Pinehurst, N.C. — Former Gov. Jim Holshouser, the first Republican to be elected as North Carolina's chief executive in the 20th century, died Monday. He was 78.
Holshouser had been in failing health for some time, and he died at First Health of the Carolinas Medical Center in Pinehurst. Monday would have been the 52nd wedding anniversary for him and his wife, Pat.
A funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at Brownson Memorial Church in Southern Pines. Visitation will be 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the church.
“We are grateful for the loving care of the staff at First Health and St. Joseph’s of the Pines and for the many friends and family who have so lovingly supported him and our family through the last several months," his family said in a statement. "Most of all, we are grateful for his example of wisdom, integrity, love and servant leadership.”
Gov. Pat McCrory visited with the family Sunday afternoon. Holshouser served on McCrory's transition team after the November election.
"North Carolina is a better place because of his leadership and, most of all, because of his incredible heart," McCrory said. "I will miss him dearly, and I think many other people will too."
McCrory ordered all U.S. and North Carolina flags at state offices be lowered to half-staff until Holshouser is buried.
Early start in politics
Holshouser grew up in Boone, the son of a prosecutor and a nurse. He got his first taste of politics as a teen, serving as senior class president at Appalachian High School. He graduated from Davidson College and earned a law degree at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he also was class president.
Holshouser returned to Watauga County in 1960 after graduating from UNC to practice law with his father. Two years later, an interest in reforming the way state judges were nominated prompted him to run for a seat in the state House.
“I decided I would like to run for the legislature. Looking back, it was a rambunctious decision because I was just as green as grass right out of law school,” he said later.
Although the Democratic Party controlled much of state politics during the 20th century, Holshouser ran as a Republican – he described his family as "Lincoln Republicans" – and won on a platform of judicial reform, lower taxes and implementing vehicle inspections.
By age 32, he had become chairman of the small but growing North Carolina Republican Party, and he continued to gain power in the General Assembly, rising to the post of House minority leader.
After 10 years as a state lawmaker, Holshouser mortgaged a Boone hotel he co-owned to finance a gubernatorial campaign. He ran in 1972 against Democrat Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles, an investment banker who served as commerce secretary under Gov. Terry Sanford and spent six years in the General Assembly.
Riding the coattails of President Richard Nixon's landslide victory over George McGovern, Holshouser eked out a 45,000-vote upset win over Bowles, becoming the first Republican elected as governor of North Carolina since Gov. Daniel Russell in 1896. At age 38, he also was the state's youngest governor in a century.
“The fact that I had experience in the legislature gave enough people confidence that, as a Republican governor, I wouldn’t be like a bull in a china shop,” he said.
Education, health care marked term in office
As governor, he created a Board of Governors to oversee the newly consolidated 16-campus UNC system, and he established health clinics in rural areas not served by local physicians. He expanded public school kindergartens statewide and expanded the state parks system.
He also appointed the first woman to a cabinet-level position by naming Grace Rohrer as commissioner of the Department of Art, History and Culture.
Still, much of Holshouser's term as governor was marked by infighting within the state GOP. Some preferred his moderate politics, while others liked the hard-line stances taken by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. The fractures in the party – along with a nationwide recession and the Watergate scandal that toppled Nixon's administration – led to heavy losses in the 1974 election.
Two years later, when Ronald Reagan won the North Carolina presidential primary, the state GOP refused to name Holshouser, who had supported President Gerald Ford in the primary, as a delegate to the Republican National Convention.
"It's a funny thing," Holshouser said in a 1998 interview. "I have the impression that Sen. Helms and I are a lot closer on 90 percent of the issues than most people would ever think. Our styles are just very different. I am not nearly as confrontational as he is. I always viewed myself as somebody who tried to build a consensus, which means some compromising along the way."
After leaving office in 1977, Holshouser moved to Southern Pines and returned to practicing law. Two years later, the General Assembly named him to the UNC Board of Governors, and he served two eight-year terms on the board, heading the personnel and finance committees at various times, as well as the panel that selected former UNC President Molly Broad.
"I don't think I ever really thought I was going to have a career in politics. I almost always considered myself sort of a short-term visitor and it got a little stretched out," he said in the 1998 interview.
Backed organ donation, economic development
Holshouser suffered from kidney disease for years, and in 1986, he underwent kidney transplant surgery at N.C. Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. After that, he took an active role in promoting organ donation, serving on the board of the United Network for Organ Sharing, the organization that sets rules for U.S. organ transplants. He also served as chairman of Matter of Life Consortium, which seeks to increase statewide education and involvement in organ and tissue transplantation and was honorary chairman of the National Kidney Foundation of North Carolina.
His commitment to economic development for struggling communities was recognized in 1995 when the predecessor to the North Carolina Chamber awarded him the Distinguished Public Service citation.
Endowed faculty positions in the Walker College of Business at Appalachian State University and the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill also carry Holshouser's name.
In 1997, Holshouser merged his law firm with Sanford's, creating the Sanford Holshouser Law Firm the only firm in the state with two former governors on staff. The firm merged with Charleston, S.C.-based Nexsen Pruet in 2009.
Although Holshouser continued to dabble in politics after leaving office – he campaigned for Reagan in 1980, helped former Gov. Jim Martin's campaigns in 1984 and 1988 and tried to get Elizabeth Dole to run for president in 2000 – his main focus in recent years was on education. In addition to serving on the Board of Governors, he also led major capital campaigns for Davidson and for St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg.
“If you are going to have a full life, education makes so much difference, not just in terms of your ability to make a living, but also in terms of your ability to see all of what life has to offer,” he said.