By Debbie Hall and Cory L. Higgs
Virginia’s 65th governor, Gerald L. Baliles, died Oct. 29, 2019, surrounded by his family at his home in Charlottesville. A Democrat, Baliles, 79, served from 1986 to 1990. He was known as the “transportation governor” and for his work to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Baliles, a Patrick County native, is remembered as a cautious man who never forgot his roots.
Mary Sue Terry, who also began her tenure as attorney general in 1986, recalled that she first met Baliles while attending law school. At the time, he was an assistant attorney general. Later, when she was elected to the House of Delegates, Terry said she was seated two chairs away from Baliles.
He was “a diligent lawmaker and very cautious. He didn’t introduce a lot of legislation,” but offered valuable comments which “diverted or enhanced” proposals under consideration, Terry said. “I was particularly taken with his focus. Jerry had a scholarly mind and he was knowledgeable. He didn’t just take on an issue like transportation unless he studied it a lot.”
His home in Patrick County is located on Virginia 8 on the “other side of Stuart. At the time, we didn’t have the four-lane highways” that we now have, Terry said. “I suspect he always had a hankering to get where he wanted to be in a better way. That also speaks to his life.
“Jerry took pride in finding ways to help people and he helped a lot of people, and he never forgot his home in Patrick County,” Terry said. “He was a good man. He made a difference and he never forgot his roots.”
Baliles “did a great job as governor. He never quit focusing on education for Patrick County and for rural Virginia,” said former 5th District U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode Jr., who also served with Baliles during their respective tenures in state positions.
Goode recalled that before Baliles won his gubernatorial bid, a common comment was that “no one from Patrick County can ever get to be governor. He certainly demonstrated to them that was incorrect,” as did Terry in her attorney general post.
Roscoe Reynolds, who served in both the Virginia House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia, recalled that he “had the honor to be in the General Assembly the four years (Baliles) served as governor. … I think his four years of governorship were great for Virginia. I don’t believe he has been fully credited with the many great things he did as governor. The economic growth that took place during his four years was phenomenal. The number of new quality jobs that came to Virginia were dramatically higher than his predecessors. He had the foresight to see that our transportation system was in disarray and that the cost of maintenance was becoming too high to make any improvements.”
Reynolds added that Baliles’ “efforts helped make these big improvements to Route 58, which goes through both Patrick and Henry counties. He pushed to have the bypass completed around Martinsville in the 80s. That had been forgotten due to a lack of revenue and been removed from the state’s Six-Year Plan,” Reynolds said, adding that Baliles’ work helped improve those routes and bypasses “to connect the east and west of Virginia.”
“His love for his home was evident to anyone who spent any time with him. I will never forget the day that the improvements to the Patrick County Library were unveiled and Gov. Baliles relayed how important that library had been to him when he was a child, and how grateful he was for the expansion. He was so proud of the improvements made at the library, the bookmobile and he believed very strongly in education,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds also noted that improvements were made to education across Virginia during Baliles’ tenure as governor, and added that Baliles will be remembered as “a great Virginian, a great gentleman, from a great family and with deep roots in Patrick County.”
Retired Patrick County Circuit Court judge Martin F. Clark Jr. said, “Jerry was a faithful friend and a unique, gifted and visionary leader whose influence reached all around the world. I’ve heard him say, both publicly and in private, that his remarkable career and many accomplishments were based on old-school Patrick County values: Hard work, honesty, consensus building, education and thoughtful planning.”
Baliles has been “described as ‘boldly cautious,’ and I often ribbed him about it, but he moved a lot of mountains with that approach — to me it meant that he was smart, prepared and always buttoned up every possibility and considered every meaningful voice before he acted,” Clark said. “I’ll surely miss him; Patrick County will miss him and the commonwealth will miss him. He was one of the last lions and a statesman of the first rank.”
A proponent of education, Baliles founded the Patrick County Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising education attainment and graduation rates in Patrick County.
“Gov. Baliles, being a native to Patrick County, dedicated his entire life to improving life for Virginians, but he never forgot his roots, where he grew up,” said Dr. Greg Hodges, executive director of the foundation.
Baliles “was a giant. He was one of the last people from this area that really proved himself – not as a politician, but as a statesman,” said Janet Demiray, chairman of the Patrick County Democratic Committee. “I am grateful for the things he did for Patrick County.”
Demiray, who also is a Patrick County member of the Board of Trustees for the Blue Ridge Library System, said Baliles “went above and beyond” to help raise funds to buy a new bookmobile. “He lent his name, his prestige and his time” to that project, she said.
“As a Virginian, a Patrick Countian and a Democrat, I am grateful to him in so many ways,” and most importantly for the bookmobile project. It was “the last thing he did for us,” Demiray said.
John Reynolds, vice chairman of the Democratic Committee, said Baliles was “one of the most outstanding governors we ever had. He worked across party lines and served in several roles.” His death “is a great loss for the county and the state. He never forgot where he came from.”
Lisa Martin, senior program manager at the Reynolds Homestead in Critz, said Baliles “was very instrumental in establishing the Reynolds Homestead, our 50th anniversary of the dedication is coming up in June. He was at the original dedication back in 1970. We had hoped he would be able to be at the 50th anniversary. He will be dearly missed.”
“In his four years as Governor, Gerald Baliles was a steady hand steering the commonwealth, making important investments in transportation that Virginians are still benefiting from today,” U.S. Sen. and former Gov. Mark R. Warner, D-Alexandria, said in a statement. “He was also a good friend. I join all Virginians in celebrating his service to the commonwealth. We will miss him.”
U.S. Sen. and former Gov. Tim Kaine, D-Richmond, recalled that Baliles “modernized our roads, pushed environmental policies that understood economic growth and conservation go hand-in-hand, and led unprecedented international missions that laid the groundwork for Virginia to become the global trade hub it is today. Given the decades of Virginia prosperity these initiatives have enabled, it would not be hyperbole to say Jerry was one of the commonwealth’s most accomplished governors of the twentieth century. After leaving office, he continued to donate his intellect, vision, and work ethic for the public good. I’ll always remember the advice he gave me as head of the U.Va. Miller Center and the support he provided in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. My condolences go out to the Baliles family and all Virginians who, like me, are saddened by his passing.”
Ninth District U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, wrote “I am saddened to learn that former Gov. Gerald Baliles has passed away. He served our commonwealth faithfully as a member of the House of Delegates, attorney general, and governor. A native son of Patrick County, he remained devoted to promoting the interests of rural Virginians. My thoughts are with his family in this difficult time.”
State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Glade Hill, said that Baliles “was both an inspirational and transformative fixture in Virginia politics, and it was an honor to have known him and to have benefitted from his good advice and counsel. He was not only a great governor, but also was a tireless advocate for Patrick County and Southside/Southwest Virginia. He will be missed, but he will always be remembered for the incredible legacy that he has left for us to live by.”
In a statement, Gov. Ralph Northam said that Baliles “understood and valued the role government can play in improving citizens’ lives. He transformed Virginia’s transportation infrastructure, signed Virginia into the Chesapeake Bay agreement under which we still operate today, and focused on expanding access to higher education, among many other accomplishments.
Baliles “fought for rural Virginians, promoted civil discourse, and was the epitome of a true public servant,” Northam wrote. “While his accomplishments in office were, and remain, impressive, I will miss him for the kind ear and the sound advice he was always willing to give to me. Pam and I send our deepest sympathies to his wife, children, and loved ones. I am deeply sorry to” learn of his passing. “I have directed that Virginia state flags be flown at half-staff in Gov. Baliles’ honor for the next 30 days.”
Baliles’ tenure as governor capped his career in public service that included serving as the attorney general of Virginia (1982-85) and a member of the Virginia House of Delegates (1976-82).
After leaving public office, Baliles entered private law practice as an international trade and aviation partner in the firm of Hunton & Williams, LLP, headquartered in Richmond, according to University of Virginia Bicentennial website.
A member of the Virginia State Bar and the American Bar Association, the Virginia Bar Association, and the Richmond Bar Association, Baliles was admitted to practice at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. He served on the corporate board of Altria Group, Inc., had chaired the board of the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education, and served on the board of the Norfolk Southern Corp. for 23 years. He chaired the National Governors Association, the Commission to Ensure a Strong Competitive Airline Industry for the President and Congress and PBS for two terms, according to the website.
Always a champion of education, Baliles also served as chairman of the Commission on the Academic Presidency and for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges’ Task Force on the State of the Presidency in Higher Education. Most recently, Baliles was the director and CEO of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, the website stated.
In addition to eleven honorary degrees, Baliles earned a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University and a J.D. from the University of Virginia Law School, according to the website.
After his retirement in 2014, Baliles and his wife Robin divided their time between their home in Charlottesville and the Baliles ancestral home in Patrick County, the website stated.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete, the family said in a prepared release.