Durham County

Longtime local politico, former state Sen. Ralph Hunt Sr. has passed away

Ralph Hunt Sr.
Ralph Hunt Sr.

Former N.C. state Sen. Ralph Hunt Sr. has died.

Details about his death were not immediately announced but it is believed that the former state senator died either late Monday night or early Tuesday morning. His exact age was not announced, but he was believed to be 85.

Sen. Hunt was involved in politics at the local and state levels for many years, serving five terms as a Democrat in the state Senate from 1985 to 1993 where he held leadership roles as the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and as majority whip.

He and his wife, the former Elvira Rebecca Cooke, had three children together — Ralph A. Hunt, Jr., Reginald C. Hunt and Regina Hunt.

A native of Oxford, Sen. Hunt told The Herald-Sun in 1989 that his political career began when he was elected class treasurer in the eighth grade. “That was the first time I really developed an interest in anything associated with politics,” he said.

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said of Sen. Hunt’s passing, “Ralph Hunt Sr. was a leader among leaders. His steady hand as a community leader and former legislator benefited Durham and contributed to its growth and economic development.”

Sen. Hunt became the assistant secretary of his freshman class at Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University in 1950 and after graduating with a bachelors degree in mathematics, he served in the U.S. Army from 1953 until 1955, when he was employed at Wright’s Aircraft Corporation in New Jersey.

“I went there looking for a job way below the level of the job they gave me,” Sen. Hunt once told The Herald Sun in an interview. “It was just a wonderful opportunity.”

But New Jersey was not an area in which Sen. Hunt could adjust to living.

“I had hung around North Carolina too long,” he said. He took a job teaching in Virginia but after only six months was approached by Mary Potter High School, in Oxford about a teaching position in this area.

He took that job, teaching math for seven years and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1964 when he and his wife, Rebecca decided that they wanted to give “everything” to their newborn son.

After several years of living in the U.S. Capital. while on a weekend visit to Oxford, a telephone operator called Sen. Hunt and said she’d been ringing him for days. Sen. Hunt assumed it was an emergency. Instead, it had been the Durham City Schools system calling, wanting him to return. He did, teaching at Hillside High School for three years.

In 1973, Sen. Hunt won a seat on the Durham City Council as one of only two African-Americans on the council at the time and remained on the council for 12 years including a three-year stint as mayor pro tem.

In 1981, he founded his family’s chain of convenience stores, Parkview Convenience Centers.

“I can remember times before he — when he was on City Council — and I’d stop in that convenience store and talk with him for about 15 or 20 minutes about local politics,” state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. said Tuesday. “Somebody might go in that convenience store and they didn’t have any money, he still might let them get something on a tab on credit, knowing that they might never get around to paying him back.”

Years ago, Sen. Hunt had a great interest in cars and at one point he owned a couple of antique Rolls-Royces, McKissick said, “I can remember him involved in all kinds of things over the years.”

McKissick chuckled fondly while strolling down memory lane.

“You know,” McKissick said, “you might go to an estate sale and see Ralph Hunt there. Oh yeah. Picking up things from some person, who perhaps was recently deceased, in the community. And he seemed to have a great interest in what I’ll call ‘odd collectables.’ Yeah, yeah ...”

Sen. Hunt also served as chairman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People from 2014-16.

Sen. Hunt was a mentor to current Durham Committee chairman Omar Beasley who weighed in Tuesday: “His loss will truly be felt and he will be missed. My prayers go out to his wife and his kids. I mean ... it hurts.”

Beasley said Sen. Hunt turned the Durham Committee “around” and got the organization going “back in the right direction” during his brief tenure as chairman.

State Rep. Mickey Michaux Jr., D-Durham, served in the state legislature with Sen. Hunt between 1989-90 and had been neighbors with Sen. Hunt and his wife since the Hunts moved into his neighborhood.

“Elementary and high school education were his forte,” Michaux said. “As an individual, as a personal friend, we got along, we pretty much, we hit it off, very well.”

Sen. Hunt at one time was the executive vice president of Durham Business and Professional Chain Inc., was an instructor at N.C.Central University’s School of Business and held positions on many local boards including Durham Downtown Revitalization Foundation Inc. and Mutual Savings and Loan Association.

“He taught he a lot in his leadership style — firm and direct,” Beasley said. “The decorum of the room was immediately set when he came in. Ahh, to lose him, it stings.”

Sen. Hunt’s family was unavailable to comment for this story and no information was immediately available on funeral plans.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks