Terry Sanford (1917–1998)

Written By Sai Srikanth

A native of Laurinburg, Sanford possessed a strong commitment to excellence from an early age. Joining the Boy Scouts of America, Sanford rose to the highest rank of Eagle Scout, and in an interview with David Gergen, he stated that his experiences as a Boy Scout “saved his life during the war…and helped me make decisions about what was best.” Sanford took those leadership skills with him first to the battlefield, serving his country as a First Lieutenant in World War II (earning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart along the way for his bravery), and later to the University of North Carolina where he earned his law degree.

After practicing law privately for a few years, Sanford entered public service as a state senator from 1953-1955. Opting not to run for a second term, Sanford shifted his focus on the upcoming governor’s race, ultimately winning the 1960 election. Fueled by the belief that people can accomplish anything with a solid education, Sanford immediately set forth to repair a deteriorating educational system that ranked in the low forties in math, science, and reading among all states.

Strengthening the educational system would eventually define Sanford’s entire political career. While his conservative opponents critiqued the doubling of North Carolina’s expenditures on public schools, Sanford insisted that the spending was necessary to ensure that Tar Heel residents received a quality education that competed with the national average. Meanwhile, Sanford conceived the idea for the Governor’s School of North Carolina, a publicly funded six-week program designed for gifted high school students who pursue a course of intellectual achievement.

Sanford then proceeded to focus his attention on secondary education. Although University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill served as the flagship institution for the state, Sanford decided to consolidate the University of North Carolina system and place the consortium of institutions under new leadership. Sanford also understood that some students desired an advanced education that specialized in the creative arts.  To keep those students in the state, he founded the North Carolina School of the Arts.  Later, he established the North Carolina Community College System for students interested in technical and vocational programs.

Although education occupied a significant portion of his gubernatorial attention, social issues were important to the Laurinburg native. Firm in his belief that racial inequality was un-American, immoral, and unconstitutional, the governor advocated racial desegregation.  The plight of the impoverished in North Carolina also troubled Sanford, and to ameliorate their conditions, he set up the North Carolina Fund to try to extinguish poverty and promote racial equality.  Sanford’s opponents heavily criticized his efforts in this regard and labeled him a “tax-and-spend” liberal who depleted state funds and taxed citizens to implement his programs.

Unbeknownst to many, Sanford also yearned to expand the recently established Research Triangle Park (RTP) and bring the park to the forefront of national attention. The park’s expansion was directly tied to the purchase of major portions of land, a project funded by the Kennedy administration because in large part, Sanford supported the JFK during the presidential election. With RTP’s growth, technological, pharmaceutical, and research and development firms migrated to the area, established offices in North Carolina, and created an economic surge for the state. Today, RTP is the prominent research park in the nation and hosts worldwide corporations, like IBM, and federal governmental agencies, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Sanford left the Governor’s office in 1965 and became president of Duke University for over a decade. Public service lured him out of his employment in 1986 as he won the US Senate race. During his tenure as Senator, Sanford unsurprisingly pushed for educational reform, argued for a more prominent US role in Central America, and aimed to curb excessive deficit spending that typified the era. However, his ideas fell on more deaf ears in the U.S. Senate than previously in the legislative halls of his home state.  He lost a sizeable defeat in the 1992 Senate race to Lauch Faircloth.

With politics behind him, Sanford spent his latter years writing books, notably But What About the People?, which chronicles his efforts to implement a quality public education system for North Carolina. He also taught political science courses intermittently until his health declined. Suffering from esophageal cancer, Sanford breathed his last on April 18, 1998 at 80 years old. Sanford is entombed in the crypt of Duke University Chapel.

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