Skvarla exemplified ‘To be, rather than to seem’

John Skvarla photo from Nexsen Pruet.

We lost John Skvarla last week, and with him, our state lost one of its best champions. A native Southerner born in Tennessee, you wouldn’t know it by his accent, acquired in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., where he grew up. Skvarla was a North Carolinian by choice. After attending Manhattan College, he moved to North Carolina for law school “to prove there was thinking life beyond the Hudson.” 

I could cover pages detailing the major impacts John had on North Carolina and the various businesses he led over his one-of-a-kind career. His obituary hits the high points. What some of us are feeling as we remember John is that we lost a personal champion.  

He was a man who had faith in God, love of his family and devotion to helping others.  

Pat McCrory speaks during his first news conference since the week he was elected North Carolina’s next chief executive in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. McCrory introduced John Skvarla, right, who will be secretary of environment and natural resources. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

I met John in 2012 just after Pat McCrory was elected governor of North Carolina. My job was guiding teams of public and private sector leaders to help the new administration transition into governing. As the transition period was turning toward cabinet appointments, John called me and said, “I need you to join my team. I’m going to be appointed secretary.” I was reluctant to leave my private law practice, but John persisted and told me my desire to not work in government was the exact reason I should.  

I believed in his goal to make the environmental agency a more customer-friendly place and shared his belief that all North Carolinians want clean water, air and land. He was the type of leader we need in public service, so I joined the team. That set off a nearly 10-year relationship that went beyond just working together on policy and politics, and included five years together at the law firm Nexsen Pruet.  

John had a well-documented affinity for hot dogs. He had a less-documented dislike for onions. He was a heavy on the slaw, no onions guy, and I am a traditional Carolina-style, all-the-way guy. During our travels across North Carolina, we ducked into hot dog joints as far west as Asheville and as far east as Washington. It was on trips around the state that he shared his management philosophies, decision-making processes and informed view of the world. While others sought out power lunches, we bonded over low-key lunches, talk of family and meetings far from public view.  

John was a man who defied any stereotype. He dressed like a corporate lawyer, ate like a construction worker, talked like a northerner, golfed like a pro and was a servant leader who treated everyone with dignity and respect.  

He seemed to know someone anywhere and something about anything. In a world where all human knowledge seems to be in our hands, John was like an encyclopedia of “why?” I would always make a better decision after a conversation with him. 

There would be no North State Journal without John. The concept of a statewide media outlet was simple. But John was the one who cemented our foundation in print newspapers.  

“No one will take you seriously unless you’re a real newspaper,” he said. 

The day I finalized my exit from state government to start North State Journal, I came home to the surprise that my wife was pregnant with our second child. I called John and he reassured me that I could do it because he had dealt with an almost identical situation striking out on his own early in his career.  

He was fond of big ideas and wasn’t afraid to take risks. His secret weapon in all his pursuits was his wife of 50 years, Liz. She once described John to my wife as a kite flying high in the sky. Liz said her role was to be the string to keep him tied to the ground. My wife said afterward that John and I were two kites whose strings were crossed.  

His goal was always to make things better. He wanted that for our planet, our country, our state and his huge circle of friends, colleagues and clients. His motivation was his own family. Liz, son Matt and daughter Kate, along with their spouses, and his grandchildren were always on his mind. He would remind us all that our own families should be on our minds as well. In the thousands of miles we’ve traveled and the hundreds of meetings we’ve had, I never saw him ignore a call from his family.  

Through his recent illness, which zapped his energy, his motivations remained the same. We talked business and client needs, but our calls mostly involved family. In one of our last conversations, he was giving me baseball pitching advice to share with my son and shared his hope that he could come to a game soon.  

That wasn’t to be. Instead, we will all have to rely on our past experiences with John to help us navigate the winds of the future while clinging to our own strings to keep us grounded in what really matters in life.  

Neal Robbins is publisher of North State Journal.