Keep our Grandfather's fire burning

Published April 28, 2013

By D. G. Martin

By D. G. Martin, host of UNC's North Carolina Bookwatch

“Everybody in North Carolina should have heard that speech.”

 Someone had just heard Tom Lambeth’s recent remarks to the North Caroliniana Society, which was presenting him with its annual award for service to our state.

Lambeth, longtime former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, used the occasion to talk about some of the people and some of the stories that help define North Carolina and its history for him.

Lambeth acknowledged that North Carolina had sometimes been called the Rip Van Winkle state or the “valley of humility between two mountains of conceit.” (“Conceit,” Lambert quipped, is not always so bad if it is “informed conceit.”)

How did the state rise from this humble status to be a progressive leader in its region?

One of the keys, Lambeth believes, is that its people are determined to do things to make the state a better place, often overcoming great obstacles.  Sometimes, he said, the state’s people “just don't know they can’t, so it turns out that they can, and do.”

UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Government founder Albert Coates told about a farmer from North Carolina who explained his successes despite having no education, “When you ain't got no education, you just have to use your head.”

North Carolinians, Lambeth said, just will not accept anyone's putting their state down. Once when a graduate of the UNC School of the Arts in Winston Salem was asked why, with all his talents, he stayed in North Carolina, he replied, “If I am talented it's because I am in North Carolina.”

Lambeth reviewed the state's effort to retrieve the stolen copy of the Bill of Rights, which had been taken at the end of the Civil War by an Ohio soldier and made its way into the hands of those who would try to make a fortune by selling it back to North Carolina. But North Carolinians would not be pushed around and ultimately retrieved the copy without paying a ransom. The message from North Carolina: “We will not pay for contraband.”

North Carolinians simply will not be pushed around. Lambeth told about a mountain man who owned a cabin right in the middle of a planned TVA lake. When a government representative came to tell him he must move, the mountain man, sitting on the cabin porch with a rifle, said he would not leave. The government man asked, “Why won’t you move?”

“Come in and I'll show you. See that fire in the fireplace. My grandfather started the fire and it’s been burning here for 100 years and I'm not going to move and let that fire go out.”

The creative government representative worked out a solution that involved moving the entire house, fireplace, fire and all.

The mountain man explained, “The one thing I was responsible for was to keep that fire going.”

And he did.

Another stubborn North Carolinian was Senator Sam Ervin. As a young state legislator, he fought a bill that would have banned the teaching of evolution in the public schools, saying the bill would serve “no good purpose except to absolve monkeys of their responsibility for the human race.”

Why do North Carolinians have a special feeling for its university? Lambeth told the story of a man at a senior citizen center in Madison County who was wearing a UNC cap. Somebody asked him, “Did you go there?”

“No,” he answered, “but I own it.”

Lambeth told his audience to keep working for a better North Carolina, reminding them of that mountain man who was determined to keep his grandfather’s fire alive.

Quoting the late Congressman Roy Taylor, Lambeth challenged his audience to keep the fire of North Carolina’s greatness burning. Otherwise, “the ?Lord may forgive us, but our children and grandchildren will not.”