Cook: Frye a fitting North Carolinian of the Year

  • Posted: Saturday, February 26, 2011 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 12:19 a.m.

North Carolinians of the Year chosen by the N.C. Press Association have included Elizabeth Dole, Billy Graham and Meadowlark Lemon ó people whose names are known across the state and nation.
You may be less familiar with this yearís recipient, Henry Frye. But he has held one of the most influential positions in North Carolina, and his life story holds important lessons for the state and nation.
Frye, 78, served as chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court from 1999 to 2001, the first black person to do so. Yet as a young man returning home from the Air Force in 1956 ó a second lieutenant who completed ROTC before graduating from N.C. A&T ó he was barred from registering to vote because election officials in his hometown of Ellerbe said he failed the literacy test.
He was on his way to law school at the University of North Carolina. But like most of us, he could not correctly name five signers of the Declaration of Independence nor identify the 12th president of the United States.
Zachary Taylor, in case youíre wondering. I had to look it up.

Itís important to hold up examples of what was so wrong in our collective past and to honor those who succeeded despite it.
Frye complained to the elections board in Ellerbe and within weeks was allowed to vote. But you have to wonder how many people didnít have the confidence and courage to challenge the elections officials.
The next year the state adopted a uniform literacy test. To ìearnî the right to vote, a person was required to be able to read and copy any section of the N.C. Constitution ó much easier than the Ellerbe test, but still an obstacle to those who were not skilled readers (think about the language in constitutions) with legible handwriting.
Frye graduated from the UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill and went on to work as an attorney, an assistant U.S. attorney, law school professor, state legislator, N.C. Supreme Court justice appointed by Gov. Jim Hunt (and then elected) and finally chief justice.
He is a very fitting recipient of the North Carolinian of the Year award. You can see the Press Association video about his life at www.youtube. com/watch?v=4rBmmCrdEsI. Fryeís story needs to be told again and again.

When I was president of the Press Association in 1999-2000, I sent author Reynolds Price a letter asking if he would accept the honor of North Carolinian of the Year at our summer convention. The selection is a board decision, but the president has the privilege of delivering the good news to the honoree.
Price declined our award, saying he was busy and found such awards were less an honor than a ploy for organizations to get free speakers. He was not interested.
One more time, I wrote to Price, this time explaining that I had read several of his books, was a huge fan and as an avid reader thought it was time an author received the Press Associationís top award.
I meant it. From ìA Long and Happy Lifeî to ìRoxanna Sladeî ó his latest novel at the time ó Price had created a body of work that seemed woven into the stateís culture yet spoke to readers everywhere.
But his reply to my second plea was a cordial and even curter no.
Itís understandable. By that time Price was wheelchair-bound, yet he faced constant demands on his time. He had to prioritize, and the Press Association didnít make the cut.
I thought of that exchange when Price died last month. Maybe he did us a favor. Having weathered his rejection, I decided to go for a true long shot, dare to dream. This time the answer was yes, and we happily presented the 2000 North Carolinian of the Year award to former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith.

Frye, like Smith, appreciated our award. The Press Association was well-known to him. Frye established the Chief Justiceís Media and the Courts Forum in 2000 to bring journalists and court officials together to talk about access and the right to a fair trial ó a group Bev Lake Jr. continued after he won Fryeís seat.
Frye understands and respects the need for a free flow of information. He preached to the choir at a N.C. Press Association meeting in 2000, announcing the forum and quoting Thomas Jefferson: ìWhere the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.î
As he accepted this latest honor from the Press Association on Feb. 24, he was humble. ìIf you hear something knocking, itís my knees,î he told the gathering of editors, publishers and journalists.
Frye talked about how computers have progressed. IBMís Watson had prevailed in a Jeopardy match against the game showís top contestants. But knowing right from wrong is still chiefly a human function. You can have all the data in the world, but it takes the human heart and mind to see a wrong and try to right it.
ìWhile I would like to change the world ... thatís too big for me,î Frye said.
But he made an impact, speaking up for himself and others when the laws seemed unfair and going on to succeed in spite of those who would have held him back. And he didnít need to name the 12th president to do it.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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