Hunt, Pearce Appear Here Today
Hunt's Appearance Postponed
Former Gov. Jim Hunt's appearance here was postponed because of the inclement weather. Click here to read story.
“There are two kinds of politicians,” political consultant James Carville says. “Those who want to be something — and those who want to do something.”
For Jim Hunt, who served a historic four terms as North Carolina’s governor (1977-1985 and 1993-2001) and who is now considered one of the 10 most influential people in American education, the operative word has always been “do.”
“Jim Hunt grew up believing that deeds were what politics should be about — making a difference for people, like country people who didn’t have good schools, good roads and good medical care,” journalist Gary Pearce wrote in his new book, “Jim Hunt: A Biography.” “He felt called to politics the way some men were called to the ministry. Politics was a way to get things done.”
“I may have a dozen ideas about what we need to do,” Hunt said recently, “but I see it as my responsibility to ask myself, ‘What’s going to get people to do something about it? How can I encourage them, inspire them, motivate them?’
“I’ve always been a big enough fool to think I could sell people on something if it’s a good enough idea. I have always believed I could get people to see the importance of education and helping children and helping workers develop the skills they needed to do good jobs. If good people go into politics, they can make the world a better place.”
Tuesday, Jan. 11, at 5 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, former Gov. Jim Hunt and Gary Pearce, who worked as Hunt’s aide and adviser through four gubernatorial administrations and five statewide campaigns, will share their experiences during what Pearce describes as “one of the most volatile, exciting and transformational eras in the history of North Carolina, the South and the nation.”
The pair will be introduced by Frank Daniels Jr., chairman of the board of The Pilot, which recently acquired The Country Bookshop
James Baxter Hunt Jr. was born in 1937 and raised on the family farm in Wilson County. Rock Ridge, the little farming community where he still lives with Carolyn, his wife of 52 years, “is too small to be a crossroads,” he says. “We just have a T-junction.”
His parents were both college graduates, a rarity in a rural area. His father worked as a soil conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture teaching farmers to prevent soil erosion, and his mother was a schoolteacher.
“My mother was a marvelous teacher,” Hunt says. “So early in my life I saw what successful teaching was and how all students learned from it, because I saw my mother do it. I saw excellence close up.”
Hunt grew up in a North Carolina that was “poor, rural and segregated to the core,” according to William Friday, longtime president of the University of North Carolina and Hunt’s friend. “Most people worked on farms or in factories. The economy was based on textiles, furniture and tobacco. Most students dropped out of school before graduating. They didn’t need much education to work on the farm or in the mill. Schools were segregated — just like the stores, the restaurants, the neighborhoods, the factories and the offices. Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro were small, sleepy cities. North Carolina was just another slow, sometimes-backward Southern state.”
Hunt was valedictorian of his high school class in 1955, but when he went to N.C. State for a degree in agricultural education, he found that his high school education had not prepared him as well as his new friends from Raleigh and Greensboro and Charlotte were prepared.
“I found out that I was behind, not because I had not worked hard, not because my parents did not care about education, but because of where I was from,” he says. “I came from a poor section, and I knew a lot of poor folks. I promised myself then and there that if I could ever do anything to see that kids from the country, or kids from the wrong side of town, or kids from poor families, could have a better chance — an equal chance — for a better education, I would do it.
“Education is the reason I went into politics. I believe in helping all people have a good life, a good job, enough money for their family, and a good future. I learned early on that the only way to have those things for our people is through education — through the public schools.”
Hunt went on to get a master’s degree in agricultural economics from N.C. State and a law degree from UNC-CH before he ran and won election for N.C. lieutenant governor in 1972, becoming the highest ranking elected Democrat in the state at the age of 35. In that position he was a member of the State Board of Education.
“I had found out how many children were not learning to read,” he says. “Third-grade teachers told me how many kids they had who were nonreaders. I had found that we didn’t have any testing system statewide to see how kids were doing and thus were not remediating those kids.”
Improving instruction in the early years and finding ways to measure if students were learning became the focus of Hunt’s education programs from then on.
Hunt championed education for economic growth from the day he was inaugurated to his first term as governor in 1976.
“He saw education as the ladder for the state to climb out of a history of ignorance, poverty and racism,” Pearce says.
The future, he believed, would belong to the well-educated. Hunt was the first governor in America with an adviser focused solely on education issues.
In order for businesses to come into the state they needed an educated work force.
“We saw the world changing. We knew that we had to change,” Hunt says. “I was anxious to get good jobs and transform the economy so we would have more good high-paying jobs that had a future. All the new industries required people who were brighter, more creative and innovative. So the schools had to be better.”
Over the next three decades, Hunt turned his dual passions — education and economic growth — into reality. He reformed and modernized the public schools — kindergarten for all students across the state, the Primary Reading Program, the Basic Education Program, and Smart Start, a nonprofit, public-private partnership rooted in each of the state’s 100 counties providing quality child care, health care and family support for each child.
“In the end Smart Start was the culmination of everything Hunt had learned about politics,” Gary Pearce says. “It was about meeting the needs of people where they lived — about changing lives. It was about children, education, and health care. It was about getting people organized to do things. It was about coalition politics — reaching out to people in different parties and from different backgrounds. And it was about the power of persuading — and educating —the public.”
Near the end of his final term as governor, the National Education Goals Panel formed by President George H. W. Bush and the nation’s governors said North Carolina had made more progress in education during the 1990s than any other state. “Education Week” and Pew Charitable Trusts rated North Carolina one of the top 12 states overall in education, and the state became a recognized leader in the early childhood development field. Smart Start received the Innovations in American Government Award and became the model for programs in more than a dozen states.
“For Hunt,” Pearce writes, “being something was a means to doing something — doing something for people. Helping kids get a good education, helping their parents find good jobs, helping North Carolinians have a better future. And he was absolutely driven to do it.”
At 73, Hunt says he can’t imagine ever retiring because “there’s a lot more to do.”
“We still aren’t there,” he says. “I think you’ve just got to keep working at it all the time. You can’t ever rest on your laurels. The most important thing we do in America is teach our children. Education is our future. It’s everything.”
Pearce and Hunt will discuss the book and their experiences over many years in the political arena at this Meet the Author event.
To make reservations, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
More like this story