The importance of Terry Sanford’s legacy today

Toady’s politicians can learn from Sanford.
Toady’s politicians can learn from Sanford. News & Observer file photo

Terry Sanford would have turned 100 last Sunday. He fully expected to be around to share this time with us, but we lost him in 1998.

The chapel at Duke University was filled that spring day when North Carolinians came to help bury the man whose terms as governor and United States senator bracketed a fifteen-year presidency of Duke University. It was quite a run for an Eagle Scout from Laurinburg who believed that public service was an honorable way of life.

But why is it worthwhile to remember Sanford now?

Covington xxx

Think about Sanford when you hear people talking about putting their political careers on the line for education and the future of young people in this state. He learned in his mother’s grade-school classroom that education was the universal economic bootstrap. As governor, after just a few months in office, he convinced a legislature that expanding the sales tax was necessary to get North Carolina’s schools in shape for future generations of students.

Think about Sanford when you hear about race relations in the Sixties.Asgovernor, he was talking about removing racial barriers and making sure all people had jobs and opportunity. When George Wallace was declaring “Segregation Forever,” Sanford and one of his cabinet members, Greensboro’s Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, smoothly and uneventfully desegregated the public facilities in North Carolina’s state parks.

Offended by poverty in a deep and profound way, Sanford put North Carolina years ahead in the nation’s War on Poverty by using private money to create the North Carolina Fund. During four creative years, the Fund became the nation’s proving ground for anti-poverty programs.

When the trustees at Duke University offered him the presidency, some of the academicians sniffed that he didn’t have a qualifying pedigree. Sanford said he wouldn’t hold it against them that they didn’t have a UNC law degree.

They soon forgot all that as Sanford went to work transforming Duke from a middling southern university into one of the leading institutions in the world. His formula was simple, as he told a new hire. “I am going to identify creativity and leadership and bring it here and make it better.”

Over the years, he felt the sting of political loss, including defeat for reelection to the Senate in 1992. Throughout it all, Sanford knew that for an old paratrooper who had survived the bloody, frozen hell of Christmas fighting Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge, these setbacks didn’t really amount to much.

I like to remember what Sanford had to say in 1984 when he delivered his farewell to the Duke faculty. He was talking about the university he had come to love as dearly as his alma mater in Chapel Hill. I think he was also expressing a philosophy that steered his own life.

“The stamp of Duke University and its continuing goal ought to be the unrelenting search for excellence in all of its endeavors. Duke aspires to leave its students with an abiding concern for justice, with a resolve for compassion and concern for others, with minds unfettered by racial and other prejudices, with a dedication to service to society, with an intellectual sharpness, and with an ability to think straight now and throughout life. All of these goals are worthy of outrageous ambitions.”

Covington was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize at the Observer in 1984. He is now an author who lives in Greensboro.