I first met Tom Lambeth ’57 in fall 1967 in Gardner Hall and gazed upon what one reporter called Tom’s “toothy smile.” He was interviewing me for the first class of Richardson Fellows. I didn’t know that his infectious enthusiasm for and commitment to The University of North Carolina reflected his deep passion — a passion exceeded only by his deep and sustained love of family and his unparalleled commitment to the state of North Carolina.

Douglas S. Dibbert ’70

It was once observed that a wall could be built along North Carolina’s borders, and Tom would never notice, for there is nowhere else he’d rather be. Tom once described himself as “one of the most awfully provincial people you’ll ever meet.” The Lambeths have been Tar Heels since the 1760s, and if frequent-driver miles were given to those who crisscross this state’s roads, a category beyond Platinum would have to be created for Tom.

Tom is the model Carolina alumnus. His commitment is a lifelong one to education and to higher education, just as it is to Chapel Hill and Carolina. Happily, he has long been involved in the leadership of the General Alumni Association.

Tom was elected to the GAA Board of Directors as an N.C. director and later as president (what is now called chair) of the GAA board. In 1989, he chaired a GAA task force that assessed the status and made recommendations regarding the association, the UNC System, Carolina’s financial affairs, UNC’s name, undergraduate admissions, the faculty and the Association of American Universities (the panel’s report is at
report). As leader of the GAA board, he also presided at the groundbreaking for the George Watts Hill Alumni Center.

For the past 30 years, Tom has led the GAA’s Tar Heel Network, which advocates for support of Carolina’s legislative priorities. The network has successfully rallied support for three higher education bond initiatives — in 1993 (for $300 million, of which $35 million was for Carolina); 2000 (for $3.1 billion, of which $500 million was for Carolina); and in 2016 (a bond package that provided funding for a medical education building at Carolina). In 2004, the network strongly advocated for funding of the N.C. Cancer Hospital.

Working with UNC’s administration and trustees, supporters in the N.C. General Assembly,  and alumni and friends, the Tar Heel Network has supported salary increases for faculty and staff, restoration of tuition remissions for graduate students, funding for graduate student health insurance, establishment of the Distinguished Professors Endowment Fund, retention of overhead receipts earned from Carolina’s research funding, and restoration of cuts to faculty and staff positions.

During two chancellor searches, the network hosted breakfasts across the state where alumni shared thoughts about what should be the priorities for Carolina’s new chancellors. For over 30 years, the network has hosted annual legislative receptions for legislators and other elected state officials; and for more than a decade, the network has hosted lunches for alumni who are lobbyists, occasions where Carolina’s legislative priorities are reviewed.

Beyond his involvement with the GAA, Tom has provided service and leadership across our campus; throughout the foundation world in North Carolina and nationally; to all of education from the public schools to community colleges, independent colleges and universities as well as all UNC System institutions. He has chaired UNC’s Board of Trustees as well as the N.C. Teaching Fellows Commission and the Public School Forum. He was co-director of the campaigns to pass the gubernatorial-succession and balanced-budget amendments to the N.C. Constitution. During Tom’s 22 years as executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the foundation awarded grants totaling over $300 million to organizations in each of the state’s 100 counties, supporting progressive programs in social justice, poverty, education and the environment. When he stepped down from the foundation, it endowed the Thomas W. Lambeth Professorship at Carolina, and an anonymous donor established the Thomas W. Lambeth Lecture in Public Policy.

Among Tom’s many awards are an honorary degree and Distinguished Alumnus Award from Carolina; the North Carolina Award; the University Award from the UNC System Board of Governors; the GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal; and the William Richardson Davie Award, the Board of Trustees’ highest honor. He also has received honorary degrees from Wake Forest and Pfeiffer.

Were the legions of those who have been fortunate to know Tom invited to suggest words that best describe him, that list likely would include son, brother, husband, father, papa (grandfather), student, activist, soldier, runner, public servant, adviser, leader, politician (undoubtedly North Carolina’s most influential unelected official), philanthropist, foundation executive, Tar Heel fan, North Carolina historian, walker, mentor, neighbor and friend.

We also could identify adjectives to describe Tom — bright, honest, hard-working, modest, caring, thoughtful, funny, loving, wise, skillful, resourceful, creative, relentless, direct, diplomatic, friendly, bold, insightful, articulate and inspiring.

At the passing of Tom’s close friend Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles ’41, Tom noted that Skipper had “reached out his friendly hand and made us stronger.” Like Skipper, Tom continues to reach out his hand to help so many as a great servant of the state he loves and to which he has devoted his entire career, and like Skipper, he has made us stronger. I am eternally grateful that our first exchange in Gardner Hall led to a long and deep friendship that has forever been grounded in a shared love for and commitment to Carolina.

Yours at Carolina,

Doug signature




Douglas S. Dibbert ’70


“What is most compelling about this place is … the idea that Carolina represents.” From Tom Lambeth’s “My Carolina Story,” delivered to the GAA Board of Directors in January 2013.


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