Former UNC chancellor Hardin remembered for irrepressible spirit

Paul Hardin, whose over-the-top enthusiasm led him to declare nearly every day the best day ever, every bite of his wife’s cooking the best dish ever and his position as UNC chancellor the best job ever, was celebrated at a memorial service Saturday as a superlative leader, family man and follower of Jesus Christ.

“He was the energy source” in the Hardin family, Russ Hardin said of his father. Paul Hardin’s irrespressibility was legendary. He cracked jokes in the face of adversity, celebrated the smallest victories and soared over the moon when things were going well. Three days before he died, Hardin met and held his first great-grandchild, and was ecstatic.

“Dad considered that he led a charmed life,” his son said. “There just was not a cynical bone in his body.”

Hardin was 86 when he died on July 1. He had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for the baseball player who died of it in 1941 — but his son said he never complained, even as the illness progressed. In the end, Russ Hardin said, his dad decided to stop having the disease, and stopped eating or drinking. Even his body was irrepressible, his son noted, taking three weeks to succumb.

At least 400 people gathered at University United Methodist Church to celebrate Paul Hardin’s life and offer condolences to his family, including Barbara, his beloved wife of 63 years.

Many who came were former co-workers from Hardin’s long career in academia and university administration.

Paul Hardin III was the son of Dorothy Reel Hardin and Paul Hardin Jr., a bishop in the Methodist Church. Born in Charlotte, he grew up in Concord, Waynesville, Wadesboro, Asheboro, Shelby and High Point, with the family moving as the church reassigned its ministers every couple of years.

The Rev. Carl King, former senior pastor at University United Methodist and a longtime friend of Hardin’s, said all that moving around taught Hardin how to make friends in a new place, which served him well throughout his life.

After high school, Hardin went to Duke University for his bachelors and law degrees. He considered becoming a Methodist minister himself, but said his father told him that he could serve as well as a layman as he could from the pulpit.

Hardin was a student at Duke when he fell in love with Barbara. They married the day after graduation in 1954.

Though he had a law job waiting in Alabama, King said, Hardin decided to volunteer for the Army to avoid being drafted in the Korean War. When he aced a grammar test — the first recruit his commanding general had ever seen do so — he was sent to the Pentagon to serve in the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps. When he left the Army, he practiced law in Birmingham, then was asked to teach at Duke for a year while another instructor was on sabbatical.

He stayed for 10 years.

From there, he was hired as president of Wofford College, and went on to serve as president of Southern Methodist, where he was fired after reporting the school’s football team for unethical behavior. Though it cost him his job and his university-owned home and car, Russ Hardin said, his dad never blinked, never second-guessed.

“He did the right thing,” Russ Hardin said. “He always did the right thing.”

Hardin became the seventh chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill in 1988 and retired in 1995. The next day, he became a trustee at Duke, while serving on the faculty at UNC’s Law School.

King said Hardin was able to blend, or reconcile, two majestic shades — Duke and Carolina blue — because he followed the example of Christ, who reconciled the world with God and counseled people to reconcile with one another.

At the end of his life, Russ Hardin said, his father continued to teach and set an example, laughing at adversity. He spun his wheelchair through Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, where he would be buried near newsman Charles Kuralt and UNC’s sixth chancellor, Christopher Fordham, and said he liked his new neighborhood.

Before he died, Hardin compared himself to Lou Gehrig, who claimed despite his diagnosis to be “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Hardin said it was he who was the luckiest. At his memorial service, Russ Hardin said his dad was mistaken.

“Today I consider myself to be the luckiest man on the face of the Earth,” he said. “Because Paul Hardin was my father.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin