John McLaughlin, a former Mecklenburg County legislator who never lost touch with his rural roots, died Sunday. He was 82.
McLaughlin spent his life where he grew up, in the northeast Newell community. As a legislator, he was a champion of nearby UNC Charlotte, which he liked to call the University of North Carolina at Newell.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, McLaughlin offered a voice of calm during periods of turmoil in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and in the N.C. General Assembly.
McLaughlin was a fixture in Newell, a community along Old Concord Road. For years, he ran the local post office. It had a connecting door to the grocery store he also operated and from where he would often personally deliver groceries to elderly customers.
“The store didn't make much money, and John kept it open largely because it gave the community a focal point, a place where neighbors could come and meet each other,” said friend Jack Claiborne, a local historian.
In 1974, McLaughlin ran for the CMS board. He was the only candidate who raised money by auctioning a cow. He served during the turbulent early years of school integration.
In a county still spit by court-ordered busing, McLaughlin was a voice of calm. John Fries, a former principal of Newell Elementary and later a CMS administrator, said McLaughlin knew the system had to change.
“He was determined to make it run,” Fries said. “Like so many people, he hated seeing so many children shifted and changed … But (he knew) the school system couldn't survive with a divided community.”
After 10 years on the board, McLaughlin won a seat in the N.C. House. For four years he served in relative obscurity. He never chaired a committee and rarely claimed a victory. Mecklenburg lawmakers once rejected his bid to become their chairman.
But then the cautious conservative did something radical. And in a House turned upside down, he landed right side up.
He was one of 20 Democrats – and the only one from Mecklenburg – who joined Republicans in helping Rep. Joe Mavretic, a Tarboro Democrat, oust longtime Democratic Speaker Liston Ramsey of Madison County. He won the chairmanship of an appropriations subcommittee as well as the ear of leadership.
“John's one of those guys if he told you something you could put it in the bank,” Mavretic said.
McLaughlin was never flashy. His hair was sparse. Two key rings often jangled from his belt. He moved slowly, accustomed to taking his time.
McLaughlin, who tended an acre-sized vegetable garden, had as much in common with rural lawmakers as with big-city colleagues.
“He could make friends Down East,” said Claiborne. “He could speak their language.”
Though he opposed some Charlotte initiatives, such as a proposed real estate transfer tax, he won many battles for his home county.
With conservative politics and a country twang, McLaughlin bridged the legislature's urban-rural divide, never forgetting where he came from.
“He tried to reflect the wishes of the community,” said Fries. “He loved Newell.”
Survivors include a daughter, Margaret Ellen McLaughlin of Concord; two sons, Daniel Grier McLaughlin and his wife Julie, of Gallup, N.M., and Phillip Alexander McLaughlin of Charlotte's Newell area.
Visitation will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Back Creek Presbyterian Church, and the funeral will be 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the church, with the Rev. Bryan Gregory officiating.