Hitting pay dirt: Joe Ferrell earns a Massey
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
note: This story is the first in a series featuring winners of
the 2003 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award. The late
C. Knox Massey of Durham created the awards in 1980 to recognize
"unusual, meritorious or superior contributions" by University
employees. The award is supported by the Massey-Weatherspoon Fund
created by three generations of Massey and Weatherspoon families.
Chancellor James Moeser selected the honorees from nominations
submitted by the campus. They each received an award citation
and $5,000 stipend.