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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Grace Jemison Rohrer, March 16, 1989. Interview C-0069. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The first female cabinet-level appointee in North Carolina

Rorher explains her transition into her appointment as Secretary of the Department of Cultural Resoruces under the Holshouser administration. Rorher was the first woman to serve in a cabinet-level position in North Carolina. Here, she talks about reactions to her appointment. Rorher notes that during her transition her secretary and Mary Cormick, an employee of the state government for thirty years, helped her smoothly transition into the job.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Grace Jemison Rohrer, March 16, 1989. Interview C-0069. 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.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KATHY NASSTROM:
I'm thinking now, and this was something that, as I was imagining talking with you about it, I'm wondering what it was like for you in early 1973. Holshouser was the first Republican governor in seventy-five years or so, is that right?
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
Of this century.
KATHY NASSTROM:
And you were the first women who was appointed to a cabinet level position in his administration. So there's this transition of a Republican administration coming in and you're a first woman in that position. What was that like for you? Can you describe those first few months in office?
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
Well, the first time I met with my immediate staff, the Division Heads and so forth, the fear that was in their faces was shocking to me. I was just not prepared. I thought "I'm a nice person. Certainly they must be happy to have me in here." They were scared to death, and I said, "I'm not planning on any changes. I don't know enough to make any changes. As I learn the ropes and how things are going, then . . . we will talk and see what changes need to be made in order for you to do your job better and what you need from me and then everything's going to work out." I tried to alleviate that, and that's what I did, and for six months I took, I met with everybody personally. I took notes. They gave me an idea of what their function was and where they were and what their needs were, and I made very few changes as far as replacing people. And Holshouser did not push that. Of course, he had people he wanted to work in, but we were pretty much free to work that out for ourselves. It was different with Martin . . . Then, of course, I had to deal with the Legislature, and when I went in, I went in around the first of January, I forget the exact date. It seems like it was the fifth. Three weeks later the Legislature came to town, and I was to present a budget to them. Well, of course, the budget had been prepared by my predecessor. I tried to get it in my head. It was too late to do anything about that. It was already printed and in the hands of the Legislature. So I had to jump in and deal with the Legislature. And they were very kind to me. They sort of patted me on the head and said I was a nice lady. But gradually that stopped. I had a business officer who was as tough as nails. She had been in state government for thirty years.
KATHY NASSTROM:
And who is that person?
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
Mary Cormick. C-O-R-M-I-C-K. And she knew where the bodies lay. She had her people that got things done, and she knew power and knew how to use power. I learned a great deal from her. In fact, just to keep her under wraps, or under control, I had to learn a lot from her, but if I needed something or if I needed to deal with a Legislator, she could tell me how to deal with him and how to get to him and so forth and so on. And she said to me, "I'm a Democrat." But she said, "I'm loyal to whoever is in this office because that's my job." And we got along great, in fact, we're still good friends and see each other fairly often. I also had an excellent secretary. When somebody would call up and want to see me, she would say, "This is so and so," and give me some background on him, "and he probably wants to see you about this because of this and this and this." So I had good help, and I was able to develop loyalty and good support within the Department, and I moved . . . I'm not a person who jumps in. I'm not impulsive. I study things through and move carefully, and that paid off because when I did move, there was good justification for it and rationale, and it was accepted. So it really turned out that it wasn't as difficult as you might assume, plus the fact that I was so naive about what I was getting into. I went in feeling, you know, so what. I can do this. Second time around, I wasn't quite as confident.
KATHY NASSTROM:
Then you knew. I'm thinking, too, as you've just been talking, we didn't make a note for the transcript that your position was that you were Secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources.
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
Yes.
KATHY NASSTROM:
I'm curious, too, as you describe this transition. The two people you've mentioned so far, the business manager and your secretary, were women. What was the make-up of your staff and the people that you worked with? And then, how did they respond to having a woman manager?
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
They didn't seem to have any problem with me being a woman.