Etheridge was in his mid 20s when he won a seat in the state House to represent Wilson and Nash counties. The Republican served for six years before deciding not to seek a fourth term.
The House Principal Clerk's office said Friday that he died Wednesday. Andrew Etheridge told the Wilson Daily Times that his brother died suddenly in his Las Vegas hotel, possibly after contracting a virus. He leaves behind a wife, Beverly Vick, and four children ages 8 to 21.
"He was very young," Andrew Etheridge said. "He was in perfect health."
On the page, the family attributed Etheridge's death to a heart attack and said they planned to hold his funeral in Wilson and a memorial service in Raleigh. The dates had not yet been set.
Etheridge graduated from Wilson County Technical Institute in 1981. He was the founder and owner of Branigan's Restaurants. He was also co-founder of Direct Approach Marketing and owner of VEBCO Buildings Inc.
Etheridge was always an optimistic person, former business associate and friendMike Strother said.
"He was funny and smart and well-spoken and wise beyond his years in so many ways that really matter," Strother told the Daily Times. "Though he had some ups and downs in business, he never stopped working toward his dreams and goals. He loved God, his family and this country, and he never let his challenges keep him down for long."