CHAPEL HILL (May 26, 2016) – UNC President Margaret Spellings and the Board of Governors that oversees the University of North Carolina System presented President Emeritus Tom Ross the highest award the Board bestows.
The University Award recognizes exceptional service to higher education in North Carolina. Here are remarks delivered that evening by Spellings; Tom Lambeth, the former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation; and Jim Drennan, Professor of Public Law and Government at UNC Chapel Hill.
We’ve gathered in Chapel Hill to honor a great public servant, and we’ve assembled a fitting roster to do it.
North Carolina has an unusually rich heritage of public servants – people who have devoted their lives and given their talent to building the institutions of this great state. And in my first few months on the job, I’ve learned that about half of them seem to have grown up down the street from Tom Ross.
You’ll hear in just a moment from Tom Lambeth, who has been intimately involved in the public policy of this state for more than five decades. He is, of course, a dear friend to Tom Ross and a devoted friend to the University of North Carolina.
You’ll hear as well from James Drennan, who has been a professor in the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government and School of Law since 1974. James has worked alongside Tom Ross to improve the North Carolina Court System and cement the University’s place as a trusted resource for policymakers across the state.
I want to speak for a couple of minutes about Tom Ross and about North Carolina.
Two legendary North Carolina governors provide for us the best human summation of the state which Tom Ross has served so well. In quoting them I can describe Tom as well. One, Zeb Vance, found us a people of sober second thought; the other, Terry Sanford, found us a people of outrageous ambitions.
We meet tonight at a university that was this state’s first outrageous ambition. Its creation dared to assert that a relatively poor state could build a university that is both excellent and accessible. And so it is. Tom has had something to do with that.
Somewhere between the sober second thought of North Carolinians and their outrageous ambitions we have… in the main… in the long run… come down on the right side of history. We will go there again.
We will do that because of our people and of their leaders like Tom Ross. People and leaders who fit an ideal of public servant and good citizen captured in the words of a wise man from a little town in Fannin County in President Spellings’ native Texas.
Sam Rayburn, in challenging times, observed that any jackass can kick a barn down; but it takes a carpenter to build one. Throughout our history we have never suffered from a lack of jackasses; but we have found our salvation in a host of accomplished carpenters. Tom is one of those carpenters.
With his grace, his good sense, his courage and his commitment to public service, he provides for us a model of that noble aspiration to serve others. Along the way he has paid us the greatest compliment one in public life can pay to those whom he serves: He has asked us for our best.
There is one thing more about Young Tom. It is captured for me in the memory of my father who graduated from Carolina 90 years ago. His tangible memory of this place rested in a sweater monogramed with the letter he earned as an athlete here. He kept it in a drawer throughout his life.
Years before his death he had given me a copy of the code of the Monogram Club in which his athletic letter gave him membership. He thought two lines in that code gave direction to the good and purposeful life. They did in 1926 and they do tonight. They read: “The scoreboard is an incident of history; true victory is in the heart.”
Tom Ross has a victorious heart. Tonight we celebrate his accomplishments of today and we can only imagine what will come with tomorrow. We can, however, be certain that there will be more to celebrate. There will surely be more.
Thank you Tom.
Hark the Sound.
You get a call to invite you to reflect on forty years of a friendship with a person you admire as much as anyone you know. In six minutes. And you get to follow an incredibly talented opera singer who performs brilliantly. Thanks for the invite, Tom….
His has been an amazing journey that included repairing the social fabric by ensuring that justice is done in a courtroom, working for public policy that promotes fairness and intelligence in sentencing, directing the use of accumulated wealth to work toward a more inclusive and compassionate North Carolina, and providing leadership in higher education to build the foundation for a more civil society. And through it all, the manner in which he conducted himself proved over and over again that dignity, pragmatism and principle can co-exist in the rough and tumble world of public service. That is a gift that has inspired and continues to inspire many people, including me….
I’ve known a lot of judges. Tom Ross was role model for a generation of judges.
When lawyers were asked anonymously, he was the judge they rated the highest. When I talked, as I often do, to the people who work at the courthouses—the clerks, the bailiffs, the law enforcement people, he was adored. They loved working WITH him because they never felt like they worked FOR him. You can tell a lot about a person by learning how they treat people when no one is watching and the people can’t fight back. Those people loved Tom.
He knew the law, and he was always looking for ways to administer justice better…. There is a problem that sometimes befalls judges when they put on the robes. Their jokes become funnier and their observations wiser. One can lose perspective in an environment like that. And there is also the fact that in court some people can be abusive. Courtrooms don’t always bring out the best in people. One reason I admire Tom so much is that he is always respectful to the people he is around, no matter how they treat him, or whether they are fawning or spewing. There is a quality of intellectual humility in Tom, which when combined with his exceptional mind, good judgment, high moral standards and a willingness to take risks for the common good, creates a uniquely productive leader.
His work on sentencing reform is a gift to North Carolina. The early 1990’s were a bad time for North Carolina justice. There was no truth in sentencing or confidence in the system. It was no surprise that Tom emerged as the person Chief Justice Exum tapped to lead the commission appointed to fix the system. His leadership of a wildly diverse, highly opinionated, passionate and well-meaning sentencing commission was the key to keeping the group on task. There were people who believed everyone should go to prison and people who thought we should close most prisons. At the end, with careful attention to process, systematic data-gathering, genuine curiosity, lots of listening, and applying his gift of finding creative solutions, he shepherded the development of a consensus both on the commission and in the legislature (with both parties) that promotes truth in sentencing with predictable, measurable results. As I’ve noted it was a policy widely recognized nationally in awards and in imitation by other states. I still marvel that such a complex set of changes could be done in our highly polarized world.
It was an example of leadership that would be repeated in many other settings over the next 25 years. Our sentencing today is more predictable, equitable, proportional and ultimately more just largely because of Tom Ross.
It was not a good day for the North Carolina justice system when Tom felt the call to move to philanthropy. It was a good day for philanthropy.
I wasn’t surprised, though. As I’ve thought about this event, and reflected on what has been a life extraordinarily well-lived, the phrase that comes to mind is this. Tom felt a relentless call to pursue a better North Carolina through public service. That’s the polar star—whether it’s working for justice or leading in philanthropy or education, he has been focused on bettering the state. He’s very unusual in that he has achieved excellence in at least three great careers, but each of those was a means to the end that I think was his calling. We are a better state because of Tom Ross. We are a better court system. We are a better university.
This award is richly deserved.
Tom, it has been my great privilege to call you my colleague, but even more to call you my friend. As the song says, “Nobody does it better.”