Luther went to work in the mills as an office boy at the age of 12. All but one of his siblings would work in the mill at one time or another. Luther attended the "Little Red Schoolhouse" on Morgan Road. His mother died when he was 13. Because the family was poor, he was in and out of school. Local Presbyterian minister, educator, and banker, Price Henderson Gwynn, took him under his wing, encouraged him, and taught him Latin and Greek. Hodges graduated from Leaksville High School in 1915, the year after his father remarried. Against his fathers wishes, he decided to go to college.
Hodges arrived at UNC Chapel Hill with only $62.00. Determined to succeed, he worked his way through school selling Bibles door-to-door, firing the furnaces in local homes, and waiting on tables. He left the college briefly and served as a second lieutenant at the end of World War I, but returned to graduate in 1919. He was president of the student council and his senior class and a member of the Order of Golden Fleece. He also served as treasurer and president of the Dialectic Literary Society and was voted "best all-around man" in his graduating class.
Hodges then returned to Spray to work as secretary to L. W. Clark, the general manager of Marshall Field and Company (Fieldcrest). The previous spring, during his senior year, he gave the commencement address at Leaksville High School, at the request of Price Gwynn, and he met history teacher Martha Blakeney (pictured at right). They married in 1922. Hodges taught at his Men's Bible Club Sunday School, helped to found the Leaksville-Spray Rotary in 1923, and served as officer of the Spray Y.M.C.A. in 1924. In 1927, he was governor of the 57th District of Rotary Club in North Carolina. In 1928, the company built the Hodges a beaurtiful home at 233 Highland Drive, just down the street from the home of Clark (Clark-Fagg House). It wa the perfect place to raise their three children, Betsy, Nancy, and Luther, Jr. The home still stands today. During the Depression, Martha taught local mill children, and for a year and a half worked as a substitute teacher during a teacher shortage. She was also a member of the Leaksville-Spray History Club. Hodges rose through the ranks at Fieldcrest. In 1932, he became manager of some of the mills, and by 1936 was production manager of all the mills. In 1939, he became a general manager, and soon thereafter served on the State Board of Education and the Highway Works Commission. The family moved to New York in 1940, and in 1943, Hodges became vice-president in charge of manufacturing.
In 1944 Hodges volunteered for service with the government and was appointed as chief of the textile division of the Office of Price Administration which had been established to control wartime inflation, stabilize prices, and control rationing. The following year he served as a consultant to the Secretary of Agriculture. Hodges was then named national chairman of the five-year Post-War Anti-Leprosy Program. He raised $500,000 by the end of his first year to build and expand Leprosariums in Asia and Africa. In 1947, he served as president of New York Rotary. In 1950, Hodges retired from Fieldcrest. From office boy to vice-president, he had worked for the company on and off for 40 years. He would soon enter the political arena. Just after he retired, Hodges was chosen as chief of the Industry Division of the Economic Cooperation Administration which helped West Germany rebuild its industrial plants following WW II. In 1951 he served as a consultant fo the State Department regarding European industrial development. Shortly after this, the Hodges returned to their home on Highland Drive in Leaksville.
Hodges then threw his hat into the race for North Carolina Lieutenant Governor and won. On November 7, 1954, he was sitting in the living room in his home when he got the news that Governor Umstead had died. He then assumed the Governorship. He and Martha are pictured in the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh. Hodges was subsequently elected to a full term in 1956 defeating Kyle Hayes and carrying every county in the state. During his six years as governor, he built funding support for schools, including a network of 18 education centers which eventually formed the basis of the states community college system. Hodges kicked of a re-industrialization effort to recruit new businesses to the state. He was the first American governor to go to Europe to seek investment. His efforts resulted in over one billion dollars invested in the state. He brought over 300 businesses to North Carolina and created 140,000 jobs. He also shepherded the creation of the Research Triangle Park and supported the states first minimum wage law. He served as chairman of the Southern Governor's Conference and the Southern Regional Education Board.
President John F. Kennedy selected Hodges as Secretary of Commerce in 1961. He and Martha sold their Highland Drive House and moved to Washington where they lived at The Calvert Woodley. He was the oldest person in Kennedy's Cabinet. In his first 9 months he traveled over 60,000 miles supporting industrial opportunities. He supported the Area Redevelopment Act that provided $400 million in grants to areas with chronic unemployment. He reformed the Bureau of Public Roads, worked for greater international trade and tourism, accelerated the program of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, and was instumental in the passage of the Trade Expansion Act. He served through December 1964 under Johnson.
The Hodges returned to North Carolina and settled in Chapel Hill. Luther became a $1 a year chairman of the NC Research Triangle Foundation from 1965 to 1972 while also lecturing at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Business Administration. From 1967-1968 he served as President of Rotary International, assuming leadership over 140,000 Rotarians in 132 countries. He developed Rotary Volunteers Abroad which served as a kind of Peace Corp for retired Rotarians who gave time and talent to underdeveloped nations. On June 27, 1969 a fire broke out in their Chapel Hill home. Luther jumped from a second story window, sustaining a broken foot and back injuries but Martha died tragically from smoke inhalation. The following March, Luther married his secretary of six years, Louise Finayson.
On Sunday, October 6, 1974 while working in his rose garden Luther died of a heart attack. He was buried next to Martha in Overlook Cemetery in Eden. As he had requested, there were no monuments or buildings named for him. His legacy is his service record to state and country.
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