(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards dinner and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
Good luck to you if you’re one of 12 children, as Dick Spangler’s father was, or one of eight children, as his mother was, and you expect your parents to pay your way through college. Both of Dick’s parents, raised on small farms in Cleveland County, always wished they’d had the money to go to Carolina, so they were determined that their son would go.
He did, and when he went on to become the UNC System president, he fought hard to follow Article 9, Section 9 of the N.C. Constitution that implores the state to keep tuition “as low as practicable.” His official portrait, which hangs in the General Administration building, recognizes this commitment. The painting shows Dick with a laptop computer, and appearing on its screen is Article 9, Section 9.
Affordable tuition, Dick Spangler says, is a great investment for the state. Without the ability to make tuition payments, people can’t prove they have what it takes to succeed in college; they can’t go on to careers as doctors, lawyers or corporate chiefs. The first in his family to go to college, Dick followed his Carolina degree with an MBA from Harvard Business School. After two years in the military, he joined the family business, C.D. Spangler Construction Co. in Charlotte. Over time, he expanded the family’s holdings to include Golden Eagle Industries Inc., National Gypsum Co. and The Wakefield Group. He is credited with turning around the fortunes of the Bank of North Carolina, founded by his father, which merged with North Carolina National Bank, and which today is Bank of America.
But it is Dick’s public service that defines him. As vice chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board in the early 1970s, he helped lead the successful integration of public schools. He stepped down as chair of the state Board of Education to step up to the presidency of the UNC System in 1986. During the 11 years he held that office, he never accepted a paycheck, choosing to donate his salary back to the UNC System instead. As president, Spangler made decisions that, while sometimes unpopular, were right to do, said Ned Hardison ’55, who has been Dick’s friend since they were classmates at Woodberry Forest.
By appointing Julius Chambers ’62 (LLBJD) as chancellor of N.C. Central University, Dick returned to North Carolina one of our state’s greatest civil rights leaders to head one of our state’s distinguished historically black universities. He poked holes in the glass ceiling by selecting the System’s first female vice president and two female chancellors.
An Eagle Scout, Dick said his ethical guideposts came from trying to live up to the expectations of his mother, father and friends. He said he considers those expectations enormously important.
His commitment to higher education has benefited both UNC and Harvard. The Spangler Foundation has created 38 distinguished professorships within the UNC System and endowed the Spangler Campus Center at Harvard Business School. He joined Harvard’s Board of Overseers in 1988 and was elected board president in 2003. His list of honors includes the UNC System’s University Award and the William Richardson Davie Award from the UNC Board of Trustees, and Harvard’s Alumni Achievement Award.
William Friday ’48 (LLB), his good friend and predecessor as UNC System president, observed that Dick considered Carolina “the beating heart of the state, the place from where ideas flow.”
Dick showed his love for Carolina in smaller, yet meaningful ways, as well. As a high school student, Dick watched Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice ’50 remove his ripped jersey during a game in which he devastated the University of Virginia. Then Dick talked a cheerleader into selling it to him for $10 – what the cheerleader said would buy just one bottle of whiskey. Many decades later, Dick presented the jersey to UNC, and it now hangs in the Charlie Justice Hall of Honor.
Similarly, at Carolina’s bicentennial celebration, Dick presented UNC with a pocket watch that had once belonged to William R. Davie. The watch had been sent to Dick after a great, great – many greats – granddaughter left it to Carolina in her will.
Coincidentally, for about 30 years now, Dick has repaired 17th- and 18th-century grandfather clocks. He appreciates their precision and reliability. His knowledge of clocks allowed him to track down the full history of the watch and have it authenticated by the company, still in existence in Paris today, that had made the watch.
“UNC matters to Dick because it was here that he found out what he wanted to do in life,” Bill Friday explained. At every stage of his life, Dick has lived his belief that “society cannot advance unless its least fortunate citizens are able to succeed.”
Ned Hardison said it well: “Dick’s fervor for affordable education for all North Carolinians and his fight for the common man have made him such an uncommon man.”
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. A list of previous award recipients is available online.
This year’s recipients are Max Chapman ’66 of Scarborough, N.Y., chair of the UNC Endowment Fund; Mary Anne Dickson ’63 of Charlotte, co-chair of the Women’s Leadership Council; Carl Matheson ’57 of Hickory, a past chair of the GAA Board of Directors; and C.D. Spangler ’54 of Charlotte, former president of the UNC System.