Cliff Cameron was a true public servant

Cliff Cameron, who died May 28, insisted upon a $1 salary per year as North Carolina State Budget Director.
Cliff Cameron, who died May 28, insisted upon a $1 salary per year as North Carolina State Budget Director.

There aren’t many people who would leave a job paying $543,333 per year for one paying ten times less, but when Cliff Cameron, whose funeral was last Wednesday in Charlotte, was asked to become North Carolina State Budget Director at $59,356, he turned even that down and insisted upon a salary of $1 per year.

Cameron had just retired at the end of 1984 as chairman and CEO of First Union National Bank in Charlotte and decided to take the job because he wasn’t ready “to settle down and do nothing.”

Cameron, who was 96 when he died May 28, had never been able to “do nothing.”

Republican Gov. Jim Martin had asked Cameron, who was a Democrat, to be the budget director.

“I asked him if he wanted me to switch parties, but he said ‘No,’” Cameron recalled.

Cameron’s move from First Union to state government turned out to be a wise move for Martin – who used the appointment as a way to gain bi-partisan support – and came about because Martin’s executive assistant Jim Lofton used to work for Cameron at First Union.

After seven years as North Carolina’s budget director, Cameron resigned to take on another non-paying job as the first chairman of the James G. Cannon Research Center in Charlotte. Opened in 1991, the center was located at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.

Cameron was also chairman of the University Research Park in Charlotte and had an applied research center at UNC-Charlotte dedicated to him.

Cameron took on too many other volunteer jobs to be listed.

He was one of the disappearing number of World War II veterans who learned the hard way what public service was all about. Upon graduation from Louisana State University in 1941, Cameron was called to active duty in the Army just as the country was gearing up to enter World War II. During the war, Cameron commanded an Army force that fought with the Russians against the Germans.

When World War II finally ended in Europe, Cameron was discharged and traveled back to his hometown of Meridian, Miss. and on to Baton Rouge to begin to work as a chemical engineer for a huge oil company.

After four years of this work, he received a call from James Poyner in Raleigh whom he had met in the Army. Poyner invited him to join a brand new mortgage company.

Cameron took a leap of faith and moved his family to Raleigh to begin work for $700 a month.

The brand new company set about helping arrange financing to government housing being built and bought by the thousands of returning G.I.’s. The little mortgage company grew into a large one and major banks in the state began to make overtures to connect. Along the way, Cameron was chosen to be president of the national Mortgage Bankers Association, even traveling to Peru to advise the government there on how to handle mortgages for housing.

As the company grew, Cameron and his partners decided that if a bank were too large their company would get lost in the complex, so they opted for partnership with First Union Bank of Charlotte.

Again, fortune smiled on Cameron and within a few years he was chosen as the new chairman and CEO of First Union National Bank in 1966.

Cameron will be remembered not only for his extensive public service, but as a leader in real estate, mortgage banking and regular banking.

Marion Ellis is a former Observer reporter and the author of numerous books. He now resides in Durham, North Carolina.