leader in the unsuccessful effort to win state ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.