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Hitting pay dirt: Joe Ferrell earns a Massey

Joseph S. Ferrell never forgot the first time he laid eyes on Carolina. The year was 1948, the occasion a football game that his parents took him to along with his sister. And he was all of 10 years old.

His daddy, class of ’34, parked his big blue Dodge in a dusty parking lot beside Kenan Stadium that would later be turned into a practice field. And there is nothing about the game that impressed him as much as the view he got when he hopped out of the back seat and stared bug-eyed — not at the big stadium facing him, but at the peculiar ground beneath his feet.

“I remember seeing this red dirt and I thought, ‘Jeez, I have never seen anything like that in my life,'” he said.

Ferrell was from Pasquotank County along the Albemarle Sound, where the land was flat and the soil was black and where most folks scratched out a living from that soil by raising corn and soybeans and sweet potatoes and such.

There happened to be an empty mayonnaise jar in the car and Ferrell scrambled to get it and proceeded to fill it with his awe-inspiring discovery. Ferrell took that jar home with him and then to school to show off to his fourth-grade class. “It was the hit of the week because none of them had ever seen anything like that either.”

Carolina bound

Ferrell returned again to the campus over the years and resolved soon after he arrived here as a freshman in September of 1956 that he never really wanted to leave. And that goes a long way in explaining why, 47 years later, he’s still here.

He earned his bachelor’s degree and then his J.D. degree from Carolina’s law school before straying off in 1963 to earn his L.LM. from Yale. But it was a tactical career move, he makes clear, intended only to equip him with the credentials needed to win a return trip back to Carolina as a faculty member.

In 1964, he was hired to the faculty of the Institute of Government — now part of the School of Government — and has been there ever since as a professor of public law and government.

“I’ve been here a while,” Ferrell said with characteristic understatement.

And now his many of years of dedication have been recognized with a 2003 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

Ferrell is a man who is as adept at deflecting attention from himself as he is at shining it on others as the faculty secretary the past seven years.

But finally his former pupil and current boss, School of Government Dean Michael Smith, figured Ferrell had been getting away with it for too long. In his nominating letter, Smith wrote that he has known Ferrell since 1977 when he served as his summer research assistant as a law student. “He taught me what it means to be a faculty member at Carolina, and he has inspired countless colleagues. I cannot imagine making an important decision about the School of Government without seeking guidance from Joe.”

Smith also outlined both the depth and breadth of Ferrell’s scholarly work over the four decades he has been on Carolina’s faculty.

“Joe is an expert on the local property tax, and his extensive work with counties is one reason North Carolina enjoys an excellent national reputation for sound administration.

“He also is extremely knowledgeable about North Carolina’s Constitution and its history. Joe regularly fields inquiries about whether a proposed government action complies with the state Constitution, and his answers reflect an extensive and subtle understanding of its history and interpretation.”

Sue Estroff, who recently completed a three-year stint as faculty chair, described Ferrell as “the keeper of the spirit and the letter of the law of Carolina.” He knows the Faculty Code from memory, she said, and has written or revised much of it. And in the minds of many, she said, he is “the living archive of the campus.”

“When anyone on campus wants to know how to proceed with a difficult situation, they consult Joe,” Estroff said. “He is known as an impartial and knowledgeable adviser to anyone who seeks him out. We speak often of `institutional memory’ these days. Joe is the keeper of most of that memory. More importantly, while he reveres our traditions, he does not blindly defend them. He uses his memory as a historical background for many progressive changes, helping to guide the reforms but never to derail them.”

The vagary of fate

Going to college had always been a given for Ferrell.

It was something he grew up knowing he would be expected to do, just as his father’s mother had expected it of her son.

Ferrell’s grandmother had always fancied herself a part of a stratum of country landowners that Ferrell has since dubbed the “squirearchy.” But there was no such thing as rural royalty in those days, and despite her pride, Ferrell’s grandmother understood that.

Ferrell’s father did as his mother expected of him, earning a teaching degree from Carolina in 1934, only to find out soon after that a teacher’s salary would never be enough to rear his family on.

That realization led him finally to the Pasquotank County Courthouse in Elizabeth City, where he would serve as the county finance officer and administrator. His father took the job in 1943 and kept it until his death in 1967.

In a sense, Ferrell said, he grew up in that courthouse as much as he did at his country school. Every Saturday morning when his father went to work, Ferrell would tag along with him.

In all those years his father taught him two lessons about public service that he has never forgotten.

The first lesson was to keep his opinions to himself.

The second was to remember when voting for president or governor that you are not just voting for one individual, but for all the people that candidate is going to appoint.

But of even more value than sound advice, Ferrell’s father passed on to his son his love for Carolina. Given his father’s experience here, Ferrell never entertained the thought of going to college anywhere else, he said.

“Going to college here was such a formative experience for my father that he just talked about it a lot,” Ferrell said. “Listening to him as I did, I expected it to be wonderful before I got here, and after I got here it was even more wonderful than I expected. It really was. It was beautiful.”

Even though Ferrell practically grew up in the county courthouse with his father, it would be wrong to assume that he came to Carolina knowing he would become a scholar of government and law because of that experience.

In fact, Ferrell said, there was nothing portentous about the way he went about finding his career path. In some ways, it was downright casual.

Truth be told, Ferrell said, he started out thinking he would go to pharmacy school but ditched the plan after his first courses in science and math. His next plan was to go on to medical school, and he might well have gone if he had not slept through the Monday morning he was scheduled to take the admissions test.

Ferrell’s explanation: a “fraternity weekend” for which he had stayed awake 36 hours straight. “Sometime after lunch on Sunday, I decided I would go lay down and rest my eyes. I didn’t wake up until after lunch on Monday. I slept for 24 hours.”

His decision to apply to law school was based on one consideration alone: The law school admissions test was the next one being offered. And this one he showed up for and passed.

A behind-the-scenes style
Ferrell appreciates the honor of winning a Massey, of course, if not all the uncomfortable attention it has foisted upon him.

It may seem a contradiction that a man so reserved and so guarded with his opinions would end up being such an indispensable and trusted adviser for everyone from county commissioners to chancellors. By both training and temperament, he is a shy man who is reluctant to take to the stage except when called upon to shine a light on others.

It is an ethos of effacement that is cultivated within the School of Government, where expertise is shared as asked for and opinions are tightly kept to oneself.

The idea is not to tell people what you think, or even tell them what they want to hear as a person running for election might. The idea is to provide them with what they need to know about such things as law and tax policy and finance when they ask you for it.

Early in his career, Ferrell was named as a staff person with a study commission that N.C. Gov. Bob Scott established to amend and modernize the laws related to local government. The new laws set new finance standards regulating everything from borrowing to budgeting.

Later, Ferrell was named to a similar study commission to revise the state Constitution.

By the early 1970s, Ferrell found himself involved in campus government and serving on the Committee on University Government as it set about trying to revise tenure regulations to bring them in line with national standards.

With each task, Ferrell did much of the research and was called upon to write the early drafts for the many changes that became law. Ferrell also went on to author the “Handbook for Legislators” that has long been the definitive guide for legislators both grizzled and green.

In all these endeavors, it was the force of keen scholarship — not a pushy personality — that mattered most. And it was with this kind of scholarship that Ferrell has left his indelible, and invisible, mark.

The Massey citation also details the accolades Ferrell has won as secretary of the faculty the past seven years, from the detailed minutes he keeps of faculty meetings to the dignity and aplomb with which he dispatches his various ceremonial duties.

“Few possess the record of distinction in so many areas of professional and campus-based service that he does,” the citation said. “He is a person of uncommon grace and wit whose love for this place has benefited virtually every member of this campus for many years.”

Ferrell’s grace and wit are most on display during commencement exercises, where he is called upon to read the citations he has composed for recipients of honorary degrees and distinguished alumni awards.

With the same thorough research and careful craftsmanship that he has employed to write law on county finance, Ferrell has developed a knack for gaining a laugh with grace and style.

What he says on stage is seldom included in the citation or the program: It’s hard to make any joke funny if its punch line has already been given away.

In the Distinguished Alumnus Award for Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti, Ferrell described him as “an old turk in a world of young fogeys” before telling how Ferlinghetti’s publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1956 proved to be one of the defining moments of modern American culture.

In his remarks for the Distinguished Alumnus Award presented to Phillip Clay, the chancellor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ferrell noted, “When Professor Clay was appointed chancellor, he was asked, `What’s special about MIT people?’ He replied in part, `Well, there are so many other schools that are very, very good, I certainly wouldn’t say that this is the only place you could study and have a good education.’ Obviously Phil Clay, Class of 1968, was silently humming `Carolina in My Mind’ when he said that.”

Then there was the alumnus award Ferrell wrote and read for Hugh McRae Morton. His life achievements ranged from serving as a newsreel photographer in World War II to developing Grandfather Mountain into one of the nation’s most famed resorts to founding Wilmington’s Azalea Festival and bringing the battleship “North Carolina” to the Cape Fear.

“Hugh MacRae Morton, Class of 1943, once had a toy poodle named Duchess. `Duchess,’ he would say, `would you rather go to hell or go to Duke?’ Duchess would immediately flop over and play dead.”

Ferrell delivered these lines in his deadpan, eastern Carolina drawl, and no doubt, allowed himself only a trace of a smile as his audience erupted in laughter. Even on center stage, he knows, the best work can be done standing out of the way.

Originally published by University Gazette: Sept.24, 2003

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