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.
“No one had ever attempted college before me.”
Oct. 8, 2016
When you listen to WUNC and it lists its broadcast locations in North Carolina, the last one is Welcome. That always has seemed ironic to me, because Welcome could compete for the least intellectual location in North Carolina. I know, because that’s where I grew up.
I am the product of two proud Piedmont clans, the Leonards of Davidson County and the Bogers of Davie. My ancestral patriarchs on both sides arrived on the creek banks where we still live over 250 years ago, with not much to show for it. As a bit of an adolescent smart aleck, I would occasionally say, “How could we have been here so long and not have anything?”
I grew up amidst 16 sets of aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins, and no one had ever attempted college before me. My parents did not want me to come to this godless, communist school. They wanted me to go to a good church school, like Duke or Davidson. Needless to say, my family was politically conservative. My paternal grandmother always took a grandchild into the voting booth to show her where to mark the straight Republican ticket. My maternal grandparents fervently supported the Republican sheriff of Davie County, even after he lost his license due to multiple DUIs and had to be driven around. When I attempted to register to vote as a Democrat, the clerk said sternly, “I have to go get Mrs. Craver,” who ran the Davidson County Board of Elections. She said, “Son, does your daddy know you are doing this? No one in your family has ever registered as a Democrat.”
My parents changed their tune about Carolina when the Morehead Scholarship came my way. In one of those coincidences that changes your life, I always will be glad that the letter from Duke awarding me the Angier B. Duke Scholarship came a week later, saving me from that unimaginable fate.
But I went to Carolina convinced I had gotten the Morehead by mistake and they were going to take it back. This was confirmed in the first day of my English Honors class when we were told to read the entire Odyssey before the next class, and the preppie next to me nonchalantly asked, “In English or Greek?”
My terror reached new heights midway through the semester when one night all of my buddies who were Moreheads started pulling out their tuxes to go to the freshman banquet I knew nothing about. Although I had rarely left the library to that point, now I doubled down. I found out years later what happened. The J. in my name stands for my first name, Jerry, which I never use. It turns out there was another Jerry Leonard on campus who was an impoverished law student, and although he had no idea why he was invited, a free meal was a free meal, so he [Jerry Leonard ’71 (JD)] took my invitation and went.
Spring of my freshman year, I decided it was time to get more involved, and I ran for the Student Legislature from Morrison dorm on the University Party ticket and won. That decision had consequences. Fall of my sophomore year, Charlie Mercer ’69 who was vice president and thus speaker of the Student Legislature, suddenly announced he was resolving his existential crisis by dropping out of school and driving to California. I threw my hat in the ring against a popular senior to be his replacement. We tied, 25–25, in the vote, giving Charlie the chance to pick his successor. He picked me but only after an endless oration in which he addressed most of his personal problems and those of the world.
And that was the fall of the cafeteria workers’ strike. I had come to know some of the workers, because they were the only people on campus who seemed like folks from home. The more we talked, the more I came to see things their way. I joined the picket lines and became part of a coordinating committee of students organizing support.
One morning, everywhere I went, there was a message that President Friday ’48 (LLB) wanted to see me immediately. I went out to his office, and he told me that he was afraid Gov. Scott was about to do something rash, and he wanted a student to go talk to him to explain that everything was peaceful and under control. I said, “When?” and he said, “Right now.” I drove to Raleigh and was ushered in, and we talked for an hour. I thought it went well. That night, Gov. Scott invoked the public insurrection provision of the North Carolina Constitution and declared martial law on the campus. We awoke to several hundred armed National Guardsmen lining the sidewalks.
Next time I saw President Friday, he said, “That didn’t go like I hoped.” I just shrugged.
The workers strike also gave me my first exposure to the power of law. On the first day of the strike, a majority of the black students on campus had gone through Lenoir Hall turning over all of the chairs and tables to make it clear the dining hall was closed. The racist history professor who chaired the Faculty Committee on Scholarships decided he knew how to put an end to this, and he immediately started proceedings to revoke the scholarships of all of the participating students on character and fitness grounds. The hearings were private, but that was when the University was experimenting with putting students on faculty committees, and I was the student on that committee and could not be excluded from the hearings.
I was horrified and, not knowing what else to do, went over to the law school and asked to see Dean Byrd ’53 (’56 JD), who I had met once before at a reception. I told him that I knew much worse things happened in frat houses every Saturday night than what these students did in Lenoir Hall, and no one was taking away their scholarships. He noncommittally said he would look into it. The next morning, when the hearings resumed, Dean Byrd was there and asked to speak to the chairman in the hall. A few minutes later, the chairman returned red-faced and announced the hearings were suspended indefinitely, and that was the end of that.
Incidentally, the chairman did get his revenge. He was also the adviser to Phi Beta Kappa, and then, the tradition was that the student with the highest GPA in your junior year was president. My year, three of us were tied, and he gleefully informed me that he has tossed a coin twice in the privacy of his office, and I had lost each time, so I could be secretary.
That sophomore year was also when I moved into the orbit of the legendary Anne Queen, the director of the Campus Y who was the conscience of the University. I became her regular houseboy at her famous Saturday night cocktail parties, and there I met folks like Tom Lambeth ’57, Martha McKay ’41, Howard Lee ’66 (MSW), John Sanders ’50 (’54 JD) and, critically, Joel Fleishman ’55 (’59 JD, ’60 MA). Anne said to him, “This boy needs to go to Yale Law, and you need to make it happen.” I watched President Friday and Sen. Ralph Scott, the governor’s uncle, settle the workers strike on her sofa late one Saturday night.
Although I had pledged at DU and made lifelong friends there, a group of us began lobbying that spring for permission to form a coed living and academic space. Because the University thought no one would participate if they gave us the top two floors of James dorm, we remarkably got permission. And that became the legendary Project Hinton, and an exceptional group of students moved there together, with our own dining hall, faculty fellows and courses we designed.
After the turmoil of my sophomore year, I came back to campus my junior year expecting things to be quieter. But then President Nixon, rather than ending the Vietnam War as promised, bombed Cambodia, and campuses across the country exploded. Wib Gulley, who was a Duke student, and I went to the airport to pick up Jack Newfield, the legendary Village Voice columnist who was speaking at protest rallies on both campuses. The lead story the next week in The Village Voice went condescendingly like this: “If tall blond boys with thick drawls from Little Rock and Welcome are leading the protests, this war is almost over.”
In the spring of my junior year, I did not do what everyone expected. My friend Tom Bello ’71 and I agreed that he would run for study body president, and I would throw in my hat to be president of the Carolina Union. Although the student body president had the bully pulpit, the Union president had the enormous budget and control of concerts, movies, speakers and events.
In most ways it was a wonderful year. I got to hang out with and introduce Chicago, Ike and Tina Turner, Richie Havens and John Sebastian. W.H. Auden agreed to come for a poetry reading, and I was able to bring my high school English teacher (who I largely credit with being here today) to Chapel Hill to have dinner with him.
There were hitches. I had agreed with the Black Student Movement that I would pay for a speaker of their choosing. They chose Stokely Carmichael, and I invited him. The chancellor summoned me to South Building and told me to withdraw the invitation. I declined and said, “I know you can overrule me, but do you really want us marching around again this year?” Stokely came and made an uneventful speech.
For all of its successes, my days at Carolina ended in ignominy. I am the guy who killed Jubilee. In many ways, what happened nationally in the transition from Woodstock to Altamont happened on our campus. Prior to my year, Jubilees were light-hearted spring festivals attended only by students and their dates. My year, folks began to bring us fliers from head shops up and down the East Coast saying, “Come to Jubilee.” Folks from all over the country descended on Chapel Hill in the week ahead. None of our security systems worked as mobs crashed and broke down the gates. The straw bales used as seating for the bluegrass stage were set on fire. Dozens of people were treated at the first-aid tent for drug overdoses. I learned again about the power of the law, as neighbors got a temporary restraining order that Howard Henry, the Union director, and I were to be arrested if the music was not over by 12. Try telling that to the Allman Brothers. I was mostly relieved no one died.
After it was over, I told Mr. Henry that I needed to end it on my watch or it would ruin my successor’s term. So I met with the chancellor and the Union, and they issued a joint statement that Jubilee was done. And I slunk out of Chapel Hill.
The rest is beyond the scope of today. I did go to Yale Law, returned to Raleigh to clerk for the legendary federal judge Franklin Dupree ’33 (’36 LLB), practiced law in Sen. Sanford’s ’39 (’46 LLBJD) firm and had a successful career in the federal courts, ending with 20 years on the federal bankruptcy court bench before this turn to academia. I am married to an extraordinary woman, and I’m the proud father of five children spread over 30 years. But for the rainout, the youngest three would have been here in a few minutes to go to the ballgame, and my two oldest sons have contributed seven grandchildren to the mix. It continues to be a charmed life.
I owe it to this place. I came here an unformed rube, and I left here with confidence in my intellect, my ability to lead but, most importantly, with a sophisticated set of moral values that I developed here that have never led me astray.