Former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue put together a list of people she wanted to recognize with the state’s prestigious “Order of the Long Leaf Pine” award before leaving office. And on Thursday, Joe Freddoso joined that distinguished company of recipients as he prepares to step down as chief executive officer at MCNC, thus receiving the right to lead a salute to his adopted home state:

“Here’s to the land of the long leaf pine,

“The summer land where the sun doth shine,

“Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,

“Here’s to ‘Down Home,’ the Old North State!”

But Freddoso’s own “salute” to North Carolina may continue well after his formal departure date of June 30 after some seven years on the job. Before leaving, Freddoso wrapped up paperwork for a possible $20 million addition to high-speed bandwidth efforts across various parts of the state.

Many in the crowd gathered at MCNC’s headquarters in RTP for a reception to salute Freddoso recited the toast from memory and then hoisted wine, Diet Cokes and a variety of adult beverages. 

Freddoso was obviously moved by that honor and a variety of others – plaques, even an orange  ”Warning: Buried Cable” sign. 

The Long Leaf Pine honor, which Perdue decided to bestow, comes two years after Perdue left politics – at least temporarily – and was set aside for Freddoso a year ahead of the project completion that triggered his selection:

North Carolina’s first beach-to-mountain fiber-optic based network.

The North Carolina Research and Education Network. 

Without the completion of the $144 million NCREN project in 2013 there certainly wouldn’t be the orange sign mounted on a pedestal that’s likely to adorn his home in Wake Forest. Whether he would have received the Long Leaf Pine award – well, maybe for other achievements. Freddoso is an active leader in a variety of community issues and has emerged as a Triangle thought leader since serving as CEO of the 1999 Special Olympics Summer Games and working for Cisco in RTP. 

Dan Gerlach, the head of the Golden Leaf economic development group which contributed more than $20 million to the NCREN project, was among those in the crowd. So too was broadband pioneer Jane Smith Patterson, who spearheaded broadband efforts in the Gov. Jim Hunt administrations. Tom Rabon, the former Red Hat executive who served as right-hand man to former Hatter CEO Matthew Szulik and who leads the MCNC board, praised Freddoso for his leadership in not only pushing NCREN to completion but also in rebuilding an organization that had been struggling.

Freddoso leaves having improved the enterprise value of MCNC more than 500 percent, increasing its employee headcount to 76 from 45 and quadrupling revenues to some $40 million.

But even with NCREN in place that serves as the backbone connecting the vast majority of the state’s universities, community colleges, school districts, governments and other community centers, Freddoso knows much work remains to be done.

So, before departing, MCNC put together a $20 million proposal to the FCC’s “Connect America Fund” to “fill in” some gaps in the network.

The proposal calls for a fiber route between Charlotte and Lumberton, a Greenville-Kinston-Jacksonville route and another in the Morganton area.

Freddoso’s efforts to expand broadband into parts of the state the private sector has ignored is part of his work that Rabon says he will long remember.

“I am a native of rural eastern North Carolina,” Rabon says, “and I think of the opportunities that NCREN will afford the children growing up there and elsewhere will have for education and so much more because of the network being available.”

NCREN also is providing “dark fiber” to private-sector providers who want to take high-speed Internet to places other companies have deemed unattractive financially.

And as AT&T’s embrace of the North Carolina Next Generation Network Initiative clearly shows, fiber-based Internet could be coming very soon to many metro areas of the state, too. Google Fiber is a real possibility. RST Fiber has its own network.

North Carolina is on the verge of becoming a “gigabit” Internet speed state. NCREN has helped make that possible.

So here’s a tip of the Skinny’s cap to Joe Freddoso. He’s only 53. He’ll be back to work soon, most likely.

But for the time being, he can take time to savor a well-deserved salute.