Dean Westmoreland died last week. He was a teacher from Kings Mountain and former president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. In my political education, he was a giant.
I met Dean when I moved to Shelby in the spring of 1993. After a decade of avoiding any real political involvement, I made a decision that I was going to jump head first into Democratic Politics in my new county. Dean was chair of the Cleveland County Democratic Party so I called him. I would talk to him almost daily for the next several years.
Dean lived his whole life in the community of Grover, on a farm that straddled the North and South Carolina state line in the shadow of Kings Mountain. He grew up poor and was the first person in his family to go to college. After a stint in Charlotte, he came back to teach history at Kings Mountain High School and raise cattle on the family farm.
Dean spent the first few years of his life without electricity. He told me the story of standing around a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling and being amazed as his father pulled the string and the bulb lit up. He was a young boy but he still knew that the government brought power to the farm.
He was involved in NCAE from early in his career. He began teaching before integration and, back then, separate organizations represented black teachers and white teachers. He was involved in merging the two organizations to form NCAE as we know it today.
He also helped transform the organization into a political powerhouse. He understood that politics were changing in the 1970s. Dean pushed NCAE to raise money for their preferred candidates and to organize teachers to vote. In 1972, he urged NCAE to align itself with an up-and-coming politician running for lieutenant governor named Jim Hunt. NCAE was among Hunt’s staunchest allies throughout his sixteen years as governor.
Dean ran for state Senate in 1994. While he was clearly his own campaign manager, I was a partner in his venture. He told me what he was doing and why he was doing it. He won a crowded primary with more than 40% of the vote, avoiding a costly runoff. He lost the general election by 98 votes in the 1994 wave that took out Democrats across the state. For me, it was one of the most significant learning experiences of my life.
Dean introduced me to what he called “mail outs.” He had learned about them at a workshop sponsored by NCAE and he was going to use them in his campaign. He took me to the same workshop when it came around in the fall of 1993. We designed postcards, heavy on logo, imagery and headlines, and sent them to narrowly targeted audiences of likely primary voters. I spent the next twenty years designing and targeting direct mail.
Dean introduced me to influential people in both Cleveland Country and Raleigh. I met many of my earliest political allies because of my relationship with him. When I moved back to the Triangle in 1997, he told a man, “Help that boy find a job in politics. He don’t know how to do nothin’ else.”
Dean had a keen sense of humor and a biting wit. You didn’t want to be on his bad side. He never ran from a fight and even if he lost, his opponents sure knew he’d been there. He entertained Cleveland County up until the final years of his life as a commentator on the local cable show Political Smackdown.
Dean believed that government could make a difference in the lives of citizens and that education was the key to upward mobility. He stood with the common people against powerful interests. Not only did he never forget his roots, he never left them. He spent his life working to better his community, his state and his profession. RIP, Dean. Thanks for the education.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >