The difficulty when extolling the virtues of Hector MacLean and his many gifts to Lumberton and Robeson County, beyond time and space, is this: Where do we begin?
We pick Interstate 95, acclaimed as this nation’s busiest highway, a north-south interstate that connects the Northeast with the southern tip of Florida, with Lumberton and Robeson County fortuitously located at about the halfway mark. As the story goes, plans were originally for I-95 to be located west of Lumberton, more in favor of Hoke County. But MacLean used his renowned power of persuasion to convince those who had to be convinced that the interstate should bisect Robeson County, which put our county on the map, at least figuratively.
That guaranteed our future, making us attractive to industries that needed to transport their goods by highway, but also ensuring that I-95 travelers would leave some of their dollars behind, at our restaurants, hotels and service stations. Hard economic times have elevated tourism to our No. 1 industry, bringing in about $120 million a year, dollars we would do without if not for I-95.
An imagination isn’t required to envision what Lumberton and Robeson County would look like if they were not pinned down by I-95. Neighboring Laurinburg and Scotland County, once robust but now gasping for economic oxygen, provide the sad picture.
MacLean built Robeson County in other ways. As the chief officer of Southern National Bank, which would become a big piece of BB&T, he loaned the money that constructed homes, small businesses, industries, churches and schools. There is no calculation to properly measure how much we benefited from those dollars, but Robeson County would be much less if not for them. In the mid-1990’s, when BB&T moved its headquarters to Winston-Salem, it was MacLean’s clout that ensured the bank’s footprint remained heavy in Robeson County.
There is hardly anything worthy in Robeson County that MacLean didn’t either construct or make better during the 20th century: as a state senator, he championed the effort to turn Pembroke State College into a university; he enhanced health care, both at Southeastern Regional Medical Center and at the medical school of his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, by giving his own money and encouraging others to as well; it was MacLean who took the lead in establishing the local chapter of the United Way, which has raised tens of millions of dollars during its 28 years to meet the human-service needs of all Robesonians; and when times were troubled, MacLean served as the first chairman of the Robeson County Human Relations Commission.
But any portrait of MacLean earns an incomplete if it doesn’t include his geniality and his genuine compassion for people, regardless of their skin color, which explains why he served them so well, through his duty as an Army major in World War II, his work as a politician and banker and his charity as philanthropist and civic leader.
McLean, a Baltimore native, is the chief architect of present-day Lumberton and Robeson County. And although he left us Friday after 92 well-spent years, he continues to carry us forward with his past deeds — and through the countless others who drew inspiration and wisdom from him while coming to understand their obligation to serve.