RALEIGH, N.C. — The state’s highest civilian honor, the North Carolina Award, will be presented to seven distinguished North Carolinians Thursday, Sept. 22, at the Raleigh Marriott City Center. Governor Pat McCrory will present the awards at the 7 p.m. banquet and ceremony, following a reception for the recipients at 6 p.m.
The 2016 honorees are Joseph Bathanti of Vilas for Literature; Dr. Linda S. Birnbaum of Chapel Hill for Science; Robert J. Brown of High Point for Public Service; James C. Gardner of Rocky Mount for Public Service; Dr. Assad Meymandi of Raleigh for Fine Arts; and Dr. Aziz Sancar and Dr. Paul L. Modrich of Chapel Hill for Science. The awards are administered by the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
“It is an honor to pay tribute to these remarkable individuals who have made North Carolina better by their extraordinary involvement in this state,” said Susan Kluttz, Secretary of the N. C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “Each has enriched the lives of our citizens and propelled North Carolina onto the national and world stages.
Literature: Joseph Bathanti
Joseph Bathanti has served as North Carolina’s poet laureate and has written 10 volumes of poetry, three novels and a short story collection. He is recipient of some of the state’s most prestigious literary awards, and teaches creative writing at Appalachian State University. He is admired and respected by his literary peers. Bathanti came to North Carolina in 1976 to work for Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) noting that he had a master’s degree in English and no idea what work he wanted to do. His assignment was teaching at the state correctional facility in Huntersville. There he met his wife Joan who taught the Pittsburgh native about grits. His interactions with the incarcerated taught him the importance of allowing others to tell their personal stories. He came to love North Carolina and writes of this state and his native Pennsylvania equally. He serves as an ambassador of letters, and has worked with military veterans to tell their stories as well. Through all of his teaching posts and populations, he brings an appreciation for the human spirit and the humanity of us all.
Science: Dr. Linda S. Birnbaum
Dr. Linda Birnbaum is internationally recognized in the field of environmental health and toxicology and has investigated the impacts of chemicals on human health. Her work exploring the effects of dioxins, asbestos, flame retardants and Agent Orange has impacted practices and health outcomes worldwide. Birnbaum was a trailblazing woman in the science lab as a student in the 1960s. She was encouraged by her high school cheerleading coach who also taught science, making it cool for girls in science. Equipped with a doctorate in microbiology, she undertook research in genetics and aging in various labs following the career moves of her husband. She won flexibility in her work schedule that allowed for career-life balance while starting a family. Eventually she visited family in Research Triangle Park and decided that her career would blossom here. She became director of toxicology at the Environmental Protection Agency and is the first woman director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, whose research underlies regulatory decision making internationally.
Public Service: Robert J. Brown
After an early career in law enforcement, Bob Brown decided to go into public relations and founded B & C Associates in High Point. He started advising major corporations such as Kimberly Clark, Johnson Wax, F. W. Woolworth, Sara Lee and Nabisco in an era of civil rights. In 1968, he took leave from his company to serve as Special Assistant to newly-elected President Richard M. Nixon. In the White House, his duties included responsibility for community relations, civil rights and emergency preparedness. Brown developed the U.S. Minority Business Enterprise Program and chaired the White House Task Force on Small Towns. Shortly before teaming with President Nixon, Brown, who had traveled with close friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., advised the civil rights leader’s widow Coretta Scott King after her husband’s assassination. Brown also worked closely with Whitney Young of the National Urban League, another Nixon confidante. A highlight of Brown’s life came when he met for two hours with Nelson Mandela, incarcerated at that time in Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, South Africa. Brown’s many visits to Africa led him to found the BookSmart Foundation which since has distributed over five million books to South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana and other nations.
Public Service: James C. Gardner
Known for his courage and conviction in his varied pursuits in business, politics and public service, Jim Gardner has worn many hats in his lifetime. From launching the Hardee’s hamburger chain to bringing professional basketball to North Carolina to expanding the two-party political system in eastern N.C. to spearheading campaigns against drugs and underage drinking, Gardner’s successes and accomplishments are many. In 1988, Gardner became the first Republican to be elected lieutenant governor in the twentieth century. A lifelong opponent of drug and alcohol abuse, as lieutenant governor, he led Gov. Jim Martin’s North Carolina Drug Cabinet. Gardner has been named Tarheel of the Week and Outstanding Young Man of the South. He was appointed by Governor McCrory as the chairman of the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. He actively directs the bold and provocative “Talk it Out” campaign, designed to encourage parents to talk with their children about the dangers of drinking.
Fine Arts: Dr. Assad Meymandi
Dr. Assad Meymandi, psychiatrist, scholar, and patriot, has been generous with his gifts. He is transforming Raleigh into a center for art, music, literature and learning. Toward that end, he funded the state-of-the-art, 1,800-seat concert hall that serves the North Carolina Symphony and bears his mother’s name. At the North Carolina Museum of Art, he established the Meymandi Exhibition Center, the museum’s largest special exhibition space, named for his father. One dream remains, to build an opera house as a home for the N.C. Opera on the grounds of the former Dix Hospital where he began his career a half-century ago. He has also pledged funding toward converting this land into a city park. In Iran, Meymandi has funded a symphony hall in addition to a school, a public library and new homes for those displaced by an earthquake. At the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, he has funded a fellowship to integrate study of the humanities with science that brings together the think tank leaders in the arts and sciences. Meymandi is in the process of endowing the Chair of “Ideas and Curiosity” at UNC-Chapel Hill. At St. Mary’s School, he has sponsored music programs and at Cherry Hill in Warren County, an annual concert.
Science: Dr. Aziz Sancar and Dr. Paul L. Modrich
Dr. Aziz Sancar of UNC-Chapel Hill and Dr. Paul L. Modrich of Duke University, were the 2015 Nobel Prize winners for Chemistry, along with Tomas Lindahl of Cancer Research UK’s Clare Laboratory. Each of the researchers discovered different ways that damaged DNA could be repaired. The groundbreaking work of each of them led to understanding ways to treat cancer and other diseases. Sancar discovered that bacteria recovered from deadly doses of ultraviolet radiation when exposed to blue light being mediated by the photolyase enzyme. He cloned the gene for the enzyme photolyase, which repairs UV damaged DNA in bacteria. Sancar also deciphered the mechanism of another DNA enzyme system called nucleotide excision repair. His work has increased understanding of how living cells work, the causes of cancer and the aging process. Modrich was an early explorer in the relatively little understood world of DNA research as an undergraduate student in the 1960s. Modrich embraced the research and discovered that cells have a way of repairing themselves when DNA strands are improperly paired. The system, called mismatch repair (MMR), serves as a proofreading mechanism that reduces the error rate by a factor of one thousand. This is a particularly important finding for colon cancer and other tumors and diseases, as well as for responses to anti-cancer DNA damaging drugs.
This event is generously sponsored by Diamond Sponsor United Guaranty; Gold Sponsors Joseph M. Bryan Jr. and Bob Barker Company; Silver Sponsors Thomas S. Kenan III, PepsiCo, UNC School of Medicine, Duke Health and Appalachian State University; and Supporting Sponsor PotashCorp-Aurora. No state monies are used for this event. Tickets are available online at
Created by the General Assembly in 1961, the North Carolina Awards have been presented annually since 1964. The award recognizes significant contributions to the state and nation in the fields of fine arts, literature, public service and science. For additional information, please call (919) 807-7388 or (919) 807-7256.