17 Observations from Traveling Across NC


Periodically, I am asked this thought-provoking question: “What are you learning in your travels across North Carolina?”

Since our philanthropy at the Rye Foundation is currently involved in projects which span 15 towns and cities, maybe I am qualified to offer an answer. In meetings from Hendersonville to Hertford and from Cashiers to Caswell Beach, here are some things I have heard and observed.

  1. Partnerships are thriving, and many involve local churches cooperating with civic clubs and nonprofits to provide backpacks for children and hot meals for adults.
  2. Church signs are still in vogue. My favorite message appeared at a Lutheran church in Hickory and stated, “Today’s test is tomorrow’s testimony.” Another sign, spotted in Wayne County, offered four words: “Heavenly Forecast: Reign Forever.”
  3. Two of my favorite streets are Blessing Way in High Point and Legacy Drive in Advance.
  4. The statewide transformation from tobacco to technology is slow and painful, especially in rural counties.
  5. Perhaps our greatest resource is the state’s 58 community colleges, which offer job training and career development to over 700,000 students.
  6. In hundreds of conversations with business leaders and philanthropists, the most often-used word is “transparency.”
  7. There is much criticism of the so-called North Carolina Education Lottery. It reminds me of the Broadway musical, “Promises, Promises.”
  8. To escape all the negative news, citizens seem to be doing two things: watching Hallmark movies and meeting friends at their local YMCA or coffee shop.
  9. Every small town is attempting to revitalize its downtown.
  10. Every large city is attempting to provide more parking.
  11. Both still have work to do.
  12. Leadership consultants believe the “80-20 rule” is now the “90-10-rule.” Translation: 10 percent of the people do 90 percent of the work.
  13. By unanimous agreement, playing the ACC basketball tournament in Brooklyn, New York was a terrible idea.
  14. A random note to church music directors and worship leaders: “We don’t sing the old hymns nearly enough.”
  15. Among children, the single greatest need is for Godly role models within their home. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a total of 179,000 North Carolina children have a parent or step-parent serving time in prison.
  16. Four great restaurants with quality food and first-rate service are: Tupelo Honey in Asheville, The Carousel in Wilkesboro, Wilber’s in Goldsboro, and Darrell’s Seafood Restaurant in Manteo.
  17. A note to my four children: always seek out people who are building things, rather than those who enjoy tearing things down.

Overall, I am extremely optimistic. There are more opportunities than obstacles, and citizens who care about the future can make a monumental difference through their church, their civic club, and their philanthropy.


J. Warren Steen is the President of the Rye Foundation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A graduate of Wake Forest University, he served as Founding Chairman of the Parents’ Council at the UNC School of Medicine. In addition, he was Chairman of the David Richards Memorial Polio Campaign, which provided the polio vaccine to 37,000 children.


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