Man retires rather than honor Helms

L.F. Eason III gave up the only job he'd ever had rather than lower a flag this week to honor former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.

Eason, a 29-year veteran of the state Department of Agriculture, instructed his staff at a small Raleigh lab not to fly the U.S. or N.C. flags at half staff Monday as called for in a directive to all state agencies by Gov. Mike Easley.

When a superior ordered the lab to follow the directive, Eason decided to retire rather than pay tribute to Helms.

“I … understand that my decision is not acceptable. You cannot ignore that fact. There is the law, but there is also a higher law I must follow as a matter of conscience,” he wrote to Easley and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

The brouhaha began late Sunday night, when Eason e-mailed nine of his employees in the state Metrology Lab, which calibrates measuring equipment used on such things as gasoline and hamburgers.

“Regardless of any executive proclamation, I do not want the flags at the North Carolina Standards Laboratory flown at half staff to honor Jesse Helms any time this week,” Eason wrote just after midnight, according to e-mails released in response to a public records request.

He told his staff that he did not think it was appropriate to honor Helms because of his “doctrine of negativity, hate and prejudice” and his opposition to civil rights bills and the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

When the lab opened Monday morning, the flags were not put out at all, but an employee called Eason's boss, Stephen Benjamin. Around 10:45 a.m., Benjamin told one of Eason's co-workers to put the flags at half staff.

No one in the governor's office was aware of any times in recent memory when a state employee refused to lower a flag. Brian Long, a spokesman for the Agriculture department, said Eason's refusal was unexpected since he has not had similar problems in the past.

In a string of e-mails with his superiors, Eason, 51, was told he could either lower the flags or retire immediately.

He pleaded to be allowed to stay.

Eason, who had worked for the agriculture department since graduating from college, was paid $65,235.

Several people, including his wife, argued to Eason that the flags belonged to the state, as did the lab.

But Eason said he felt a strong sense of ownership.

Eason and a previous boss had sketched out the building's rough design on a napkin at the Atlanta airport in 1984 after attending a national conference.

He then worked to get state funding for it.

“I designed and built that lab,” he said. “Even though technically the bricks and mortar belong to the state of North Carolina, I feel very strongly that everything that comes out of there is my responsibility.”

It was not the first time Eason felt uneasy about lowering the flag.

A registered Democrat who said he frequently votes a split ticket, Eason said he had no problems lowering the flag for former Sen. Terry Sanford or President Ronald Reagan. But he remembers wondering whether he would be able to lower the flag after President Richard Nixon's funeral.

He never had to make that decision, since it rained both days.

But it was sunny Monday. And Eason is now out of a job.