“Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”

Using a saying from UNC President Margaret Spellings, a Texas native, one attributed to Sam Rayburn, the long-time speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tom Lambeth was beginning his tribute to Spellings’ predecessor, Tom Ross.

In an evening filled with irony, Spellings and the UNC Board of Governors, with genuine grace, hosted a dinner last Thursday honoring Ross with the university’s highest award, the University Award.

The words describing Ross’ leadership and demeanor as a judge, foundation executive, and higher education leader contrasted profoundly with the styles of some currently competing for the nation’s highest office.

In an eloquent opening prayer, Ross’ minister, Robert Dunham, gave God thanks, “This night, among all the gifts you provide, we give particular thanks for the life and of the mind in the pursuit of truth and for learning as a doorway to a civil society. We give particular thanks for Tom Ross, who has embodied such gifts throughout his life, and especially his leadership of the university these last years. We give thanks for his integrity, his wise heart, his embodiment of decency and civility, his passion for justice and fairness. And we pray that you would strengthen him for the important task now before him in the arena of public policy and government. We pray, too, for President Spellings and the Board of Governors, whose charge it is to keep our universities true to their heritage, get poised for the future ever opening before them. In these demanding and contentious times we pray for their good judgment and wise discretion.”

Later came Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation director emeritus Tom Lambeth’s tribute to Ross that began with Sam Rayburn’s story.

Lambeth continued, “Throughout our history we have never suffered from a lack of jackasses; but we have found our salvation in a host of accomplished carpenters. Tom is one of those carpenters.

“Two legendary North Carolina governors provide for us the best human summation of the state that Tom Ross has served so well. In quoting them I can describe Tom as well. One, Zeb Vance, found us a people of sober second thought; the other, Terry Sanford, found us a people of outrageous ambitions.

“We meet tonight at a university that was this state’s first outrageous ambition. Its creation dared to assert that a relatively poor state could build a university that is both excellent and accessible. And so it is. Tom has had something to do with that.

“Somewhere between the sober second thought of North Carolinians and their outrageous ambitions we have…in the main…in the long run…come down on the right side of history. We will go there again.”

Focusing on Ross, Lambeth continued, “With his grace, his good sense, his courage and his commitment to public service, he provides for us a model of that noble aspiration to serve others. Along the way he has paid us the greatest compliment one in public life can pay to those whom he serves: he has asked us for our best.

“Tom Ross has a victorious heart. Tonight we celebrate his accomplishments of today and we can only imagine what will come with tomorrow. We can, however, be certain that there will be more to celebrate. There will surely be more.”

As I left the dinner, I had the distinct feeling that every other person there, of whatever political persuasion, was wishing that candidates for our country’s presidency would show promise to lead like Ross, with “grace, his good sense, his courage and his commitment to public service” and with “his integrity, his wise heart, his embodiment of decency and civility, his passion for justice and fairness.”