Margaret Taylor Harper

(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the Annual Alumni Luncheon and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)

Distinguished Service Medal Citation

Margaret Taylor Harper

As Margaret Harper’s husband was leaving to serve in the Navy during World War II, he told her to just keep the paper going and when the bank statement got down to $500, to suspend publication. When he returned from the war, she was happy to put The State Port Pilot right back in his lap. It never got down to $500; in fact the paper did very well.

Margaret had had no choice but to become a newspaper publisher. And she had kept it alive during some awfully hard times.

So began her extraordinary commitment to public service, which she has demonstrated for many years through her passionate association with the media, in politics, in service organizations, and with this University.

In the words of former UNC System President Bill Friday ’48, “She and her husband produced a newspaper that was fearless, yet warm and constructive as a community force. In my view, she is the first lady of journalism in North Carolina. Margaret Harper represents the finest of journalistic tradition.”

A Southport native and Greensboro College graduate, Margaret’s marriage to James Madison Harper Jr. produced the partnership that published Southport’s award-winning weekly, which calls itself “A Good Newspaper in a Good Community.”

Over the years, Margaret made a few headlines herself. In 1968 she became the first woman in North Carolina to seek the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. Margaret came in second, with 22 percent of the vote. She ran again in 1972 and lost again. But she soon began to see the value of the effort.

“The best thing I ever did was to lose,” Margaret says. “Back in the 60s, as a woman, they wouldn’t have let me do anything if I had won. Instead of winning, I went on and was on various boards and commissions, which probably was a bunch more helpful than anything I would have done as lieutenant governor.”

She served as secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina Press Association and president of the North Carolina Press Women and North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs. During her two terms on the UNC Board of Trustees, she chaired several committees. She never was fazed by those who addressed the board as “Mrs. Harper and gentlemen.”

Walter Royall Davis served with her, and he says, “She’s one of the best trustees they’ve ever had.  She was always there when she was needed and always willing to spend her time and effort to try to improve the University.”

Tom Lambeth ’57 sees her as a pioneer. “Margaret was always very effective because she was so articulate and gentle, which doesn’t mean she was passive,” he said. “She was able to be an advocate and get things done, but she did it in a way that made everybody want to do what she wanted to do.”

Margaret is a recipient of the William Richardson Davie Award for service to the University and has served on the Board of Visitors. She helped found the UNC Arts and Sciences Foundation, and in 1975 she became the first person to bestow her generosity on the foundation. She later served on its board.

She is an honorary member of the North Carolina Press Association and in 1987 was inducted into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame.

These days, Margaret works closely with The United Methodist Retirement Homes, where she has served on the board. She was instrumental in founding and building Croasdaile Village in Durham  where she lives, as well as other retirement communities statewide. The 100-acre pastoral campus on a former dairy farm may be far removed from the quaint fishing village at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. But Margaret still sets aside a week each month to visit Southport and the paper, where her sons, both Carolina alumni, are following the journalistic tradition their parents instilled.

She typically lets her son Ed accept the Pilot’s North Carolina Press Association awards. This year, when the paper earned a General Excellence Award, Ed walked Margaret to the stage and told her, as his father had years ago, “This is yours.”

Margaret, you have been the best kind of friend to Carolina, and this, too, is yours.