A public servant

Jul. 15, 2014 @ 05:56 PM

When Durham native Willis Whichard’s portrait was officially hung at the North Carolina Supreme Court recently, his long-time friend Martin H. Brinkley was appropriately effusive:

“No member of the court has done more, in more capacities or with greater distinction for the old North State that the man whose portrait we dedicate today,” said Brinkley, a Raleigh lawyer who first met Whichard in 1991 at UNC law school.

That is rich praise, richly deserved.

It also is the sort of encomium that tends to appear in eulogies and in editorials after the subject has died. We’re happy that Whichard, a vigorous 74, is still very much alive, and hope that he will be for many productive and gratifying years to come. But the official dedication of his portrait in that institution he served so well, the state’s highest court, offered a tempting alternate opportunity to reflect on his contributions.

Willis Whichard is something of an old-school public servant, courtly, soft-spoken, and respectful of all viewpoints while holding strongly to his own. He is, as he is justly proud to note, the only North Carolinian to serve in all four of these important components of government – the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court and both houses of the General Assembly.

As a newspaper, we certainly appreciate that Whichard – like many of his generation – got some of first experience at providing dependable service and a respect for earned money delivering newspapers – in his case, the afternoon Durham Sun. And as for many in his generation, the earnings from that paper route – a dime a week from each customer – helped, along with scholarship money, to send him the University of North Carolina.

He entered public service in 1970, not long after beginning his law practice, serving first in the State house and then the State Senate. His nearly two decades of service on the courts began when then-Gov. Jim Hunt appointed him to the appeals court in 1980.

After he hung up his robes in 1998, he signed on to lead Campbell University’s law school, laying the groundwork for its move to downtown Raleigh and a much higher level of visibility.

Never one to shrink from a difficult situation, he agreed in 2007 to chair a committee that would be tasked to examine Durham’s handling of the lacrosse case. A flurry of lawsuits derailed that investigation, but we are confident Whichard’s record of integrity and thoroughness would have led to important conclusions about that debacle.

When The Herald-Sun asked Whichard recently how he would like to be remembered, he responded:

“In terms of public service, I would hope to be remembered as someone who was devoted to the law and the work of the court, who took the court’s tasks very seriously.”

He will be remembered for all that, and for so much more that he has done and, we are confident, that he has yet to do,