CARY, NC — How strange that on a day when a North Carolina legend passed away that another pillar was recognized for helping built the state’s future.

Former Governor Jim Hunt, a driving force to create the high-tech and biotech industries over the past three decades, received Thursday night the biggest honor that NCEITA can bestow: Its “Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award.”

But Hunt, greeted by two standing ovations at the North Carolina Electronics and Information technology Association’s annual “21 Awards” in Cary, could not accept the award without mentioning warmly his long-time friend and fellow Democrat Jim Graham.

Graham, the “sodfather” and NC’s Commissioner of Agriculture for 36 years, died earlier in the day at the age of 82.

Agriculture — particularly tobacco — is fast fading in importance to North Carolina’s economy. Hunt had the vision long ago to see how the state needed to move from tobacco, furniture and textiles to embrace technology as a pillar for future growth. In his first two terms, Hunt drove the creation of the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (now MCNC), the NC Biotechnology Center, the NC School of Science and Math, and other tech endeavors. Republican Jim Martin followed up by helping create the Supercomputing Center. Back in office for two more terms, Hunt helped push through such projects as the North Carolina Information Highway.

The tech breakout

All through those years, Hunt told the NCEITA crowd, the state’s commitment to tech would “someday all break out,” as he put it. He praised Graham’s tremendous contributions to the state’s agricultural community. But Hunt also said that in North Carolina today, “This is the knowledge economy.” And he pointed out that new technology could breath new life into textiles.

Hunt also talked about NCEITA’s carefully crafted marketing strategy for the state, known as “The State of Minds.” He praised the entrepreneurs in the audience for their willingness, like the Wright brothers 100 years ago at Kitty Hawk, “to take risks, to dare — to think outside the box, to create.” Yes, tech is breaking out — from the universities where inventions are made and companies spun out to a vibrant life science and biotech sector. These and other high-tech firms that, although battered by the “dot com” bust and economic slowdown, remain vital to future growth and opportunity, he said in what could have been a stump speech from one of his campaigns.

Education a priority

Hunt also gave the group a challenge. Although now out of politics and practicing law, he has not lost his fervor to improve education. “I challenge this state to be No. 1 in education,” he said. (Hunt is chairman of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.)

If any crowd appreciates that challenge, it is NCEITA. The group includes most of the state’s top technology related firms, and they have for years lobbied for tougher education and workforce training improvement.

As painful as it is to lose people like Graham, who was committed to a life of public service (and to the Democratic party), change is never ending. Hunt had the vision to see that fact and endeavored to turn technology into a bi-partisan issue. For years, despite many differences, both parties have in many ways worked together to try to sow the fields for tech just as Graham strained to keep farmers’ hopes alive in the fields.

NCEITA paid tribute to Hunt’s tenacious efforts with a well-deserved award. He said he accepted it humbly and told the crowd one reason why. Having received another honor some years back, Hunt said he was basking in the glow of recognition and made a remark to his wife, Carolyn, about how few great men there are.

“One less than you think,” she said.

The crowd laughed.

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.