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Our governors -- How quickly we forget

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, June 20, 2005

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Who remembers Governor Luther Hodges?

Very few of us.

At least that is the word from his son. When Luther Hodges Jr. was growing up, he had to get used to being called “Little Luther.” Even when he had made a name for himself as a top executive at NCNB and as a prominent political leader, he had to answer questions like, “Are you kin to the real Luther Hodges?”

Luther Hodges Jr. admits that these questions annoyed him, and that he enjoyed the “anonymity” when he moved away from North Carolina years ago. But, when he moved back to North two years ago, he was disappointed to find that most North Carolinians no longer recognized the Luther Hodges name.

Luther Hodges Jr. can blame his father. Governor Hodges did not care much for monuments. So there are not any big buildings or long stretches of highway named for him. Appreciation of his important role in North Carolina political and economic life is limited to those who lived here in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when he served as our state’s governor, U.S. Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and a leader of the effort to establish the Research Triangle Park.

But whether we remember Governor Hodges or not, our state would be a very different place to live had he not been led to serve us.

Hodges was the only business executive to serve as North Carolina’s governor during the last century. It could be argued that he was an accidental governor. In 1952, after his retirement as an executive of Marshall Field and Company, he won election as lieutenant governor. Two years later he became governor upon the death of Governor William Umstead.

Hodges did not have the political experience to be an ordinary governor of North Carolina. He had not spent a lifetime cultivating the connections with party leaders and government officials, the kinds of contacts that most governors use to their advantage. But, according to Ed Rankin, Hodge’s assistant and author of a short biography in “The North Carolina Century: Tar Heels Who Made a Difference, 1900-2000,” Hodges had other special qualities. Rankin writes, “When Hodges became governor, he plunged in headlong, quickly adjusting to all new challenges as best he could.”

Operating initially without the normal political contacts, Hodges had a different kind of network. His business contacts and active leadership on Rotary gave him connections with civic leaders throughout the state.

He brought something else to the office, according to Rankin, “a businesslike approach to operating the governor’s office. He had learned long ago the necessity of being organized to achieve the best results with his time and efforts…. [H]e knew how to select staff, delegate responsibilities, and expect results. He did his homework and expected others to do the same.”

None of Hodges’ successors have been business executives, but the tradition of business-like management has been a positive influence on all of them.

Some people argue that Hodges’ greatest contribution to the state was his effort to establish the Research Triangle Park. Other leaders deserve to share credit for the establishment of the Park and its success. But without Hodges’ tenacious commitment to its success, the Park could not have succeeded and developed the high-paying research and manufacturing jobs to North Carolina.

Hodges led the state during the early stages of its adjustment to the desegregation directive of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. Today, fifty years later, some critics fault Hodges for moving too slow to integrate the state’s public schools. Back then, however, the majority of white North Carolinians probably thought he was too “soft” for not resisting the Supreme Court. While other southern states developed plans to close schools, Hodges committed to keeping them open in North Carolina. His success in keeping the schools “on a businesslike basis” may actually be one of his most important achievements.

Another Hodges tradition that his successors have tried to follow is the hunt for industry. Some reports credit him with a gain of more than 1000 new plants while he was governor.

What other lessons could we learn from Governor Hodges’ example? The people of North Carolina need for someone like Ed Rankin to write a comprehensive biography of Luther Hodges so that we can put his service in proper perspective. In the meantime, those who want to know more about him can visit a new exhibit about him ("The International Legacy of a North Carolina Statesman.") at the Chapel Hill Museum in Chapel Hill, running through October 23.


D.G. Martin is the author of “Interstate Eateries” a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina’s interstate highways—available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409). He is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (June 26) guest is Walter Turner, author of “Paving Tobacco Road.”

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Our governors -- How quickly we forget
Governor Luther Hodges (with flower on lapel) discusses plans for the Research Triangle Park.

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