N.C. State Employee Rejects Helms Tribute

North Carolina lowered flags this week to honor the late Sen. Jesse Helms. But L.F. Eason — director of the state Standards Laboratory — chose to retire rather than comply with the directive. Eason explains his objections.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

When a directive came down from the governor of North Carolina that flags would be flown at half-staff to honor the former U.S. senator Jesse Helms, state employee L.F. Eason said no, and that's caused him his job.

Eason worked for the state's Department Of Agriculture for nearly 30 years. He was director of the state's Standards Laboratory, responsible for weights and measures. He objected to honoring the late senator and told his staff to ignore the directive.

Mr. L.F. EASON (Former Director, North Carolina's Standards Laboratory): Sunday night I sat and e-mailed to my staff saying that I did not feel like I could honor the senator by lowering the flags. And I gave the option of either not putting the flags up or to put them at full-staff. I felt like not putting the flags up was a compromise, we weren't making any formal statement, we just didn't have our flags up.

BLOCK: And did you explain to your staff what your objections were to lowering the flag?

Mr. EASON: Yes, I did. I just said that I didn't feel that I could support anyone who had voted against every civil rights act that came before him and filibustered the Martin Luther King holiday. I have a tremendous amount of ownership for the lab and people correct me, that's the state's lab, and yes, the bricks and mortar are the state's.

The flag is the state's flag, but I feel that everything that comes from that lab, good or bad, I am responsible for.

BLOCK: Well, what happened on Monday?

Mr. EASON: Well, Monday morning, I got a call from my director who said that I had caused a significant uproar. He said at the time that the commissioner was - I believe his word was ballistic. So Steve(ph) called me and told me, you know, they couldn't honor my request, the flags were at half-staff. So I said, well, if I can't take them down, I can't work there.

So I agreed to take retirement rather than either go to the lab with the flags at half-staff or be fired basically for going in and taking the flags down, which would've clearly been insubordination.

BLOCK: You must have thought, Mr. Eason - I'm sure all of the employees who work for you knowing that some of them may have disagreed strongly with you -why would their wishes not trump yours in a way?

Mr. EASON: I was the director at the lab. And like I say, I also felt strongly that if they disagreed with me, we simply would not put the flags up.

BLOCK: That's for people who did want to honor the late senator, as repugnant as you may find he used to be, can you say that that wouldn't be satisfactory to them?

Mr. EASON: Yes, I can. Mm-hmm. I could see that.

BLOCK: Well, what - you're married, Mr. Eason. What did your wife have to say about all this?

Mr. EASON: Well, she asked me several times if I were sure and pointed out that they weren't our flags, and I told her, yes, that it was. I'm a North Carolina native. I love this state and I feel very strongly that the amount of racism, segregation, and all that we have in the state wouldn't be nearly what it is today if it hadn't been for Jesse Helms.

BLOCK: He was elected to the Senate five times in your state.

Mr. EASON: Yes, he was. Yes, he was. The first time he was elected I was still in high school, and a good friend of mine just dropped to his knees as soon as he saw me and said, (unintelligible) I'd be picking your cotton now because Mr. Jesse's in office.

BLOCK: My goodness.

Mr. EASON: And we kind of laughed it off because, you know, we thought it was a fluke and couldn't imagine him being elected again. But in his six years, he rounded enough and fed people's fear that, like you say, he was elected.

BLOCK: What have you heard from the folks you worked with? Have you - especially I wonder, heard from people who really disagree with you or angry about this?

Mr. EASON: Well, so far, the nominations for president are balancing out the death threats, so if they come…

BLOCK: Are you being (unintelligible)?

Mr. EASON: No, I'm not.

BLOCK: You've gotten death threats?

Mr. EASON: Just one and it was very thinly veiled. I…

BLOCK: How did you get that threat?

Mr. EASON: It was one of the comments on the newspaper's blog. And I called the paper and they had that taken off.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. EASON: But, I would say, definitely from my counterparts in other states and other countries, the response has been 100 percent supportive. So that has been very soothing.

BLOCK: Has there ever been a time, Mr. Eason, before where you've had a problem with an order to lower the flag?

Mr. EASON: The only time I've had a problem was with Richard Nixon. I felt like he was a criminal and we shouldn't lower the flags for Richard Nixon. It rained both days, so I never had to make that choice. That would've been a brave statement. That's another thing, that people have said this is a brave thing. And, oh, I have to agree with my detractors here. It's not brave. I'm eligible for retirement; it was a very safe decision for me at this point in my life.

BLOCK: That's L.F. Eason who, as of Tuesday, is the former director of North Carolina's Standards Laboratory. Mr. Eason, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. EASON: Thank you very much, Melissa. I do appreciate the opportunity.

BLOCK: We called Mr. Eason's former employer, the state's Department of Agriculture, a spokesman did not dispute Mr. Eason's account.

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