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Host Robin Minietta hosts the first of this series of Biographical Conversations. In the first episode, Senator Terry Sanford shares his early years as a boy and college student, leading up to his eventual political ambitions. Terry was born and raised in Laurinburg. His father owned a hardware store named JD Sanford and Son, and his mother was a teacher. After his parents started having children, his mother took a leave of absence from teaching, but she returned when the Depression forced his father to close his store. Sanford says that his experiences growing up during the Depression made him more sensitive to the plight of people in poverty and especially to the black population.
As Sanford grew as a child, he became involved in the Boy Scouts, and he attended the Methodist church with his father. Although his parents had little money, they encouraged the children to go to college, so Terry chose to go to UNC-Chapel Hill. While he was there, he came to admire President Graham, who brought to light some of the injustices that abounded, including sharecropping and issues of working people. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt also shaped many of Sanford’s ideas.
He met the woman who would become his wife when he was attending college, and when Sanford seriously began thinking of asking her to marry him, it was clear that war was imminent. In fact, the US became involved in World War II shortly after Sanford began law school, so he left school to join the FBI. However, his need to fulfill a military obligation haunted him, so he asked President Hoover for a military leave, and he was accepted into the Army as a paratrooper. He quickly escalated through the ranks from a private to a 2 nd sergeant four months later.
He resumed his law education after the war was over and set up a law practice in Fayetteville. During that time, he was beginning seriously to consider an eventual campaign for governor, so practicing law in Fayetteville gave him an advantage that the larger cities would not have. He chose Kerr Scott’s state senatorial campaign as the first one he would run, and running the campaign gave him ideas about his own campaign years later.
As Sanford became more aware of the political climate of the state, he began to realize that race issues often decided elections. The emotional Smith/Graham Senate race gave him ideas of issues that would further his campaign, so he ran on an educational platform, playing down hints of racial bias and often using his opponent’s accusations to his advantage. His campaign was honest; he limited contributions and refused any contributions that arrived with expectations. He says that he wanted to be governor because he wanted to make a difference; not just to be governor.
Part 2: Governorship of North Carolina
Part two begins with Sanford ’s association with John F. Kennedy. According to Sanford, supporting Kennedy publicly was one of the most risky things that he did politically, primarily because North Carolina was not ready for some of Kennedy’s ideas. Even though Sanford supported Kennedy privately, he was reluctant to support him publicly until Bobby Kennedy asked him to second Kennedy’s nomination. Many of Sanford’s colleagues supported Humphrey, and they expressed feelings of betrayal when they discovered Sanford’s choice. However, with the same ability he had to win voters’ approval of a new tax plan, Sanford sold the Kennedy plan to North Carolina voters, and with a combined Presidential and governor campaign, Kennedy and Sanford won two major races for the Democratic party.
Two of Sanford’s priorities were to raise teacher salaries and develop a school bond referendum. While the bond had separate financing, the salaries were part of the state budget, so Sanford recommended removing the exceptions on the sales tax. Because the exceptions included food items, the tax became known by many as the “food tax” and Sanford raised welfare payments to offset the effect the tax would have on the poor. The tax financed improvements in education, and as Sanford said, “I thought they got their money’s worth, all those who paid the sales tax.”
Sanford also started the Governor’s School for gifted students. Unlike the School of the Arts, which also began under Sanford’s leadership, the Governor’s school was an alternative for any student who showed excellence in academics, not just artistic creativity. The Carlisle Commission that he developed jointly with William Friday studied the state of education in North Carolina and recommended the beginning of a new higher education concept—the community college. With 57 community colleges and hundreds of academic offerings, the idea spring boarded into something far beyond what Sanford had envisioned.
Racial equity and freedom of speech on college campuses were two other issues that followed Sanford during his governorship. When he began office, Only Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte and Winston-Salem were integrating students. Not only did he publicly support the Brown vs. Board decision, but he also sent his own children to an integrated school, indicating his personal support as well. Racial tensions sparked many campus demonstrations, and as they became more violent, Sanford suggested filming the leaders of the groups, indicating why they were protesting. To coordinate the effort, Sanford asked the student body leader at UNC-Chapel Hill to be the liaison—Jesse Jackson.
Other issues that Sanford faced during his tenure as governor were combating poverty, which he did through his North Carolina Fund; the status of women, for which he developed a special commission; and posturing the surgeon general’s statement on smoking to the state’s tobacco farmers and producers.
Part 3: Duke University & The U.S. Senate
Terry Sanford begins the final installment of Biographical Conversations with comments about the late 1960s and the Vietnam War, which he states was a “terrible political mistake.” After his term as governor was over, he went back to practicing law and set up a study of American States to student other state governments. From his findings, he thought that states were becoming too dependent on the federal government and were not showing the excellence and leadership that he felt state governments should model.
He began to eye the US Presidency when he ran Hubert Humphrey’s campaign for president. In 1968 he considered running for the US Senate, but after running polls and surveying the political climate at the time, he decided against it.
However, his political career took a more academic turn when he was chosen to be Duke University’s president. He gladly accepted, knowing that he could contribute to the university and could make improvements. In fact, one of his early decisions was to improve the athletic program at Duke. Against opposition that stated that the program was too expensive, Sanford pushed to have an athletic program that had the same standards of excellence as the academic programs.
He was a popular president. Like UNC president Graham, he held meetings with students and became affectionately known as “Uncle Terry.” In fact, he used that nickname to his advantage in a letter to students correcting them for their rudeness during athletic events. When some of the Duke students petitioned him to run for US President, he entered his name into the race, against, as he says, his better judgment. Because he did not run a full-time campaign, Sanford lost the primary—twice—but had no regrets about not leaving his duties at Duke.
He did, however, run a full-time campaign for US Senator against Senator Broyhill, vying for the office to strengthen the Democratic Party. He won but served only one term, losing to Lauch Faircloth in 1986. During his time in the Senate, he created an International Commission to study problems in South America and held hearings for Middle East issues.
After he retired, Sanford began writing and studying aging issues. Still interested in education, he said he was pleased with some of the educational experiments that North Carolina is conducting to try to provide more options for children.