Betty Ray McCain

Betty Ray McCain, 2012 Caldwell Laureate

In February 2012, Governor Jim Hunt told The Wilson Times, “the basis of Betty Ray McCain is her deep caring about people and working to help them be successful and all that they want to be….She’s willing to work her head off to help people.” This statement echoed an earlier description by H. G. Jones who referred to McCain as a “North Carolinian who loves her state and its people and who has dedicated a distinguished career to their interests.”

The John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities, the North Carolina Humanities Council’s highest honor, pays tribute to North Carolinians who have strengthened the educational, cultural, and civic life of North Carolinians through the humanities. In receiving this award  Mrs. Betty Ray McCain is honored for her deep caring and dedicated service to the citizens of North Carolina.

Born in Faison, NC, McCain graduated as valedictorian from Faison High School, attended St. Mary’s School, and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a BA in music and Columbia University’s Teachers College with an MA in music. The mother of two children and five grandchildren, McCain moved with her husband, physician Dr. John McCain, to Wilson, NC, in 1956. Although working as an ambassador for numerous causes throughout the state, she continues to make her home in Wilson where she serves on the Board of Advisors for Barton College, raises money for the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, and compiles oral histories of World War II veterans in Wilson County. She is a member of Wilson’s First Presbyterian Church, where she sings in the choir, and is a former deacon and elder.


With intelligence, wit, grace, and good humor, Betty Ray McCain tirelessly celebrates North Carolina’s cultural heritage in its many forms. Perhaps best known as the Secretary of Cultural Resources, she was appointed to this position in 1993 by Governor Jim Hunt and served in this capacity until 2001. During her tenure as Secretary, McCain was instrumental in the building of the current North Carolina Museum of History; in securing additional land for the North Carolina Art Museum; in securing major funding for the building of Meymandi Hall, home of the North Carolina Symphony; and in securing major funding for the excavation of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship of the pirate Blackbeard. In addition, she helped to create and coordinate the cultural component of the Israel/North Carolina Exchange, the most comprehensive exploration at that time of Israeli culture outside of Israel.
Active in political work, she became the first woman to chair the North Carolina Democratic Party. As such, she became a primary advocate for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in North Carolina and a proponent of recruiting women to run for political office. She also served several terms on the Democratic National Committee.

McCain has served North Carolina in many roles, including as a four-term member of the UNC Board of Governors, and as an advocate for numerous cultural groups such as the North Carolina Symphony and the North Carolina Museum of Art. She has chaired the Board of Trustees of UNC-TV and the Board of Visitors of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and is a member of the board of WilMed Hospital Foundation. Currently she sits on the Board of Directors of the First Colony Foundation, most recently celebrated for its work with the British Museum in uncovering a map of the possible destination of North Carolina’s famed Lost Colony.


McCain is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them the UNC General Alumni Association Distinguished Service Medal, the Design Guild Award from the NCSU College of Design, and the Distinguished Citizen of the Year Award from the Wilson Chamber of Commerce. In 2006, McCain was awarded the North Caroliniana Award from the North Caroliniana Society and is the 2009 recipient of the North Carolina Award, the highest civilian award bestowed by the state for public service. In addition, she is a 2010 inductee into the North Carolina Women’s Hall of Fame. McCain is also a member of the Faison and the Duplin County Halls of Fame. She holds honorary degrees from UNC Wilmington, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC Greensboro, Wake Forest University, and Barton College.