(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Advocacy Award citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the Annual Legislative Reception and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
When some members of the GAA Board of Directors met with Richard Stevens ’70 (’74 MPA, JD) to tell him about the new advocacy award named for the late Tony Rand ’61 (’64 LLBJD) and for Tom Lambeth ’57, Richard said, “Great! I’ve got some ideas for who should receive it.”
The board members then informed him he was the inaugural recipient. They told him it was an obvious choice, given the long resume of contributions he’s made to benefit his alma mater.
For two of his three terms on the UNC Board of Trustees, Richard served as chair. He also chaired the GAA Board of Directors and was the GAA’s treasurer for a decade. For years he chaired the Carolina Club board of directors and served on the GAA Task Force, which identified areas of significant concern to alumni, and recommended how the GAA could help. He advocated effectively as a trustee for the elevation of the Institute of Government to the School of Government. He chaired two chancellor search committees, which led to the selections of James Moeser and Kevin Guskiewicz.
Long before he converted an entire room in his house into a shrine to Carolina, his wife, Jere, realized his devotion to Chapel Hill. On their wedding day, the harpist started the ceremony by playing Hark the Sound. Richard’s wedding gift to Jere was a lifetime membership to the GAA and a Carolina license plate, which he affixed to her car.
His commitment to everything Carolina is surprising given his childhood. Richard was born and raised in Raleigh, awash with Wolfpack Red. His family was none too pleased when he chose Carolina blue when UNC’s director of admissions, his former ninth grade civics teacher, came to Broughton High and recruited him. Richard applied to only one university — Carolina. The first in his family to graduate college, Richard knew he wanted to be a lawyer, and UNC had the best law school around.
He graduated law school in the midst of a recession. One of his mentors, a political science professor, suggested he try government service. Richard accepted an administrative post with the city of Durham while he completed his master’s in public administration, then joined Wake County as assistant manager. A few years later, he was named county manager. After 30 years, he thought it was time for someone new to take the helm.
He opened a consulting firm and, with the encouragement of friends, ran for the N.C. Senate in 2002 and won. He stood up for Carolina as co-chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations for Higher Education and the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Student Financial Aid. In 2012, he imposed his own term limit and stepped aside to make room for someone new. He joined Smith Anderson law firm, where he remains today practicing government relations and contracts, and land use and zoning.
Early on, he took as his motto a quote from John D. Rockefeller: “I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.” Throughout his career, Richard has remained loyal to Carolina, happily saying “yes” whenever his alma mater called. “I have great love for Carolina,” he said, “what it’s done for me and for the state — it’s the economic engine.”
He brought a studied neutrality to his leadership roles, a skill he learned as a county manager working with commissioners regardless of political party. He gained a reputation as a consensus builder, reaching across the aisle to get things done. His integrity and honesty shone through in his interactions with others, personally and professionally.
As a leader of august bodies, he often dealt with strong personalities. By drawing out the diverse voices at the table — he practiced inclusion before there were classes for it — he encouraged discussion of a wealth of ideas. He then navigated through sometimes strong opinions to reach the best solution. Renowned as a mentor, he built up the confidence of those who were hesitant to go up against the loudest voices, which not only led to better decisions but nudged those quiet speakers to take on positions of greater leadership.
His easy-going manner belies his dedication to thorough research. He goes into every discussion prepared. Before he speaks to the press, he has thought through his message. Solid, steady, mature, he never blusters. He’s had to make tough decisions, but history will show he made the best decisions, one colleague said. “He always put UNC’s interests above his own.”
Among his many awards, Richard received the GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal in 1994. UNC honored him with the William Richardson Davie Award in 2010 and the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2017.
What’s next for Richard? His pontoon boat is moored to the dock of his lakeside home. Maybe more opportunities to motor to the middle of the lake and enjoy a glass of wine with his wife while they watch the sun set. Whatever he does, he said, rest assured “it won’t involve politics.”