Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Sherwood Smith, March 23, 1999. Interview I-0079. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Growth of Research Triangle Park

Here, Smith discusses the carefully managed growth of Research Triangle Park.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Sherwood Smith, March 23, 1999. Interview I-0079. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JM: Earlier on, you used the phrase in describing RTP that, in many ways, it’s a “real jewel” in this state, taking all the economic growth into consideration. That it really stands out. SS: Sometimes you’ll go abroad and you’ll tell people that you’re from North Carolina and they’ll say, “North Carolina. That’s in the Research Triangle Park.” They’ll put the cart before the horse. JM: Share your summary. What’s Sherwood Smith’s summary version of how and why the RTP has flourished as it has? You’ve seen it over the years -- kind of from the early days. SS: Yes. Timing is, I think, a very important part of that. The location of the three universities and the fact that those three universities for economic reasons in the ‘30s had begun some levels of cooperation. The fact that North Carolina was viewed as a place that was progressive to a reasonable extent [was also important]. I suppose if you looked at the southeastern part of the United States and you said for whatever reason, “We think the southeastern part of the United States would be a good place to locate,” I think the reputation there of the university had something to do with that. I’m sure it did. RTP did not happen spontaneously. It was not a matter of spontaneous combustion. Some of the university leaders were concerned about it. [They wondered,] “Will the establishment of the Park in some way distract from resources that otherwise might go to one of our campuses?” There’s sort of a debate there. The way in which the Park was developed, it was carefully developed in a way so you would not encourage that. Now the Park itself started in about 1955, I suppose. That’s when the first building was put out there -- the Hanes Building, an office building bringing George Herbert from the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto to North Carolina with a very small staff to start a non-profit, private research institute there. You not only had the three universities around the Park, you had a physical presence in the Park of research that could harness some of the skills and the universities. Yet, it was a visible demonstration of something actually happening inside the Park was an important step [as well]. Monsanto -- which first came [to RTP] -- was looking at many other places I’m sure. Governor Luther Hodges probably, with others, persuaded them to come. That’s your first start. [That’s] always very important. When Luther Hodges was secretary of commerce, the legislation established the National Environmental Institute of Health, National Institute of Environmental Health Services, I guess, is the correct name. When the federal decision was made that we will have such [an institute], we had the Research Triangle Park going. We had the three universities. Luther Hodges was the Secretary of Commerce. We were in a very good place to compete for that and competed successfully for [it]. IBM was first contacted probably in ’57 or ’58 and decided that they would come. They were here since 1965. They had a great deal to do with the success of the Park. After they came, other large industries could see what IBM had done, and they were encouraged to make similar commitments. The fact that it was put together at a time when the whole country was expanding, when there was a great emphasis on research and development and new technology [was very important]. If it had been started in the ‘40s, it would’ve been too early. If we’d tried to start it in the ‘60s, it probably would’ve been too late. The timing was very fortuitous for us. Then the leadership and the ability to have a group of leaders -- let’s say a dozen to fourteen or fifteen people who came together – [was also important]. Most of these were businessmen, but I put Bill Friday in the group, certainly. I put the governors in the group -- [those] who were committed to the project and were able to advance the project independent of government control. This wasn’t a project that was subject to a legislative oversight committee. It wasn’t a project that was led by a governing body appointed by the legislature every few years, where you would have changes and you would have all the ebb and flow of different political interests coming into and out of it. That was tremendously important. It was a group of people who came together that were allowed to stay together and were allowed to bring others in and sort of bring up their successors. That system of organization worked very well. They were very public spirited, altruistic, capable individuals [that included] Archie Davis, Akers Moore, Tom Alexander, Luther Hodges, Watts Hill, Sr. I’ll be leaving out a number of them, as I mentioned those. They all contributed. Then, if you look at the individuals that came into the Park, the leadership at IBM that came in, the leadership of Burroughs-Wellcome that came in--. Fred Coe picked up the company and just moved it from New York down here. Those all contributed to it. JM: It may be interesting at this point to--. SS: The airport was helpful. That was secondary. The airport was going to come anyway.