One on One: ‘I just want to keep on voting after I die.’

Published 12:05 pm Monday, December 26, 2022

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By D.G. Martin

From 1977 until 1985 and from 1993 through 2001, Wilson County was the de facto capital of North Carolina. At least it was when then Gov. Jim Hunt and his close advisor, Betty McCain, were home from Raleigh.

McCain, who died November 23, served as Hunt’s trusted political partner and friend throughout Hunt’s career. Among her assignments were serving as secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources and first female chair of the state Democratic Party. She also worked tirelessly on Hunt’s successful efforts to change the state’s constitution to permit governors to serve two consecutive terms.

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Reports of her death recognized her affection for her late husband Dr. John McCain and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. These reports also contained long lists of her accomplishments and service: undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, followed by a master’s in music from Columbia University Teachers College followed by positions at UNC-CH’s campus Y and seven decades of service to the university system.

She served on the board of governors of the UNC System, as a member of the UNC-CH board of visitors, chair of the UNC General Alumni Association and the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center board of visitors. UNC-CH awarded her an honorary degree, the GAA Distinguished Service Medal and the William Richardson Davie Award.

Notwithstanding her many accomplishments and great service to North Carolina, many will most remember her for her warm and steady support for friends and colleagues, her energetic, entertaining and effective speeches and for her unmatched and disarming sense of humor as demonstrated by the following stories from folks who knew her.

According to Robert Anthony, former curator of the North Carolina Collection, when McCain was speaking to a group of nationally prominent decorative arts experts meeting in New Bern, McCain greeted them in her polished mock country girl manner, explaining that she was from Faison in Duplin County, a town so small that the school, she told them, had to use the same car for drivers’ training and for sex education.

For many years, she told this group, people in Duplin made a living growing tobacco. But, she explained, “when the government cracked down on cigarette smoking and thus put the tobacco farmers out of business, some people switched to growing hogs. If we could just get the hogs to start smoking cigarettes, we might be able to get a product we could sell to the Yankees as smoked ham.”

When Michael Hill, historian, and research supervisor at Cultural Resources, bragged about visiting all of North Carolina’s 100 counties, she put her hand softly on his arm and said, “Honey, I’ve been to every precinct.”

Patrick Wooten, deputy commissioner of the state’s Industrial Commission remembered, “At a political gathering down in Wilson, when the topic of weight gain from politicians eating so much barbecue came up, Betty Ray said, ‘My daughter, Eloise, bought me one of those stationary bicycles and told me that I had to ride it, and that she was going to come over to check the odometer every week.’ When I asked her if she had done that she said, ‘No, honey, I pay the preacher’s little boy to come over and ride it.’”

McCain was an unapologetic Democrat. Willis Whichard, former supreme court justice and biographer of Governor David Swain, shared this story: Betty used to say that someone once told her mother that she would vote for the devil if he was on the Democratic ticket. Her mother frowned and responded emphatically, “Not in the primary!”

Once, she told her colleagues that she hoped she would be buried in Madison County, North Carolina. When they asked her why she picked a small mountain county far away from where she lived, she said, “I just want to keep on voting after I die.”

And up in heaven now, she just might figure out how she can keep on voting.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.