A politician who took 'the vision thing' to heart

May 03, 1998|By Sara Engram

IN AN age when most politicians have a tough time with "the vision thing," it's inspiring to recall the life of a man whose career exemplified vision and courage.

Terry Sanford, who died last month at the age of 80, served only four years as governor of North Carolina, forbidden by the state's constitution to serve two successive terms.

But in those four years, he put a progressive stamp on the state that survives today, despite the best efforts of conservatives such as Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, who has served far longer in public office.

Vision? Terry Sanford lived and breathed new ideas. Chief among his interests was education -- in large part because he understood the connections between strong schools, a prosperous economy and the kinds of amenities that make a state a pleasant place to live and work.

While in the governor's office, he wrote a book about his efforts to improve education. "By starting with sound, meaningful education," he said, "we make it possible for each person to add his own gift to his generation, to become a part of the progress of man. In turn, the individual makes the nation stronger, defends against its enemies, adds to its wealth, and carries forward its ideals and faith."

Equal opportunity

Certainly when you compare North Carolina's current prosperity with the widespread poverty of most Southern states in the early 1960s, it is easy to see the benefits of a strong system of public education -- especially of a system that provided a good education for all its citizens, regardless of race. Eradicating the state's legacy of segregation and racial discrimination was essential to Terry Sanford's vision.

When he declared his candidacy for governor in 1960, he drew a bold image from football, daring North Carolinians to quit "holding the line."

"The object of the game is not to defend the goal but to score a touchdown," he said. "The touchdown for North Carolina is in expanding, growing, developing and building."

But he knew -- and convinced legislators -- that touchdowns would be impossible for a state where fewer than half its citizens were finishing high school and barely 10 percent were earning college degrees.

So two weeks after taking office in 1961, Gov. Sanford embarked on an ambitious "quality education program."

To finance a substantial increase in funding for public education, he supported an extension of the sales tax to food, earning nicknames such as "Food Tax Terry."

It was a regressive tax. But at least the tax was imposed for a purpose that ultimately helped to raise the living standards for thousands of poor families in the state. As the state became more prosperous, the legislature ratcheted back those increases and, earlier this year, eliminated the tax on food altogether.

During his years as governor, Terry Sanford increased the budgets for the state's public schools by 50 percent and for the state's public colleges and universities by 70 percent. He established the state's network of community colleges, a national model.

Gov. Sanford knew it was essential to strengthen school systems in general. But he also understood the importance of programs most other politicians considered frills -- things such as arts education, or enhancement programs for the state's best and brightest high school students, or research into the reasons so many youngsters were failing to achieve their potential.

His legacy includes the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, as well as the N.C. Governor's School. The former has long been a magnet for young actors, dancers, musicians and artists who want top-notch training, while the Governor's School -- now widely copied -- is thought to have been the country's first residential summer enrichment program for gifted high school students.

He also initiated efforts to study "underachieving" students, young people with normal to high intelligence who were not able to perform up to their potential. Those are the students who now often end up being diagnosed with a learning disability, but who were then falling through the cracks.

As elementary and secondary schools improved, they provided better students for the state's colleges and universities -- and better potential workers for the state's employers.

A high-tech approach

Recognizing the synergy created by strong universities and high-powered research facilities, Gov. Sanford fought hard to nurture the fledgling Research Triangle Park near Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham, established by his predecessor, Gov. Luther Hodges. The Research Triangle is now a powerhouse for economic development.

Terry Sanford went on to become president of Duke University, leading that institution to national prominence. He also was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986 and served one term.

But for aspiring politicians, the legacy of his four years as governor will always stand as a shining example of "the vision thing," and why it matters.

Sara Engram is a deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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