Five of the six people who received this year’s North Carolina Award have ties to UNC – poet Gerald Barrax ’75 of Raleigh, chemistry Professor Joseph DeSimone of Chapel Hill, Betty Ray McCain ’52 of Wilson, Hugh McColl Jr. ’57 of Charlotte and Bo Thorp ’56 of Fayetteville.
The award recognizes significant contributions to the state and nation in the areas of fine arts, literature, public service, and science. This year’s sixth recipient is glass artist Mark Peiser, who teaches at the Penland School in Mitchell County.
The awards, which are being presented Oct. 29, recognize Barrax for literature, DeSimone for science, McCain and McColl for public service and Thorp and Peiser for fine arts.
Barrax began teaching at N.C. State University in 1970, remaining there until his retirement in 1997. Former editor of Obsidian II and poetry editor of Callaloo, Barrax to date has published six volumes of poems and has seen his work widely anthologized. One of the titles, Leaning Against the Sun, was nominated for both a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. His subjects range from religion to human relations, sexual intimacy, and death. Music is his muse; he is a fan of all varieties except polka and waltzes. While personally committed to racial justice, Barrax deplored the inclination by black writers in the 1960s to replace poetry with slogans, saying respect for the forms and conventions of poetic composition must come first. As he told his students, in the words of Ezra Pound, “Technique is the test of a man’s sincerity.” His honors include a Ford Foundation Fellowship, the Sam Ragan Award, the Raleigh Medal of Arts, and induction in 2006 into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.
DeSimone is one of the nation’s premier scientists and is on the cutting edge of research with revolutionary results for cancer treatment, green chemistry and photovoltaics. His breakthroughs and nanotechnology applications in the fields of polymer chemistry, pharmacology and biomolecular engineering, are life-changing and world-saving inventions.
McCain has for decades served the people of her home state in a wide range of positions, the majority of which have been unpaid. As chair of the state Democratic Party in 1976, she was the first woman to hold the position and since 1971 has been a member of the party’s executive committee. She has provided leadership for the UNC General Alumni Association, serving as chair in 2001, and is a past recipient of the GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal. She also has helped lead the N.C. Medical Society, the N.C. Mental Health Association, UNC-TV’s board of trustees and the Tryon Palace Commission. From 1993 to 2001, McCain was the state’s secretary of cultural resources.
McColl transformed 20th-century banking using technology, mergers and acquisitions, and competitive acumen. In 1983, he became chief executive officer of NCNB, which in 1991 became NationsBank and later became Bank of America. After mergers, McColl made the financial giant Bank of America the first bank in the nation with operations coast to coast. In 1983, NCNB had assets of $12 billion. When he retired in 2001, Bank of America’s assets were $642 billion.
Thorp, who is the mother of Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86, built Cape Fear Regional Theater into a company to rival any in the country. It is the cultural touchstone of the community. She serves as artistic director, in supporting or starring roles, as producer and as fundraiser. For decades, she has trained artists and administrators on service and survival. She and her company have the advantage of operating near Fort Bragg, where an open casting call can bring in an unknown musical talent or leading man. Hundreds of local children have attended workshops or taken part in plays. Theater exchanges with Hastings, England and Dumfries, Scotland have taken Death of a Salesman and Our Town to the British Isles. Thorp has interpreted the work of North Carolina writers, among them fellow North Carolina Award recipients Paul Green ’21, Clyde Edgerton ’66, Bland Simpson ’70, Lee Smith, and Jill McCorkle ’80. She created River Show, taking productions to the banks of the Cape Fear River, and produced works for the North Carolina Women Writers’ Conference, the bicentennials of UNC, and the constitutional convention in Fayetteville.
The award has been given annually since 1964. An awards committee selects recipients from nominations that are submitted by the public.