Taylor Batten

Dick Spangler’s mind never rested, nor did his heart

Dick Spangler talks with West Charlotte High students after announcing major gifts for education.
Dick Spangler talks with West Charlotte High students after announcing major gifts for education. File photo

When the news broke Monday, an alert said former UNC President C.D. Spangler Jr. had died.

It seemed so insufficient. Yes, he was UNC’s president, running North Carolina’s renowned public university system for 11 years guided by a deep love for the school and the state.

But Dick Spangler was such a brilliant, sincere and thoughtful human being that no single title would be sufficient to summarize his legacy. In fact, he had lived an extraordinary life before his first day leading UNC.

Born in Charlotte in 1932, Spangler grew up attending Charlotte’s public schools. (Among his best friends and Dilworth Elementary classmates was Erwin Potts, who would become CEO of McClatchy, now the owner of the Charlotte Observer.)

When his daughters were in third and first grades, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Swann case that the school district could use busing to integrate schools.

“I thought it was an extreme tragedy to see the community come apart through racial strife,” he said. “I thought the turmoil would harm not only individuals but also the community and its businesses. I asked myself, ‘Well, what can I do?’ ”

He did at least two things. A successful businessman who would become one of America’s richest people, he ran for school board in 1972 and became its vice chairman. And though he could have afforded to educate his daughters anywhere, he sent them to West Charlotte High in an experiment that showed integrated classes could work.

Spangler said he was urged to run for the school board “since I had some degree of credibility in financial matters.” What an understatement. Spangler ran his father’s construction company as well as his bank before selling it to NCNB and eventually became Bank of America’s largest individual shareholder. He also built National Gypsum and a fortune that Forbes pegged at $4.2 billion.

Despite that wealth, he was as down-to-earth as the waiters and waitresses who served him at diners across town. When I offered to take him to lunch years ago, he chose not a fancy restaurant but a greasy spoon, and Spangler was right at home.

His common touch was evident as president of the UNC system, where he accepted no salary (current system President Margaret Spellings makes close to $1 million a year) and made low tuition one of his highest priorities. Even when he butted heads with the press — as he did in 1997 while working to keep some public UNC records secret — he did so in a respectful, gentlemanly way.

He had a fascinating mind that seemed never to fully rest. He gave me a tour of his elaborate workshop above his office where he repaired old clocks, and he delighted in quirky puzzles such as how to fit the most pingpong balls in the smallest space. He read widely and voraciously, and he frequently sent me articles from scholarly publications such as Daedalus that he thought I would find interesting.

His leadership by example, his dedication to what was right, his philanthropy and his love for this city and state were a gift to all of us. We should be grateful.

Email: tbatten@charlotteobserver.com