James Ross, a behind-the-scenes force in Charlotte and statewide civic life for 50 years, died Sunday of cancer at 77.
His death came three days before a roast that his friends had planned so Ross would be able to hear tributes and stories about his life. Instead, the Wednesday event at United House of Prayer for All People will serve as a memorial to a man who was a quiet activist in civil rights, politics, violence prevention and education.
"Everybody that's been in Charlotte any time at all … knew James Ross and his dedication to the community," said Ron Leeper, an organizer of Men Who Care Global. Ross volunteered for that effort to provide guidance to young African-American men, even as he grew sicker, Leeper said.
Ross was a Republican who lived in a mostly Democratic area, a fact that may have kept him from higher visibility. His campaigns for state House and Senate and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board failed, but he served one year, from 2008-09, as an appointed school board member.
He told the Observer he was "James Ross first, and the party and the other labels come second. If there's any label that's on me it's consistent common sense."
Charlotte City Council member David Howard, a Democrat, said Ross was a model and mentor. Howard met Ross when both were involved in organizing Mothers of Murdered Offspring, a quest to stop violence, especially in the black community. Howard had helped organized the "roast" because Ross told him he didn't want "a sad funeral." Instead, he said, Ross wanted to swap stories while he still could – but held off until Howard could return from an out-of-town trip.
Ross went into hospice care on July 4, and planned to watch the event remotely.
Grier Town to Raleigh
Ross grew up in Charlotte's Grier Heights neighborhood, then known as Grier Town, according to a biography written by friends William U. Harris, Dana Barksdale French and Ken Koontz. He attended several universities, including Johnson C. Smith and UNC Charlotte, where he later taught in the African-American studies department.
Ross created a management consulting firm that provided sensitivity training to improve race relations between the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the African-American community. He and his business partner, Jim Polk, later took their training to offices of the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs across the country, the bio says.
Former N.C. Gov. James Martin met Ross in the 1960s, when Martin was a Mecklenburg County commissioner. Martin told the Observer that after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Ross and Polk stepped in "with their big proud afro hairdos and worked the streets in Charlotte to calm things down."
Later, when Martin was governor, he appointed Ross to two terms as state director of employment and training. Ross also served as special assistant to the N.C. commissioner of motor vehicles.
Ross described Martin as his political hero, a model for his style of "in the middle and sensible" Republicanism.
Mint Hill Mayor Ted Biggers recalls how Ross and Polk walked into his office one day in 1999, when Biggers and others were planning to launch Queens Grant Charter School in the southeast suburbs. The two volunteered their help.
Biggers was wary. He recalls asking, "What's in it for you two fellows from West Charlotte?" They said they wanted to learn more about charter schools. Ross became a founding board member, resigning only last month, when he became too sick to serve.
"He didn't see colors. He saw people," Biggers said. "He'd say, 'We're educating God's children.'?"
No easy labels
Ross was difficult to pigeonhole. Despite his work on race relations, when he applied for the vacant District 3 school board post in 2008 he declined to list his race, saying it was "a mental construct" he did not believe in. At a time when most of the nation was focused on analyzing test scores, graduation rates and other data to figure out why African-American students often trail white peers, Ross called for that to stop.
"We do not have a gap between black students and white students. All black students are not failing and all white students are not achieving," he said. "Some students are failing and some are not. It has nothing to do with race."
The board's decision to name a Republican to the post vacated by Democrat George Dunlap, representing a largely Democratic district, created a political tempest. But Ross quickly proved true to his word, voting independently rather than siding consistently with members of either party.
Ross' warm smile and easygoing style stood out on an often-contentious board. At a time when the board was going through student assignment turmoil and the pain of the recession, Ross noted publicly that his school visits had revealed lots of clocks that weren't keeping the right time.
While some chuckled and questioned his priorities, Howard said that's typical of Ross' philosophy: "I think what he was trying to say was, if you can't get the small things right, you have bigger problems."
Even Ross' religious life was a study in contrasts. The biography prepared for his roast notes said that "Ross believed in the deity; he received his spiritual nurturance from Siddha Yoga Meditation Center and the United House of Prayer for All People."
While Ross won't be there to hear the tales, his friends plan to hold the roast as planned, from 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesday at the United House of Prayer, 2321 Beatties Ford Road. There will be a reception afterward at Memorial Presbyterian Church, 2600 Beatties Ford Road.
"James Ross did not crave attention or seek thanks. But those of us who have been impacted by his presence have a duty to express appreciation for his inspiration and unselfish sacrifices," the bio concludes.
Ross is survived by wife Jeanne Rorie Ross, whom the biography describes as "his golf partner, idea editor and designated listener."
Memorial contributions may be sent to the James Lewis Ross II scholarship fund, 715 E. Fifth St., Suite 106, Charlotte, NC 28202, or to Levine and Dickson Hospice House, The Park Huntersville, 11900 Vanstory Drive, Huntersville, NC 28078.
By Ann Doss Helms, The Charlotte Observer
Published in Charlotte Observer on July 10, 2012