Who would be on your list of North Carolina public intellectuals?
I asked that question recently in a column about some of our state’s influential people who could take the places of the late UNC president William Friday, Duke professor John Hope Franklin and other smart, public-spirited, and influential people who helped shape our opinions and inspired public action.
There were a few discouraging responses, including one from Mike Robinson, a fellow unsuccessful candidate in the 1998 U.S. Senate Democratic primary. He wrote, “My sad observation is we have so few these days who are capable of critical thinking, research, and reflection about society and proposed solutions for its normative problems.”
Peggy Weaver, who grew up in Chapel Hill, wrote, “I think ‘public intellectual’ is an oxymoron in these days of celebrity obsessed consumer and social media addicted ‘citizens.’ The people of the most influence are seldom intellectuals these days. I think of David Brooks as a public intellectual, whether one agrees with him or not. He is an intellectual. He does have influence. Here in North Carolina, who can even say anymore? It’s so noisy. With shouting opinionated people, the intellectuals tend to get drowned out.”
Still, Weaver had several suggestions, including Duke professor and author Tim Tyson and retired Pulitzer Prize winning editor and columnist Ed Yoder. She also modestly suggested her late father, Fred Weaver. There is no question that he deserves recognition, even if it were for only one action. As dean of students at UNC-Chapel Hill, he made William Friday his assistant. That job set Friday on the path to become university president, where for more than 30 years he was unquestionably one of the state’s most important public intellectuals.
Several people suggested Barlow Herget, former Raleigh council member, journalist, and radio host. Herget himself submitted a long list, with his commentary noted by quotes, that included Yoder and Ran Coble (formerly of N.C. Center for Public Policy Research), former Sen. Tony Rand (“one of the liveliest minds in the legislature in tradition of McNeill Smith”), former UNC president Tom Ross, Ned Barnett of the News and Observer, Art Pope (“as much as I hate to admit it, he has a nimble but wrong-headed mind, but very much an intellectual”), former Public School Forum director John Dornan (“genesis of much of Jim Hunt’s ideas”), columnist Hal Crowther, director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program on Public Life Ferrel Guillory, political activist and expanded digital service advocate Jane Patterson, former Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation heads Tom Lambeth and Leslie Winner, UNC-Charlotte economics professor John Connaughton, Charlotte Observer editorialist Taylor Batten, UNC Law School dean Martin Brinkley (“a brilliant mind who should be on N.C. Supreme Court”), former political consultant and current Duke professor Mac McCorkle, Duke Divinity professor Lauren Winner, Common Cause’s Bob Phillips, and political activist Nancy Stallings of New Bern.
Ronald Taska suggested UNC-Chapel Hill religion professor Bart Ehrman. “He has written about important religious scholarship in a way that the public can understand it. His work has literally changed my life.”
Attorney Hugh Stevens, himself an opinion shaper, suggested foundation executive Joel Fleishman and former Duke Chapel dean and author William Willimon.
Douglas Johnston added preservationist Myrick Howard, conservationist Tom Earnhardt, photographer-historian Larry E. Tise, and naturalist Lawrence Earley.
Pitt Community College president Dennis Massey writes, “We need more ambassadors and think tank generators like [former governor Jim] Hunt. I would also add Norris Tolson to the list thanks to his contributions at the N.C. Biotechnology Center and now as an economic development driver for Nash and Edgecombe counties and all of eastem North Carolina.”
One reader suggested Barry Saunders, the former News and Observer provocative columnist, reminding me how much I miss his rollicking and provocative commentary.
If you have other ideas, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org