Countdown: Putting on the North Carolina Governor’s Inaugural Ball

The 1985 gubernatorial ball for Gov. Jim Martin, shown here with wife Dorothy, was the last held in Reynolds Coliseum at N.C. State University.

The 1985 gubernatorial ball for Gov. Jim Martin, shown here with wife Dorothy, was the last held in Reynolds Coliseum at N.C. State University; photo by Robert Willett

A co-chair’s diary

by Samantha Thompson Hatem

It’s early November 2016, days before the gubernatorial election – which nobody yet knows will be contested even after election day – and Jennie Hayman, fellow Junior League of Raleigh member and unofficial keeper of all things N.C. Governor’s Inaugural Ball, doesn’t mince words when she tells me what’s ahead.

“You’ll never work as hard in your life as you will from the day after the election until the ball,” she says.

My stomach churns.

“I shouldn’t be telling you that,” she confides. “But it’s the truth.”

I’m not all that surprised. I’ve been working toward this moment for more than two years. The fact that the election’s results will be contested (ultimately resulting in Roy Cooper’s victory early December) will be just one more massive, time-sensitive hurdle to navigate. We’ll end up having to come up with a plan A, plan B, and – gulp – a plan C. Because we know there will be a Ball, no matter what.

August 23, 2014

Over coffee, Kathryn West, the then-incoming Junior League of Raleigh president, sets this journey in motion.

Will you be a co-chair of the Inaugural Ball? Me? Yes, you. I think you can do this.

In the Junior League world, chairing the Inaugural Ball, the Junior League of Raleigh’s biggest community fundraiser and oldest tradition, is a true honor. The League has hosted nearly every governor’s Inaugural Ball since 1933, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to do amazing work, including creating the child-abuse prevention agency SAFEchild and helping the Boys & Girls Clubs grow.

An honor, indeed. But the price? Untold hours planning up to seven distinct Inaugural Ball events, managing up to 400 volunteers and navigating roadblocks, hurt feelings, leadership changes, and political uncertainties.

Think it over, West says.

Inaugural Ball co-chairs, from left, Samantha Hatem, Melissa Hayes, Whitney von Haam, and Astra Ball outside of Reynolds Coleseum

Inaugural Ball co-chairs, from left, Samantha Hatem, Melissa Hayes, Whitney von Haam, and Astra Ball outside of Reynolds Coliseum; photo by Ray Black III

Nov. 14, 2014

I reach out to one of the 2013 ball chairs, Liza Roney. Any advice? I’m thinking about doing this.

She doesn’t sugarcoat it. “My work suffered. My family suffered. I questioned whether the two-year commitment was worth it.” It wasn’t until she got off the stage at the gala presentation that night of the Inaugural Ball that she realized what an amazing sense of accomplishment it was.

You’ll hear it frequently from Junior League members who have accepted daunting leadership roles. They didn’t realize what they were capable of until the Junior League pushed them.

At its core, the League is a training organization.

In my ten League years, I’ve had opportunities I never got in my job as a newspaper reporter. Ask for donations, run a silent auction, create budgets, speak in front of 300 people, execute social media strategies, edit a website, manage a BackPack Buddies program, lead training sessions, publish a magazine, write press releases, manage an event space.

I know the League had trained me for this new challenge.

I tell West I’m in.

Nov. 19, 2014

Thankfully, my three other co-chairs are in, too: Astra Ball, Whitney von Haam, and Melissa Hayes, three ridiculously smart, organized, resourceful women who soon become “volunteer wives,” confidants on anything from raising children to career paths. We quickly gel, take charge of our respective areas, and become serial group texters.

photo by Robert Willett

Catherine Williams, 1985 Inaugural Ball decorations co-chair, arranges flowers; photo by Robert Willett

Dec. 16, 2014

It’s not easy finding space for a 5,000-person fundraiser in the Triangle.

We learn that the hard way when we find out that we can’t have the ball at the Raleigh Convention Center, where the balls have been held since 1989, back when the Convention Center was the Civic Center. It turns out the Convention Center is already booked for Jan. 7, 2017.

Over lunch, we fret as we tick off possible alternatives.

PNC Arena? James B. Hunt Library? DPAC?

The answer, though, is right there in our history. Before the ball moved to the Raleigh Civic Center, it was held at Reynolds Coliseum and Talley Student Union at N.C. State. We’re talking spectacular Inaugural Balls, like the one in 1977 for Gov. Jim Hunt, where some say a whopping 11,000 guests showed up. In 1985, nearly 8,000 people toasted newly elected Gov. Jim Martin. About 6,000 attendees showed in 1965 at the first ball at Reynolds celebrating Gov. Dan K. Moore.

Jan. 21, 2015

During a hard-hat tour of Reynolds and Talley, then in full renovation mode, we know it is time to go back to our roots.

In truth, the League never wanted to leave N.C. State to begin with.

Among seasoned Junior Leaguers, there’s a well-known story about why we moved to the Convention Center, involving the late N.C. State men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano and Mary Brent Wright, the League president, during the 1989 ball.

Just months before the Inaugural Ball was set to happen, Valvano called her to say he didn’t care who it was, “No one would be dancing on his gym floor,” Brent recalls. The ’89 ball date conflicted with a nationally televised basketball game against Temple University. “We had to find somewhere else for the ball,” Brent says. The Convention Center it was.

And that wasn’t the first time League volunteers had to hustle to pull off a ball. 

In 1972, before the election, Democrat Skipper Bowles said he didn’t want to have a ball, but Republican Jim Holshouser did.

Since there hadn’t been a Republican governor in decades, everyone thought Bowles would win and the League wouldn’t be throwing a ball that year. But when Flo Winston, co-chair of the ’73 ball, woke the next morning to news that Holshouser had won, she and co-chair Jane Rogers, in a state of shock, scrambled to put one together in just six weeks.

“It took everybody we knew helping,” Winston recalls. “Even our kids pitched in. It was fantastic how many people asked us how they could help. It was crazy, but it was fun.”

Jan. 31, 2016

We’ve got wine, chocolate, and a list of 200 League members interested in 47 leadership spots on the Inaugural Ball team. It’s going to be a long Sunday night.

April 28, 2016

A champagne toast at our first full team meeting and a pop quiz: What other Junior League hosts its state’s Inaugural Ball? None! The Raleigh League is the only one crazy, err – talented enough to pull it off!

Who else can plan and execute seven events, including a rock concert and a one-hour televised presentation with up to three musical acts, spread over three days, with an army of 400 volunteers, in-between an election and the holiday season?

“I’m convinced that there is no other organization that has the woman power, the experience, and the expertise to put on something of this magnitude,”
Hayman says.

Reynolds Coliseum circa 1985. photo by Robert Willett

Reynolds Coliseum circa 1985; photo by Robert Willett

Sept. 30, 2016

One of the League’s shining moments came in 1993, when proceeds from the ball were used to create the child-abuse prevention agency SAFEchild. During a conference call with SAFEchild’s executive director Cristin DeRonja, we brainstorm ways to share that story at the 2017 ball.

It’s an inspiring story. In 1992, League members realized no agency in Wake County was working to prevent child abuse. “When that ’93 ball was so successful, we realized our dream of starting SAFEchild could come true,” Hayman says.

Within months, they had a name (SAFEchild: Stop Abuse For Every child), an executive director (Marjorie Menestres, who retired in 2015), and a mission to stamp out child abuse.

“Because of the Inaugural Ball funds, they didn’t need to start slowly,” DeRonja said. “They were able to put programs in place and start helping families right away. SAEFchild didn’t have to worry about raising money for several years, which accelerated our impact in the community immediately.”

This time, the League is working on a new strategic plan that includes identifying community needs to support. I can’t wait to hear how League leaders decide to use the proceeds from the 2017 ball, assuming, of course, that it is a success.

Oct. 18, 2016

Lunch with Julia Daniels, one of the League’s biggest cheerleaders and greatest treasures:

Daniels has a long Inaugural Ball history, starting in 1961 with the ball for Gov. Terry Sanford. She and her husband Frank Daniels Jr. have been to nearly every Inaugural Ball since then, either as a guest or a host.

This ball, they’re the Honorary Chairs.

While the lunch is supposed to be about us updating her, her enthusiasm and wisdom gives us a renewed sense of purpose.

She reminds us that it takes a village of League members (and significant others!) to pull this off. Our core team of 47 committee chairs, 15 “sustainer” advisors, and 20 team members is full of inspiring, creative, hardworking women. Listening to them, Daniels says, is key.

“Our League is full of so many smart and wonderful women I am proud to know,” Daniels says. “I am grateful I can continue learning from them.”

And while all eyes these days are on the election, she also reminds us about the ball’s mission as a nonpartisan fundraiser for the League. “Everyone feels good about supporting the League, because no matter your political feelings, the Junior League is supporting all the citizens of North Carolina,” she said.

Nov. 1, 2016

The workload is, as Hayman had warned, staggering. Emails, spreadsheets, meetings, decisions, e-blasts, contracts, letters of intent, sponsorship grids, invitations, signage, volunteer sign-ups, guest lists, Facebook posts, press releases. And the election is still a week away.

Meanwhile, at home, my children are now adept at digging their school clothes out of the pile of unfolded laundry. The stack of unread mail is nearly as big as the laundry pile. And pizza deliveries have hit an all-time high, so high that my husband texts me the Papa John’s promo code from the N.C. State football game.

This likely isn’t the life that Mrs. George Ross (Lillian) Pou led when she chaired the League’s first Inaugural Ball in 1933 for Gov. J.C. Ehringhaus (raising $1,800 to help fund a free baby clinic in Southeast Raleigh).

There’s no denying the old Junior League stereotype as an invitation-only group of ladies in pearls and gloves. Every year, there’s at least one discussion about doing something to show that stereotype has changed. But then we get busy raising money and helping kids, and we forget about it until the next year.

Here’s the truth: Few of today’s Junior League members would have been invited to be a part of that 1933 Inaugural Ball team. Almost all of us work outside the home, part-time or full-time. We’re well-off, middle-class, and living paycheck-to-paycheck. We’re black and white, Hispanic and Asian. Not all of us, ahem, are junior anymore. Are we as diverse as we’d like to be? It’s always a work in progress.

What we do have in common with Lillian Pou, though, is a passion to make our community better. And for our team, the 2017 “volunteer wives,” that begins with a celebration of North Carolina, the Inaugural Ball.

“It really is so satisfying to see it come together,” Hayman tells me. “To see these incredible women with their incredible ideas, who are willing to give it everything they’ve got. It’s just an amazing feeling.” 

2017 N.C. Governor’s Inaugural Ball

Jan. 5-7, 2017

Rock the Ball: Jan. 5 | Lincoln Theatre

Council of State Reception: Jan. 6 | Marbles Kids Museum

Governor’s Receptions: Jan. 7 | Talley Student Union

Gala Presentation: Jan. 7 | Reynolds Coliseum

Inaugural Ball: Jan. 7 | Talley Student Union

Buy tickets and find out more at