From behind the scenes, Walt DeVries did all in his power to make North Carolina a model of ethical, non-partisan politics
By Michael M. Barrick
WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. — Last month, North Carolina’s greatest political leader passed away. Walt DeVries died at his home on Nov. 27. He was 90.
Walt was my political hero. The loss and pain is intense, and if you knew Walt DeVries you understand why. If you didn’t, I’m going to try and help you understand.
Walt, you see, founded the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership (IOPL). I am a Fellow of it, graduating from the Spring 1999 class. I was one of the fortunate many to drink a beer from the Crow’s Nest atop Walt’s roof, listening to the surf into the wee hours of the morning as we debated policy and philosophy. Then a Republican, I found that my drinking buddies where almost always Democrats. That’s just one reason — and a trivial one at that — that I’m now a Democrat.
Indeed, the indecision I displayed 21 years ago as I was quizzed in Charlotte by Walt and a team vetting applicants nearly cost me my fellowship. Always to the point, Walt said I’d need to choose a party if accepted; it was an instant reality check about ballot access in North Carolina. I must also have come across as a bit too sure of myself, as I was running then for the School Board in Caldwell County, a race I won. But the election had not yet been held. Walt challenged my attitude, saying that he sensed that I felt I had nothing to learn from the IOPL.
I assured him that wasn’t the case. In a few days, I learned I had been one of 20 candidates selected. I was thrilled, of course, but as with many experiences, ignorance is bliss as you enter the IOPL.
It was intense! And, it was among the most enjoyable and memorable five months of my life.
Walt was fun. Walt was no-nonsense. Walt was demanding. Walt was fair. Walt was critical. Walt was affirming. And Walt was damn smart.
As a result, his legacy is felt from the high ridges of the Blue Ridge in the west to the beaches of the rugged Atlantic coastline in the east — and every village and city in between.
According to his obituary on Legacy.com,, “He was born in Holland, Michigan on November 13, 1929 and was the oldest son (of seven) of the late Martin and Catherine (VanderLeek) de Vries, immigrants from The Netherlands.
“Walt received a B.A. degree from Hope College, Holland, Michigan, and an M.A. and PhD in Political Science and Social Psychology from Michigan State University.”
Walt also “ … served for five years as the Executive Assistant to Governor George Romney of Michigan and guided Romney through multiple campaigns. He concluded this period with an appointment as a Fellow of the Institute of Politics in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.” In 1998, he was awarded The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of North Carolina’s highest honors, by Governor Jim Hunt.
So, by 1999, Walt had clearly distinguished himself. This is the man that taught me how politics should be practiced. Having cut my teeth on campaigns in West Virginia, Walt had much he had to help me “un-learn.” And that he did.
But, he never talked about his pedigree. He often brought in others to teach. He forced us to “take the stage” on numerous weekends. I could list everything I learned, but suffice to say it is everything you need to know.
And then some. A stolen conversation with him in the corner of a hotel room on Saturday night during our social hour could challenge your core beliefs. He could goad me like no other. Which was his job.
Breakfast on Sunday morning. We were both early risers, so I’d sometimes get a chance to have breakfast with Walt. Others would join us. Party affiliation, by the end of the five months, was irrelevant. We were all friends. Oh, how North Carolina could use that today!
I’d like to say that because of Walt I have won numerous campaigns. I have not. In fact, most of my “campaigns” — whether for politicians or causes — are often efforts for the underdog. That is a vital lesson I learned from Walt. If you believe in something, fight for it, fight for it hard, and fight for it with integrity. The results will take care of themselves.
A year later, when I ran for North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction against a very competent incumbent, Mike Ward, I lost. However, one very unlikely thing happened. I solidified my relationship with Mike; that is because Walt insisted on civility and made it clear he’d be watching my campaign. I was fortunate to influence the debate about our excessive and irrelevant standardized testing. I made a big enough stink about how the state counted students dropping out that it changed its formula to more accurately reflect the truth. But more importantly, afterwards, Walt told me he was proud of me. That was a win for me.
Yes, I have policy positions, but those are not nearly as important to me as the philosophy that undergirds campaigning and governing. Be honest. Be thrifty. Be passionate. Be exceptional. Be courageous. Most of all, be yourself.
That is what Walt DeVries taught. I thank God for the privilege of having learned from and become friends with him. North Carolina is a better state because of him. He wasn’t famous. He didn’t want to be. But I’ve met dozens of this state’s political leaders. None were better than Walt DeVries. From behind the scenes, he did all in his power to make North Carolina a model of ethical, non-partisan politics.
In his obituary, his family asks that to honor Walt, you support the IOPL. “Walt’s legacy of improving the non-partisan political landscape lives on at the NC Institute of Political Leadership. In lieu of flowers the family asks that you please consider a donation to them. Online at: https://iopl.org/donate/ or through the mail at NC IOPL 4722 Oak Park Road, Raleigh, NC 27612.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2019. Courtesy photo of Dr. DeVries; image from public domain.