The verdict is in.
James B. Hunt Jr. may have left the North Carolina governor’s office, but he will never go far from North Carolina. “I will continue to be involved in the life of this state. I intend to be the most active citizen in North Carolina after I go out of office,” said Hunt.
Hunt made these comments on Nov. 7, 2000, Election Day, in a quiet library of the Executive Mansion. Not far away, the governor’s press office resonated with the clamor of fans whirring, people typing and phones ringing. Two television sets, each with the sound turned down, were strategically placed to give staffers ongoing election results from CNN. But for the first time in many years, one name that did not grace an on-screen graphic was that of Jim Hunt.
Fast-forward six months. The resolve stated by the outgoing governor in November remains solid with Jim Hunt the private citizen. By Spring 2001, Hunt already had the 16th annual Emerging Issues Forum crossed off his to-do list, had traveled to Washington, D.C., and California and had visited India, where he touted the importance of technology centers like Research Triangle Park to business leaders from around the world. He continues to exude as much confidence in the potential of North Carolinians now as he did throughout his four terms as governor. And in true Gov. Hunt thinking, that potential is directly connected to education.
“First in America: Charting the Course for Excellent Schools” was the theme of the 2001 Emerging Issues Forum. And yes, Hunt was the quarterback. The forum borrowed its title from his 1999 State of the State Address. It also happens to be the name of the book he wrote and gave away to grateful attendees. In an all-star line up that included U.S. Secretary of Education Roderick Paige and nationally syndicated columnist William Raspberry, it was Hunt who received a standing ovation from an audience of North Carolina teachers, principals and superintendents.
The Emerging Issues Forum holds a special place in Hunt’s heart. “I think these forums have really stimulated people,” he said. He added that the forums continually prove North Carolina to be a national leader in addressing such issues.
Hunt likewise has not lost any momentum as an impassioned advocate for education and rural economic development. The main difference is he now drives himself to a downtown office instead of waking up in the heart of the Capital. Hunt joined the law firm Womble Carlyle, Sandridge and Rice in January. And as he told a Raleigh News & Observer reporter recently, “I think I’m working longer and harder now than I did when I was governor.”
Indeed, his public concern for education and rural prosperity fuels much of the way Hunt spends his time. The health of North Carolina’s public schools is still very much on his mind. As he writes in his book, “Education and our public schools are symbolic of something much bigger. They involve our commitment to each other as a people and our aspirations for the future of our society.”
His genuine love for serving others developed early and began to take shape in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, when Hunt was an N.C. State student. For it was under the tutelage of Dr. Dean Colvard, dean of the College from 1953 to 1960, that Hunt found an example of the nobility of helping his fellow man.
“The first lesson I learned from him was a feeling of purpose and mission to help others,” Hunt said of Colvard. “He has really personified that in his life. He saw our university and its research and extension endeavors as a way to help the citizens of this state.”
In that vein, Hunt believes that the main tool for improving the quality of life for rural North Carolinians lies in viewing education in non-traditional ways — and that distance education is the key.
“If people could be on their computers with Internet access, they could have the opportunity to work for a company in RTP or a bank in Charlotte from their home or from a local community college,” he said. “They could also access courses from our major universities. If we can do this successfully, it will mean rural areas will not have the handicaps of being so far away.”
Education, technology and helping others realize the value of both for a better North Carolina: Hunt spent a public life working for these ideals and he now uses every personal contact he has to ensure these ideals live on, even if his political life is over. For now.