LAURINBURG — When he left Laurinburg in 1982, Mike Haney set off in pursuit of an opportunity to develop the family business.
More than three decades, a vocational shift, and a term as Southern Pines mayor later, the same ethos has led him, in a roundabout way, to the receipt of North Carolina’s highest honor — the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
A 1966 graduate of Laurinburg High School and member of the University of North Carolina’s class of 1970, Haney returned home to help in the running of Haney’s Tire Service. Ironically, that move would eventually lead him to Moore County.
“I wasn’t real happy about leaving Laurinburg,” Haney recalled. “I was just trying to see if we could create as much value up here with the business that dad had started.”
He managed the Southern Pines branch of Haney’s Tire for eight years until it was sold shortly after the death of his father in an automobile accident. Facing a fork in the road, Haney joined a friend’s financial firm and never looked back, remaining in the investment business to this day.
“It was a wonderful, kind of unique business in that it was more of a relationship kind of practice where we started to develop relationships with folks, understand what their needs were, and help them address issues and accomplish their goals,” he said.
“That has been a wonderful alternative for me.”
Those who know Haney would agree.
Charles Wentz, Jr. moved to Laurinburg at the age of 14, and met Haney soon after — beginning a 53-year friendship that Wentz describes as a series of “unbelievably good times.”
Now the executive director of the Scotland Family Counseling Center, Wentz recalled the teenage Haney as an outgoing type, who was voted the most friendly in their high school class.
“Mike was the kind of gregarious guy that never met a stranger,” Wentz said. “He was just real interested in other people.”
Wentz and Haney were also college roommates for a semester at Chapel Hill.
“There are so many stories I can tell you about that guy,” said Wentz, who fondly recalls an episode from a marketing course they took while juniors at Carolina.
“Mike and I sat on the front row because we wanted to do well in the class,” Haney said. “In one class, Mike fell asleep at his desk – he had his legs crossed and his hand over his face to disguise himself … like the professor didn’t know.”
After about 10 minutes, Wentz tried to wake his friend up, but Haney did not budge.
“Finally, I strongly and deliberately pushed his crossed leg off the other leg while the professor’s back was turned,” Wentz said. “He fell completely out of the chair with a lot of noise and the chair fell on top of him.”
The commotion caught the attention of the class and the professor, but Haney quickly recovered and returned to his seat.
“The gall of Mike – he went up to the professor after class and brown-nosed him about what a great lecture it was,” Wentz said. “He got a B and I got a C.”
Whit Gibson, former Scotland County Clerk of Court and a current county commissioner, is another of Haney’s contemporaries. Like Wentz, Gibson remembered Haney’s ingratiating nature as genuine and delivered without conceit.
“He’s just an exceptional communicator and he cares about people, and it comes across very sincerely when he talks to them,” said Gibson. “Everybody he ever met, he made them feel better for having met him.”
That characteristic doubtless served Haney well throughout his 14 years on the Southern Pines town council. His foray into the political field, he said, came from a desire to keep Southern Pines’ governing body in the hands of those with the town’s best interests at heart.
“Everyone has a sense of what they think is important: to make a community attractive and relevant and to be able to sustain those things which are important to the citizens,” Haney said. “You basically try to do everything you can so that the future community is going to be as enjoyable to live in as the current one is.”
Asked to take stock of his own accomplishments as Southern Pines mayor, Haney deferred to the opinions of others — which, as it happens, are in no short supply.
A resolution passed by the Southern Pines Town Council to honor Haney after his 2011 retirement from the mayor’s seat cited his “enthusiastic support” in the planning, funding and construction of the town’s fire station, the police station, the town reservoir, the Elizabeth High Rounds Park, and Sandhurst Park.
In thanks, the C. Michael Haney Community Room at the Southern Pines Police Department is named for him.
Reflecting on his term as mayor, Haney said his sojourn into politics was everything he expected and then some.
“You really found yourself in a position within the community to effect change,” he said. “There was a lot of respect in terms of being placed in a position to be involved in larger committees and boards that were asked to make decisions that had a major effect on things.”
Haney was also instrumental in the forging of a sister city relationship with Newry and Mourne in Northern Ireland, and was a key committee member in the town’s successful campaign to become a 2012 All-America City.
“He was always a person who was an advocate for the town of Southern Pines, he’s always been a person who has reached out and made you feel like the most important person in the world, which is a gift in terms of making people feel welcome and a part of the community,” said Anita Holt, president of The Forest at Duke, a retirement community in Durham.
“If you know Mike, you have a friend.”
Holt, who has known Haney since she moved to Southern Pines five years ago, was the one to present him with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine in September. She described him as a progressive thinker and a strong collaborator.
“He was an advocate for serving the entire town, an advocate for the growth of its business district, and truly supported those efforts to see growth and inclusion and to work in concert with all of the voices of the area,” she said.
Recipients of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine are selected by North Carolina’s governor from hundreds of nominees as examples of “outstanding North Carolinians who have a proven record of service to the state.”
That he qualifies as such, Haney remains slightly incredulous.
“I guess over time you do a variety of things and when somebody reads them off to you you go whoa, I didn’t realize I did all that,” he said. “It is just so humbling.”
Haney is quick to credit the Southern Pines community for its farsighted support of ostensibly unremarkable measures like street lamps and sidewalk plans for the downtown area.
“The community has not been afraid to invest in things to try to contribute to the character of the community,” he said. “Folks have been ready to financially support things that are really major contributors to the lifestyle here. That’s really important. To not spend taxpayer money on these things may sound wise on paper, but you end up with a bland sort of a town.”
Also a member and past president of the Southern Pines Rotary Club, a member and elder at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church, and a member of the St. Joseph of the Pines Board of Trustees, Haney views his civic involvement as the sort of thing anyone might do.
But in the eyes of his friends, the results of Haney’s unaffected dedication to community prove what may be achieved through a life extraordinary principally in its integrity.
“He’s quite a guy and was a very good mayor,” said Laurinburg Mayor Tommy Parker, whose lifelong friendship with Haney has not wavered in the decades since childhood. “He is a regular guy who has done some very good things. I’m proud to call him a friend.”
“I think when we measure our success it should be based on whether we’ve made a difference in other people’s lives,” Gibson said. “I think Mike certainly has done that.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.