Leaving a legacy of devoted public service, award-winning commentary and dedicated teaching — Ferrel Guillory retires

By Beth Hatcher

For Ferrel Guillory, journalism was a way in.

Into an education few in his working-class Louisiana family ever received.

Into a front row seat for the sweeping societal changes taking place around him.

Into a chance to leave an impact on the greater public good.

The professor of the practice, who retires from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media this December, has made that impact in a five-decade career that has spanned roles as a newspaper journalist, policy strategist and educator.

He leaves behind a legacy of award-winning commentary — both in the classroom and on the page — at the intersection of politics, policy and journalism.

Not bad for a Cajun boy born in his grandmother’s house, just beside the Mississippi River.

Just a small-town boy

You still hear the Mississippi River moving through Guillory’s Southern drawl as he recounts a love of journalism that began with a television set in suburban Baton Rouge — that’s where he grew up, the oldest of 10 children in a tight-knit Catholic household filled with news, both on the television screen and in the local newspapers his parents read regularly.

The news surrounding Guillory, as he came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, was seismic. America grappled with huge, transcendent issues like civil rights, the Vietnam War and the changing role of religion.

And Guillory wanted in.

A natural writer, he decided journalism would be the path.

“Journalism became an entry point, a way to engage with the big issues and the dynamics of change at that time,” Guillory said.

The entry point started with his high school newspaper, where he served as editor, and continued through his graduation from  Loyola University New Orleans and Columbia University in New York, where he received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in journalism, respectively. He was the first in his family to graduate from college.

After college, Guillory landed a job at The States-Item in New Orleans in 1970, writing so well at the now-defunct newspaper that by 1972 Raleigh’s The News & Observer came calling. Guillory had only ever driven through North Carolina, but the newspaper’s job offer sounded good, so he moved his family, which included a wife and young daughter by that time, to the Tar Heel State.

Making North Carolina home

The move stuck. He spent the next two decades writing columns on North Carolina and Southern politics and policy and writing editorials for the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper in roles ranging from government affairs editor to Washington correspondent to Southern correspondent.

It was an exciting time to be a reporter in North Carolina, as the state experienced rapid cultural and demographic changes. Former colleagues remember Guillory as a generous co-worker, precise and diligent with his craft.

“If you were reporting on politics and government and public policy, Ferrel was interested in your story and generous with insights, precedents, historical perspectives and personal connections that would help you get your story right,” said Bruce Siceloff, a retired reporter and editor who worked with Guillory during his tenure at The News & Observer. “I learned a lot from Ferrel.”

Guillory was inducted into the NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame in 2007.

Understanding historical connections and building strong personal relationships are critical tools for any successful reporter. They were tools Guillory also deployed as he transitioned his career from journalism to teaching at UNC Hussman.

“Whether you’re reporting or teaching, it’s basically an interchange of knowledge,” Guillory said.

Transition to UNC

Guillory joined the UNC Hussman faculty in 1997.

While at UNC, Guillory has held multiple roles. Besides teaching, he also directed the Program on Public Life — formerly the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life — a UNC Hussman-housed program he founded that built bridges between the academic resources at UNC and the governmental, journalism and civic leaders of North Carolina and the South.

Guillory also still serves as a senior fellow at MDC Inc., a workforce and economic development nonprofit research firm in Durham, where he worked as a writer-in-residence during the mid-1990s.

As a professor at UNC Hussman, Guillory has taught courses ranging from news writing to public affairs writing to “MEJO 458: Southern Politics: Critical Thinking and Writing,” a course he created, drawing from his vast professional experience reporting on politics.

“Ferrel is part of a long history of Carolina faculty who were deeply engaged in the public life of the state and who took the time to show young people how the levers of power worked, but also the effect of power,” said Associate Professor Ryan Thornburg, who served as Guillory’s assistant director and managing editor at the Program on Public Life in the early 2000s.

Former student Corrie MacLaggan `02, who now serves as managing editor for The Texas Tribune, recalls Guillory’s depth of industry knowledge and love of politics.

“Professor Guillory, an expert on Southern politics and journalism, made covering politics seem exciting and important, and I later pursued a career covering the Texas Capitol as a reporter and editor,” MacLaggan said. “He pushed me to make my writing better. And he cared about his students.”

National expert

During his time at UNC Hussman, Guillory has remained a sought-after national expert on Southern politics and policy.

“As North Carolina has become a battleground state in recent years, his quotes and background information have informed hundreds of news stories in some of the world’s most venerable news organizations,” said Guillory’s UNC Hussman colleague and Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics Penny Abernathy.

Guillory’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist and The New Republic, among others. Guillory has also contributed chapters to books on the politics of race, on economic transition in tobacco regions and on North Carolina politics and government.

At UNC Hussman, Guillory’s expertise and knowledge have been tapped to bolster Hussman’s strategic goals. He served as co-chair on the Task Force on the Future, commissioned by Dean Susan King, which produced the “A Path Forward” report.

“Ferrel was one of the first professors I met when I visited UNC Hussman as a candidate for dean. His understanding of the profession, his commitment to the university and his passion for Southern politics made me want to come to UNC,” King said. “I expect him to remain connected to what we do. He is a journalist who can’t stop writing.”

Guillory has been active in various forms of public service outside UNC Hussman. Gov. Mike Easley appointed him to the North Carolina Education First Task Force, and Guillory served on the steering committee of the Rural Prosperity Task Force, appointed by Gov. Jim Hunt and chaired by Erskine Bowles. In 2012, Guillory received the Edward Kidder Graham Award that recognizes public service by a member of the UNC faculty.

In the classroom, Guillory has served new generations of journalists at a time when the industry has been changing at breakneck speed — as news moves online and economic models transition.

“I’m hopeful that ingenious minds in places like UNC Hussman are going to figure out what 21st century journalism is and what it will become,” Guillory said.

The future of journalism — and Guillory

Besides teaching, Guillory did his own part to help with the future of journalism by co-founding EducationNC, a nonprofit online organization that delivers news and policy analysis on Pre-K to 12 and post-secondary trends and issues.

After his retirement from UNC Hussman, Guillory will continue to work with EducationNC, where he serves as vice chair and editorial adviser, as well as remain a senior fellow with MDC Inc.

He looks forward to spending time with family, which now includes three grown children (two daughters, one son) and six grandsons, as well as Kathleen, his wife of 52 years.

And though he might be leaving UNC Hussman, the lessons he has taught here — as well as the lessons he has learned — will remain. Guillory said he will be forever thankful for the many platforms the school has provided his career, his life and his craft.

As he puts it: “Through its various transitions since I joined the faculty in 1997, UNC Hussman has afforded me a sound, credible institutional base to pursue the twin goals of producing the next generation of professional journalists and making a difference in the state, the South and the nation.”