DG MARTIN COLUMN: North Carolina’s most famous person

Who is North Carolina’s most famous person?

If you go by who got featured in a front-page article last week in The New York Times, the answer is easy.

Virginia Foxx.

Who is Foxx? She is a U.S. Congressional representative from North Carolina who is chair of the House Committee on Education & the Workforce.

She and her committee led investigations and held hearings in December that were critical of the handling by several universities of antisemitism on campuses. Those hearings led to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

On April 16, Times journalist Anemona Hartocollis wrote that Foxx’s drubbings are “part of a campaign by Republicans against what they view as double standards within elite education establishments — practices that they say favor some groups over others, and equity over meritocracy. Others see it as partisan attack.”

On the same day, Foxx and her committee focused on Columbia University. In her opening statement, she wrote, “Since October 7th, this Committee and the nation have watched in horror as so many of our college campuses, particularly the most expensive, so-called elite schools, have erupted into hotbeds of antisemitism and hate. Columbia University is one of the worst of those hotbeds and we have seen far too little, far too late done to counter that and protect students and staff. Columbia stands guilty of gross negligence at best and at worst has become a platform for those supporting terrorism and violence against the Jewish people…

“That a taxpayer funded institution would become a forum for the promotion of terrorism raises serious questions. Moreover, Columbia administrators have repeatedly failed in their duty to protect Jewish students from this hateful, retrograde form of discrimination. Don’t take my word for it. In February, Columbia undergraduate Eden Yadegar told the Committee, ‘It is impossible to exist as a Jewish student at Columbia without running face first into antisemitism every single day. Jew-hatred is so deeply embedded into campus culture, that it has become casual and palatable among students and faculty and neglected by administrators.’ ”

The day after Foxx’s remarks, Columbia’s campus exploded with pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

But it was not her tough talk about elite universities that got Foxx and North Carolina to the Times’ front page. Rather it was Foxx’s compelling life story and the beauty of the mountains where she lives that got the attention of Hartocollis. Foxx was born in New York City, but in 1950 her family moved to Avery County in western North Carolina. They lived in the isolated mountains in a house without running water or electricity. There was no outhouse, so, as she told Hartocollis, “we went to the woods.”

Her father was a painter and a paperhanger; her mother worked odd jobs.
Somehow, Foxx pushed through high school, taking a janitor’s job her senior year. She married Tom Foxx, had a daughter, and “working all the way,” after seven years earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Then she earned a master’s in sociology from Chapel Hill, and a doctorate in education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Meanwhile she and Tom started Grandfather Mountain Nursery and Landscaping, and some of my friends bought their Christmas trees from them.

She became an assistant dean at Appalachian State and then president of Mayland Community College in northwest North Carolina. Although she started poor, hard work made her and Tom millionaires.

After serving in the North Carolina Senate from 1995 to 2005, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Foxx took Hartocollis to her home, a “house on a hill with spectacular views of Grandfather Mountain.”

Hartocollis’s front page description of the beauty of these North Carolina mountains and Foxx’s tenaciousness, toughness, and grit made Virginia Foxx, at least for a day, North Carolina’s most famous person.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”