For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings. As our Carolina family seeks ways to stay connected during these challenging times, board members are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.
“Little did I realize how this education experience would lead to an entirely different chapter in my Carolina Story. This work led me to focus in the House on education with very specific responsibility and involvement with higher ed.”
Sept. 28, 2019
Thank you for the opportunity to tell you about my route to our University and the significant role my time here and the UNC friends I made along the way have made in my life.
Driving over this morning and thinking about my remarks, it really hit me what an incredible Carolina story we all have to be mutually connected by UNC, to be able to work together, to be around an amazing group of honorees last night and to experience a Greg Parent blessing!
I had the fine fortune to be born and grow up in Statesville, N.C., as one of four children to a father who studied one year at Davidson before entering WWII and a mother from Atlanta who graduated from Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga. My siblings and I were all expected to do well in school and go to college, but there was not any family affiliation to higher education institutions nor a lot of advice on where to go and what to consider. My Carolina story really begins here in 1969 through a Morehead Scholarship nomination. I never got that Morehead but learned you were automatically accepted to UNC at that time if you got through a certain number of the interviews. I must say I don’t know why, but I never applied anywhere else and have never looked back on grabbing this opportunity.
Like most, I entered my freshman year full of excitement and limited knowledge of what I was about to experience. The Vietnam War protests were at a peak, interesting new philosophies and ideas were put forth in many classes, there were new friends to make, challenges to balance studying and going to the party down the hall in Everett Dorm and learning to be away from home on a relatively permanent basis. Everything was a new and challenging exposure to figure out on your own, which I believe continues to be one of the great attributes to an education in Chapel Hill.
As a sophomore, I began to realize it was time to start sorting things out. Were you being taught things to be gospel or things to think about and decide if you thought they were right or wrong? I began to recognize the great teaching talents of Gerald Unks in education, James Leutze in history and Jay Klompmaker in business, while deciding I thought some of the philosophy instructors were truly nuts. I also realized it was time to move out of the dorm and experienced UNC fraternity rush while being blackballed at a few houses before ultimately settling in at Sigma Phi Epsilon, which was to become a big factor in my life ahead. I have to say life was really good!
Going into my junior and senior year, it was still great to party and take in a few road trips, but it was also time to recognize getting a solid education was a serious and important endeavor. I cannot say I was an exemplary student, but I never missed class and listened intently in order to understand, avoid all-nighters before exams and participate in other activities. Along the way, I took on the responsibility of running the card section at Tar Heel home football games and constantly wondered why everyone threw the cards at you. Years later, it dawned on me that my favorite red-and-white houndstooth sport coat was not exactly the thing to wear in a sea of Carolina blue. Additionally, I had an opportunity to work on Terry Sanford’s presidential campaign against George Wallace. This was quite a detriment to my GPA but an experience relatively unique and one that I did not know would come in handy a few decades later. I also became president of the Sig Ep house and loved the challenge of running a business, trying to get everyone to get along and work together and being part of a great group of guys that have been involved in my life ever since.
It was at this time the Sig Ep-UNC connections kicked in and forever changed what I thought my life and career would be. One of my fraternity brothers had gone to work in the sales and marketing division of the Cannon Mills Co. in New York City and suggested I interview with them when they came to campus. Much, much to my surprise I ended up moving to NYC in May of 1973 and began a 40-plus year career in home textiles. I am quite sure my time at Carolina gave me the confidence to make this move, and my business degree gave me a solid foundation. However, neither taught me that shortsleeve shirts, brown Florsheim zip boots and a pale green suit were not quite acceptable business attire in NYC.
This 40-plus year career was five years in NYC, five years in Southern California, 25 years back in NYC and five years in NC with UNC connections and contacts at every step of the way. Most importantly and by chance, I ran into another UNC grad the day after New York City’s blackout in 1977 who had also grown up in Statesville. Adelaide Horton and I were unknowingly living only five blocks apart and have now been married over 40 years. Our first date took us to the N.C. Society of N.Y. black-tie event, which ultimately led to being on their board and getting to know members like the GAA’s Banks Edwards and many other UNC grads in the financial sector, advertising, journalism, acting and literature. I also fondly remember Arthur Gregg with the UNC Development Office always visiting in my early years in NYC to pass along UNC news and making you feel quite important to the University when all you could contribute was $100 here or there. These career stops also brought along extensive travel in the U.S. and globally, where I can honestly say the UNC experience opened doors and provided an initial source of credibility. It was quite a ride, all due to that initial fraternity brother suggestion to interview with Cannon Mills for the job in NYC.
Finally, in 2008, it was time to come home to the Tar Heel state and carry on my consulting business with continual travel to China, India, Europe and back to NYC. After a few more years, I decided enough of all this travel and decided to retire and see where and how I might give back. My wife suggested I run for public office, which was met with me thinking this might be interesting but saying I thought she had lost her mind. So, where do you turn for advice on such an abrupt change of course? Once again, enter my UNC friends so my Carolina story can continue. With support and encouragement from UNC grads and other friends from near and far, I decided to run for the N.C. House of Representatives, beat a 10-term incumbent by 106 votes and am now in my third term.
Prior to running for office, my main activity outside of work was spending 12 years as treasurer and director of the Sereolipi Nomadic Education Foundation. This was a group of friends who raised funds and managed the education, housing and care for what was to become an annual education endeavor involving over 1,500 Samburu students in northern Kenya from kindergarten through university. Little did I realize how this education experience would lead to an entirely different chapter in my Carolina story. This work led me to focus in the House on education with very specific responsibility and involvement with higher ed. As a chair of all Education Appropriations and Education Policy – Universities in the N.C. House, I have had the great opportunity to be involved in the UNC budgets, to agree and disagree with the Board of Governors, to promote, protect and prod the University within the Legislature and to work closely with Margaret Spellings, Bill Roper, each institution’s chancellor and the UNC System office. This involvement has also led me to be on the UNC Board of Visitors and to share time with you on the General Alumni Association board. How could anyone be so lucky to be so involved with this great campus and institution?
So now, as I approach the end of my BOV and GAA appointments and consider another election year, I must figure out what’s next and how my Carolina story and involvement with Carolina can continue.
Thank you all, and thank you UNC-Chapel Hill for making every day a great day to be a Tar Heel!