For Joe Ferrell ’60 to be receiving the Faculty Service Award, despite never having actually taught an undergraduate or graduate course, is just one indication that he is somewhat out of the ordinary. For his colleagues to describe him as “diplomatic,” “direct,” “humane,” “generous” and “principled,” knowing full well he’s a lawyer, is another clue that he is someone special.
Joe came to Carolina, his father’s alma mater, from “Possum Quarter” in 1956; his Tidewater drawl never left him. A Phi Beta Kappa, he received his bachelor’s degree in science teaching in 1960 (yes, he celebrated on Franklin Street when the 1957 basketball team won the NCAA championship) and his law degree, with honors, from UNC in 1963.
“When I got here, it started the happiest years of my life,” he said. “I never wanted to leave. Fortunately, I never had to.”
Except for a year at Yale to earn his LL.M. in 1964, he’s been on campus almost 55 years. His first appointment was as an assistant professor at what was then the Institute of Government, and that is where he’s made his career, rising through the ranks and being named the Albert Coates Professor of Public Law and Government in 1989. In 2002, the year after the Institute became the School of Government, Joe accepted a research professorship. In 2003, he received both UNC’s Thomas Jefferson Award and the C. Knox Massey Award.
Early in his career Joe helped staff the Local Government Study Commission, which worked on revising North Carolina’s 1868 Constitution. He participated in rewriting chapters of the General Statutes pertaining to municipal and county governments, including chapters that covered taxation, finance and borrowing by state and local government, cleaning up, in his words, “all the 19th-century provisions that were driving everybody crazy.”
Joe went on to teach and counsel newly elected commissioners and other government officials on what they could and couldn’t do in office, offering strictly nonpartisan advice. “I don’t think people are interested in my opinion,” he said. “They’re interested in my expertise.”
Over the decades, Joe added to that expertise, serving on any number of councils and committees, often as chair. He’s served on the Committee on University Governance for 36 years and counting, 10 of them as chair.
Joe brought all that institutional knowledge and experience with him when, in 1996, he became secretary of the faculty, a position he continues to fill. Faculty chairs have been known to panic on the rare occasion Joe misses a meeting, certain they’ll face an instance in which only Joe would know what to do.
The appointment opened up nearly a dozen new committees on which Joe serves, which affords him unique insight into what’s going on throughout the University. He’s gotten to know all the chancellors since Michael Hooker ’69 on a personal level, and his committee work, especially participating in the selection of honorary degree recipients and Commencement speakers, brings other perks — conversations with the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the Episcopal Bishop John Spong ’52 and country singer Doc Watson.
The immediate past faculty chair, Joe Templeton, said that little happens that Joe hasn’t come across before. Even amidst heated discussions of hot-button topics, Joe Ferrell “read not only the words but the body language,” Templeton said, and made sure that everyone was heard without hijacking the meeting. “He provides input when you ask for it; he doesn’t, if you don’t ask.”
Yet Joe doesn’t let his responsibilities or the stress of his work overwhelm him. Bob Joyce ’73, the Charles Edwin Hinsdale Professor of Public Law and Government, recalls watching Joe de-clutter his office, over a period of weeks filling, emptying and refilling two large barrels with memoranda, reports and handwritten notes. Joyce asked Joe the guiding basis for culling the valuable from the expendable. Joe’s response: “If I didn’t know I had it, I’m throwing it away.”
“Joe is not going to e-mail you at 3 a.m.,” said Anne Mitchell Whisnant, executive director of the Office of Faculty Governance. “Joe will be home in bed at 3 a.m.”
Joe’s colleagues recognize him not only as a repository of the way the University has come through crises in the past but also as the keeper of traditions. He sees himself as one part of an institution that has had tremendous impact on public officials by virtue of the thousands he and the rest of the faculty have taught over the years.
“Ultimately,” Joe said, “you become a tradition.”