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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edward L. Rankin, August 20, 1987. Interview C-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

William Umstead and his leadership style

Rankin describes how he came to work for Governor Umstead, first as his press assistant in 1948 and later as his private secretary beginning in 1952. First describing what Umstead was like to work with on the campaign trail, Rankin offers some thoughts on Umstead's personal character and then on his style as a political leader once he was elected to the office of governor in the state of North Carolina

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edward L. Rankin, August 20, 1987. Interview C-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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To make a long story short, John called and said Sandy Graham needed some help and could I come up and work with him at the highway commission. I jumped at the chance. I liked the AP, I did, but I wanted to get back to North Carolina. So I was there. Mr. Umstead was in Washington. John set up an appointment, and I went up and was interviewed by him. He hired me as his press assistant, writer, baggage smasher, whatever [laughter] . When I walked in the office there in the United States Senate, that was the first time I had ever seen this man, my first contact with him. We spent about forty five minutes together, and he, right off the bat, was kind enough to offer me the job. I accepted. It was an exciting opportunity for me. So I stayed with him through that period, about eighteen months. He was in Washington and, of course, most of the time in North Carolina campaigning against former Governor Broughton who had filed for the seat. The winner was, of course, Governor Broughton - it was a surprisingly narrow victory - but Governor Broughton did win. So Mr. Umstead returned to private law practice, and I went with John Harden at Burlington Industries, or Burlington Mills it was then.
Around '48? EDWARD L. RANKIN, Jr.: Yeah, '48. Fran and I were married in '48. We were married June 12 after the primary in May of '48, and moved to Greensboro that fall. It was later because his term didn't expire until the end of the year. So that's how I met Mr. Umstead. Of course, working with him I developed a close friendship and a tremendous admiration - just a remarkable human being, a man of great intellectual ability, absolutely unshakeable character. One thing about William Umstead, of course, everybody knew he didn't smoke; he didn't drink; he didn't curse. But these characteristics were very, they were very much a part of the man.
He did smoke. EDWARD L. RANKIN, Jr.: Oh, excuse me. I beg your pardon. Oh, he did smoke, yes. That's another story. You're right. That was different. He grew up on a tobacco farm. He helped work his way through school priming tobacco and working in the fields. So that's another story but that's how I met him. Of course, during the campaign back in those days things were a lot different. I was his driver, and we always shared a room together. I mean we slept in the same room for all those months, what sleep you got, because you're traveling a lot. His pattern was to campaign all day and drive all night to the next place. So we would frequently campaign or meet or go for dinner and this and that and the other until 10:00, 10:30 P.M. I never will forget, we were in Reidsville at a Democratic Party meeting. We came out of the meeting, and it was about 10:30 P.M. I said, "Where are we going, senator." He said, "Let's go to Asheville." We had a long day. It started like at 6:00 that morning. That's the kind of thing that the candidates and their staff have to put up with. But to make a long story short, he, of course, returned to private law practice, and I went to Greensboro. I stayed there four years. John Harden was the vice president of public relations, and I was his right hand man and ran the department and whatever. I was very happy with it. We loved Greensboro and enjoyed being at Burlington. Mr. Umstead then ran for governor, and of course, as a volunteer I helped him, and I did some writing.
This was 1952. EDWARD L. RANKIN, Jr.: Right. That's right, 1952. So I did what I could to help him from Greensboro. Then I was delighted to see him win the nomination, delighted to see him elected in the fall. That was it as far as I was concerned. One day I got a call, and Mr. Umstead said he wanted to see me. So I went to Durham, and he said he wanted me to be his private secretary. It had never crossed my mind. I didn't know exactly what a private secretary did. I had a long talk with John Harden. I talked with the president of the company, J. C. Cowan, at Burlington and decided to accept. I never will forget, John said, "Ed, I really don't want to lose you but I know enough about the job to tell you it's like a post-graduate course in North Carolina [history]. After four years in the governor's office, you will know more about North Carolina than anyone. It's a unique opportunity to learn something about the government and the people of the state." He was very generous. Of course, I accepted, and we started looking for a place to live in Raleigh. The inauguration date came up and we went up for that and spent the day which was Thursday. Then Friday morning it was very hectic in the governor's office. People just packed in, you know. Of course, when you are a winner, nobody ever voted against you, you know. After you win, that's the way it is [laughter]. They packed into the office, and all wanted to shake hands and get in an early word of advice. Very busy day, and at the end of the day, maybe something like 5:30 or something, Mr. Umstead called me in and said, "We've got to get organized here for next week. We've got to go to the inauguration of President Eisenhower." We've got to do this, and we've got to do that. I made a long list of all these things we had to do. Plus the fact that he had been so busy, and William Umstead found it difficult to delegate lots of things. He was a lawyer by training, and he wanted to dot every "i" and cross every "t". This plagued him, really. As governor, for example, you simply must depend on other people. You cannot look at every document. You cannot read everything. That was a problem that he had.