Wallace Hyde ’49 MAEd ’53, the shrewd, cigar-smoking Raleigh businessman who for decades was a major power behind the scenes in state and national Democratic Party politics, died Jan. 14 after years of declining health. He was 89 and had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Hyde was such an insider that he watched the 1984 convention from Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale’s San Francisco hotel room. Vice President Al Gore, a frequent guest at his home, was instrumental in arranging for the nomination of his wife, Jeanette, also a force in Democratic politics, to be named U.S. ambassador to Barbados.
But it was in North Carolina where Hyde had his biggest impact, helping several generations of Democrats win office. “He was really one of those people who helped Terry Sanford get elected and carry forward a new modern progressive politics in the last half century,” former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt said. “Wallace Hyde was a highly successful businessman. He had a real influence on the Democratic Party being mainstream and being business-friendly in this state. He was one of the best Democratic strategists and prime movers that North Carolina has ever seen.”
Hunt was one of two speakers at Hyde’s memorial service, held Jan. 18 in Raleigh. The other was Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher.
Hyde, a Graham County country boy, started his career as a high school football coach, eventually earning a doctorate in education from New York University. He would spend much of his life in his beloved mountains, starting an insurance agency, a savings and loan and other business interests. He was always close and supportive of WCU, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
At one time, he owned Bill Stanley’s Barbecue and Bluegrass, one of Asheville’s best-known nightclubs, where he was known to belt out such bluegrass favorites as “Knoxville Girl” with Bill Monroe.
He entered politics in 1960 to help Sanford get elected governor, and as a protégé of Bert Bennett, the Winston-Salem oil jobber who built the Democratic organization that would elect both Sanford and Hunt. When Sanford became governor, Bennett became state party chairman and Hyde became the party’s executive director – a team that would include a millionaire and a future millionaire who became at ease rubbing elbows with presidents. “He loves politics,” Bennett once remarked. “I’d say he’s good at it and can afford it.”
Hyde was particularly good at raising money. Among those he raised money for were the gubernatorial campaigns of L. Richardson Preyer in 1964, Robert W. Scott in 1968, Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles in 1972, and all of Hunt’s campaigns. “Wallace was an old coach,” Hunt said. “He was tough as nails. When you got in a fight, you’d love to have him by your side because he was tough to whip, and he didn’t lose many.”
The list of politicians whom the Hydes entertained in their home included Mondale, Gore, Bill Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, Dick Gephardt, Florida Sen. Lawton Chiles and Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn. To help entertain, the Hydes purchased the home of Raleigh retail executive Art Pope, now the budget chief of Gov. Pat McCrory. The rotunda makes the home particularly well-suited for large crowds. When President Jimmy Carter wanted to put on a $1 million fundraiser at home in Plains, Ga., he asked Hyde to head it up. Hyde said he never asked for any personal favors, but he did enjoy making political calls for other people.
Hunt said he often accompanied Hyde on industry recruiting trips around the world, even when Hyde was in his 80s. But Hyde would always play down his political influence. “I’ve never considered myself to be a political boss,” Hyde once remarked. “I’m just a political helper.”
Reprinted in edited format with permission of The News & Observer of Raleigh.
Wallace came from very modest circumstances. A friend remarked that Wallace “came out of poverty with a wide-eyed view of what he could be.” He enrolled at WCU more than 70 years ago, in 1941, and thus began a relationship with his university that thrived for the remainder of his life.
Wallace came to WCU on a football and basketball scholarship and played at Western in the first football game he had ever seen. World War II interrupted his studies, but he returned to earn an undergraduate degree in physical education and, while serving as a high school coach and teacher, a master’s degree in public school administration.
At the behest of Gov. Robert W. Scott, Wallace served on a committee that led to the formation of the University of North Carolina system and was subsequently named to the Board of Governors, serving the limit of terms allowed on the board formed to provide oversight of the new system. In total, Wallace served 15 years on WCU’s Board of Trustees, 11 as its chair. Wallace also was the first president of the Catamount Club and helped to incorporate WCU’s Foundation Board, on which he served until his death. Together Wallace and his wife, Jeannette, have provided support for scholarships, the College of Business, the Alumni Association, the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band and athletics.
Former Chancellor Barney Coulter loved to tell a great story about the Hydes’ generosity to Western. When Wallace and Jeanette visited, they often stayed with Barney and his wife, Barbara, at the Chancellor’s Residence. During one summer visit, the weather was particularly hot. When Jeanette asked Barney to lower the thermostat, his response was to open a window, saying, “That’s how we lower the thermostat in the mountains.” Jeanette turned to Wallace and said, “You’ve got to do something about this.” As the current residents of the Chancellor’s Residence, my wife Susan and I thank you for the AC.
Western Carolina and Wallace have clearly enjoyed a wonderful, long-term love affair. Wallace provided a guiding hand as well, keeping Western Carolina true to its grounding and its mission. “Service to the region can find no roots in a closed fist,” he said. Wallace understood that as a public university, WCU is charged first and foremost with meeting the needs of the public it serves.
So, here’s to Wallace Hyde, a man of extreme accomplishment, a man who lived the promise of education, a man of passionate commitment to education’s transformative power, and, from the hearts of those of us in the corner of paradise we call Cullowhee, here’s to the paramount Catamount!