The Chapel Hill Museum is highlighting the life and times of a noted business and political leader in “Luther H. Hodges: The International Legacy of a North Carolina Statesman.” Its exhibit runs through Oct. 23.
Born on a tenant farm in southern Virginia, Hodges’ accomplishments included being vice president and director of Marshall Field and Co. in New York and head of the Industry Division of the Economic Recovery Program – the Marshall Plan – to rebuild Western Europe. He was lieutenant governor and governor of North Carolina during a time of change, including the early years of school desegregation, the beginnings of the community college system and the state’s first public television station and the birth of the Research Triangle Park. He served as U.S. secretary of commerce under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. In his final years, Hodges was president of Rotary International and chairman of the board of the Research Triangle Foundation.
When Hodges arrived in Chapel Hill in September 1915, he had two and a half years of high school under his belt and $62.50 in his pocket. He worked his way through college waiting tables and washing dishes in Swain Hall, firing furnaces in the homes of townspeople and repairing shoes. In his first two summers, he worked as a mill hand and a traveling book salesman and, in summer 1918, he served as a second lieutenant in the Army.
At UNC, he was president of the Dialectical Society and of the senior class, a member of the YMCA Cabinet and the debate team and a varsity basketball player. When he was graduated with degree in economics, he was voted best all-round man in the class of 1919.
The exhibit tracks Hodges’ life, including his decision in 1950 to retire from Marshall Field, saying he intended “to devote the rest of my life to public service.” Within months, he was headed across the Atlantic to serve as head of the Marshall Plan.
He later ran for political office, winning the lieutenant governor’s race in 1952 against a veteran and strong opponent. As he campaigned, he seldom bought more than a dollar’s worth of gas at a time, so that he could introduce himself to people at filling stations and ask for their vote.
He was at home in Leaksville reading the newspaper in November 1954 when he received the news that Gov. William B. Umstead had died. Two days later, he took the oath of office as governor and successfully ran for election in his own right in 1956, carrying every county in the state. When he discovered after the election that the campaign had cost 25 percent less than had been budgeted, he returned the excess to his contributors.
In his six years as governor, Hodges worked to raise the standard of living of North Carolinians and to attract industry to the state; he was the first American governor to go to Europe to seek foreign investment in his state. He convinced the N.C. General Assembly to fund industrial education centers – the forerunner of the community college system – and got lawmakers to pass a minimum wage law, the first state in the South to do so.
As governor, Hodges also was a driving force behind the establishment and development of the Research Triangle Park.
Hodges died on Oct. 6, 1974, after suffering a stroke at his home in Chapel Hill. His obituary in The New York Times read: “Luther H. Hodges rose from a tenant farm to the Governor’s Mansion in North Carolina and the Cabinet in Washington as Secretary of Commerce. A leading moderate in a time of racial stress in the South, Governor Hodges gave no aid to segregationists, instead calling for obedience to the law.”
The Chapel Hill Museum is at 523 East Franklin St. Summer hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The museum is closed Sunday through Tuesday. Admission is free.