Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Remembering Ed O'Herron

Ed O’Herron, the Charlotte businessman and drug store chain executive who died the other day, might have changed things dramatically if he had been elected governor 30 years ago.
I didn’t know O’Herron well but spent some time covering his campaign for the Greensboro Daily News in 1976, when there was a rare August primary. I found a dusty, yellowed clipping of a story I wrote for the Daily News that summer, when O’Herron was giving Jim Hunt hell on a regular basis.
Hunt was lieutenant governor at the time and the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination in the August primary. (Hunt won it outright without a runoff.) There were three other candidates in the race besides Hunt and O’Herron: Jetter Barker, the mayor of Love Valley, a cowboy town he built; former state Sen. Tom Strickland of Goldsboro and Sen. George Wood of Camden. Skipper Bowles was in that race for awhile but dropped out for health reasons.
O’Herron, the wealthy chairman of Eckerd Drug Co, was a conservative Democrat who wanted to bring business efficiencies to state government. He liked to say, “North Carolina is a $3.4 billion business. We need a businessman to run it.” Now the state biennial budget is about 10 times that.
O’Herron had in minds all kinds of changes. He spotted a uniformed officer who supervised a state visitors’ parking lot and declared, “You better believe when I’m governor I’ll change that. Everybody else in the world has automatic gates. That guy probably costs the state $15,000 a year.”
He had little use for the state Department of Commerce: “One of the things I’d do is get rid of the Department of Commerce,” he said. “It’s just a hierarchy and nobody would miss them except the political employees that got appointed there.”
O’Herron didn’t even think state officials needed private secretaries. “I ran a business for 30 years and never had a private secretary. We’ve always shared secretaries.”
One thing he wouldn’t do is run for anything else, he said. “I’m not going to be running for the U.S. Senate. I’m not going to be running for a cabinet office. I’m not pledged to any political machine. Ed O’Herron is going to be his own man.”
And if he won, there was something he’d like to be remembered for: “I guess if anything I’d like to restore some confidence in our government.”
Three governors and 30 years later, that remains a worthy but unmet goal.

9 comments:

David McKnight said...

Jack, it's a shame more folks didn't know Ed O'Herron was a native of Baltimore. For some of us Carolinians, Baltimore is still a magical sort of place, and back in the mid '70s, when Ed was running for governor, those young Baltimore Oriole farmhands Cal Ripkin and Eddie Murray were coming through Charlotte. Maybe Ed could have picked upo another couple of votes there.

But for newcomers to Charlotte and the Carolina Piedmont since 1976, it should be remembered that not only was Ed O'Herron just a terrific gentleman, a great businessman and a civic-minded leader passionately devoted to issues of free enterprise and better government, in running for governor in the Democratic primary in '76, Ed was taking on the toughest, most capable and most formidable Democratic leader of the second half of the 20th Century.

Jim Hunt's organization was so strong that during press-political pickup basketball and softball games in Raleigh, about the only person who could stay with chief Hunt aide Gary "Hawkeye" Pearce was "Trapper" John Cotter of The News & Observer, and Cotter went straight up to the bigs, living happily ever after at the Washington Post.

Charlotteans owe the O'Herron family and kin a considerable debt of gratitude for even challenging the likes of Jim Hunt, who, if the Democrats don't get it together pretty soon, might find himself pressed into service for a fifth term as governor!

But Ed O'Herron, like Luther Hodges Jr. and Harvey Gantt after him, set forth the bold example of the high calling of the business and professional community of Charlotte to the idealistic challenges and exigencies of politics in its best since, and therefore this is a legacy to be celebrated far and wide across the great Tar Heel State.

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Lee Stiles said...

My father worked for Ed and his wife from the mid 60s through the mid 90s, doing all their landscape design and contracting. He was very close to the O'Herrons, admired them fiercely, and did volunteer work for the '76 campaign. Ed was pivotal in helping my dad, a fellow veteran, start his own business, serving an affluent and elite clientele with high-end landscape design.

I was born in 1970, and grew up hearing all about the modest Mr. O'Herron. When the time came for me to go away to graduate school, Ed supplemented the money I earned through PT work, tuition waivers and scholarships so that I could attend the school of my choice in California. To tell you the kind of man he was, he only required 3 stipulations on repayment: (i) that I see him every time I was back in town with a report detailing how I'd spent every penny, (ii) that when I became self sufficient after school, I pay him back HALF of the money he loaned me, (iii) that I complete #2 with no interest added on a pay-as-you-can schedule. He took joy in helping me, and relished the opportunity to show-up the government and its proposed loans.

Ed and Dosty did things like that for a lot of people, but never sought recognition. One NC university once tried to put their name on a dorm the building of which they funded. When Ed visited the completed building, he raised one heck of a fit when he saw the plaque with his name on the building. He demanded it be removed immediately, and the building be named for someone/something else.

The lessons I learned in fulfilling his first stipulation on "our loan" were priceless. He was a stickler for details. His office window gave him a bird's eye view of the penthouse in which he lived. He kept binoculars in his office, and if he so much as saw a light left on in the den at the penthouse, he'd call home and order someone to shut it off.

Like everyone, Ed lived with some regrets, but the good he did will always be remembered.