Luther Hodges grew up in North Caroline, graduated from UNC at the age of 17, and went to work for Carolina Cotton and Woolen Mills, continuing his tenure there after the firm’s acquisition by Marshall Fields. He was a civic-minded kind of businessman who founded a local branch of the rotary club in 1923. By the 1940s he emerged as a local notable and was appointed to the state Board of Education and also to the Highway Commission. In 1944 he was appointed to the Office of Price Administration, an exercise in wartime socialism. In 1952, he became Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina, and then ascended to the governorship in upon the death of William B. Umstead in 1954.
As governor, he steered what counted at the time as a moderate course on racial issues. Specifically, as an alternative to directly resisting desegregation orders, his administration offered vouchers to families assigned to un-segregated schools and permitted localities to shut down their school system entirely by majority vote. His administration also inaugurated the Research Park that’s done an enormous amount to lay the foundations for North Carolina’s later success. At the time, North Carolina only allowed governors to serve one term, so by the time Hodges stepped down after winning re-election he was the state’s longest-serving governor. Then in 1960, JFK won the presidency, carrying the state of North Carolina even while doing unusually poorly for a Democrat in the south. A racially moderate (relatively speaking) white southern governor with a reputation as a pragmatic businessman was just thing to add to the team so Hodges was a solid choice as Commerce Secretary, in which capacity he “had less influence than other members of the cabinet, serving more as a supporter and defender than as an architect of administration policies”. Relative to other commerce secretaries, however, his tenure was relatively eventful as his department was charged with implementation of Area Redevelopment Act grants, an important New Frontier program later utterly overshadowed by LBJ’s war on poverty.
Hodges resigned in 1964, went back to North Carolina, and ran the Research Triangle Foundation which seems to have worked out very well. All in all, if we’re really fated to have a renaissance of explicit industrial policy in America, we’re going to need more people like Luther Hodges.