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Liz Hair, who pioneered the way for women in Mecklenburg politics, leaves powerful legacy at 94

By Dannye Romine Powell
dpowell@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/19/15/44/hTBJn.Em.138.jpeg|316
    1974 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO - 1974 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
    Liz Hair was a fixture in Charlotte politics.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/19/15/44/i1p20.Em.138.jpeg|500
    1975 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO -
    Liz Hair watches balloonist David Robinson heating the air with propane jets to get the balloon off the ground. Hair became involved in Charlotte politics after moving from Missouri.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/19/15/44/dC9WW.Em.138.jpeg|209
    Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Liz Hair, center, one of the Governor’s Conference 2011 Hall of Fame Inductees, receives her award from Gov. Bev Perdue at the NC Governor’s Conference for Women as Cammy Bain, left, looks on.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/19/15/44/xwrhh.Em.138.jpeg|447
    1975 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO -
    Liz Hair, chairman of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, makes chips fly as she takes part in the ribbon cutting ceremonies at the dedication of Homelight’s new headquarters near Charlotte. After serving two terms as chairman, Hair focused on programs for children, women and senior citizens.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/19/15/44/1jjyLm.Em.138.jpeg|415
    1975 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO -
    Charlotte Mayor John Belk and Liz Hair skated to the center of the Ice Capades Chalet ice rink to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremonies of Eastland Mall. Hair transformed county politics and became a key figure in the arts and charities.

In the early 1950s, when most stay-at-home wives and mothers didn’t venture beyond their bridge clubs, church circles or PTA meetings, willowy, 5-foot-9 Liz Hair pushed a baby stroller into the heart of Charlotte politics.

By 1974, she headed the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners and soon was known as the most powerful woman in town.

As a staunch Democrat, she helped create the county’s first affirmative action plan, the Charlotte Women’s Political Caucus and the Mecklenburg County Democratic Women’s Club.

Elisabeth Green Hair died early Wednesday at her home on Stanford Place. She was 94. A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Saturday at Myers Park Presbyterian Church.

“It took courage to put yourself out there,” said Sis Kaplan, an early Charlotte civic leader and Hair’s friend and supporter. “But that’s who she was – courageous. She didn’t play games.”

“She was a powerhouse to all of us women,” said Mary Lou Babb, who co-founded the Women’s Impact Fund in 2003.

As a commissioner, and later as the first woman elected chair, Hair pushed for the county to take over and improve ambulance service. She was unrelenting in her efforts to establish a Commission on the Status of Women, a Battered Women’s Shelter, a stand-alone Mecklenburg County Mental Health Center and the Metro School for challenged children.

She served on the UNCC Board of Trustees and the boards of United Community Services, the Mecklenburg Savings and Loan, Planned Parenthood, and United Way.

In 1990, as chair of the local Arts & Science Council, she spearheaded efforts to relocate the N.C. Dance Theater from Winston-Salem to Charlotte, and to renovate Spirit Square into a performing and visual arts center.

Hair was named WBT’s Woman of the Year, Central Charlotte Association’s Career Woman of the Year, and won the Women’s Equality Day Award. In November 2011, she was inducted into the state Women’s Hall of Fame.

A portion of the 14-mile Little Sugar Creek Greenway is named the Liz Hair Nature Walk to honor her years of campaigning for a “green necklace” around the city.

An early campaign

Daughter of John Raeburn Green and Elisabeth Haskell Cox Green, Elisabeth Green was born in St. Louis on Jan. 2, 1920. By 8, she was handing out “Green for Congress” cards for her father’s unsuccessful campaign.

Elisabeth won a scholarship to Wellesley College in Massachusetts. After graduation, over her father’s protests, she landed a reporting job on the Chicago Daily Times (now the Chicago Sun-Times).

After the war, she married a Navy flier, and returned home to report for the old St. Louis Star-Times.

In 1946, Liz was living at home while her husband was stationed in Iceland. Her mother was out of town, and her father was arranging for Winston Churchill to visit Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. As Liz’s father, Churchill and President Harry Truman boarded a train, Liz went into labor. She took a cab to the hospital, and daughter Camilla was born the next morning.

By 1948, Liz and the Navy flier divorced. The next year, she married Chicagoan Sam Hair, and with Camilla, moved to Charlotte, where Sam had signed on as advertising manager of the Radiator Specialty Co.

Landing in Charlotte

For Hair, Charlotte was “total culture shock.”

Hair thought she was entering a Democratic stronghold. She found instead a “Republican camp” in the making.

“The Democrats had no block-by-block organization, and no desire to say, ‘Yes, come on down and work in our headquarters,’ if they even had a headquarters,” Hair said years later.

So Hair did things her way – graciously and intuitively. When she heard a neighbor was running for office, she strolled Camilla over and offered to help.

By 1957, women were meeting at Hair’s house to form the Democratic Women’s Club.

“Not a ‘tea-drinking women’s group,’ ” wrote a political reporter. “A candidate couldn’t win the (Democratic) primaries without them.”

In 1960, Hair, then 40 with four daughters, was appointed to the county board of elections. As its first female chair, she oversaw the installation of electronic voting machines.

“Liz made the Board of Elections hum,” said former Observer editorial writer Jack Claiborne.

Commissioners campaign

In 1972, Hair urged her friend Betty Chafin (now Betty Chafin Rash) to run for a seat on the all-male Board of County Commissioners. But Chafin, who was 30, thought Hair, 52, had more name recognition.

As soon as she filed, Hair said: “I wanted to go home and pull the sheets over my head for about three days. I was just terrified.” Instead, she sat down and “coughed up a card file of everybody I’d ever known.”

While campaigning, Hair visited black churches. At Parkwood Church (now Parkwood Institutional CME Church), she was introduced as “the most powerful woman in Mecklenburg County.”

Hair later wrote in her memoir: “I was still in my ladylike role. I was embarrassed to be called a powerful woman, but it started me thinking: ‘You know, maybe I do have power, and I am going to use that power.’ So that was a turning point.”

Others saw her as a natural leader.

“She had an air about her that was very strong,” said Kimm Jolly, who ran one of Hair’s campaigns. “Being a leader and looking like one was a big asset.”

Hair was elected to the Board of County Commissioners, but she soon noticed that during breaks the four male commissioners “had little secret meetings” in the men’s bathroom.

In 1977, after two terms as chairman – the designation she preferred – the commissioners “dethroned” Hair. According to Rash, “It was just men ganging up on Liz.”

Initially, Rash said, Hair was hurt. But ultimately, “It was the best thing that ever happened because it let Liz focus on issues she was particularly interested in – programs for children, women and senior citizens.”

So what allowed a young transplant from west of the Mississippi to establish herself so prominently in a town unaccustomed to welcoming women into its power circles?

“Liz had the guts and the brains and the drive,” said Kaplan.

Liz Hair held fast to two mantras:

“If you can swim in 3 feet of water, you can swim in 300 feet of water.”

And: “Go where you are afraid to go; do what you are afraid to do.”

Powell: dpowell@charlotteobserver.com
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