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Harry Groves: Championing The Rights of Seniors and Others

Harry Groves often took the path of resistance, always championing the rights of the people around him. After he retired, that fight extended to the rights of seniors.

By Taylor Sisk

In the end, it wasn’t the complaint itself that bothered Harry Groves so much as the lack of due process.

Groves, a retired UNC-Chapel Hill law professor, did have a complaint. It was 1988, and he was a resident of Springmoor Life Care Retirement Community in Raleigh. Groves was generally pleased with the accommodations he and his wife, along with his mother and hers were afforded at Springmoor.

But he had an issue with the food, and he raised it at a residents’ association meeting.

Harry Groves in his home.

Harry Groves in his apartment at Carolina Meadows, where he now lives. Photo: Taylor Sisk.

After the meeting, the executive director came to his apartment and, according to Groves, said, “You should not make any public complaints here. If you have something to complain about, you should come and see me privately.”

“I didn’t like that,” recalled Groves, now 91 and living in Carolina Meadows in Chapel Hill. “I didn’t like that at all.

“So I decided, well, I better see what kind of rights I have at this place.”

The result of that inquiry is Chapter 58, Article 64 of the N.C. General Statutes, legislation that regulates continuing care retirement communities and helps protect residents’ rights.

Among other provisions, the law states that residents of CCRCs have the right to organize and be kept informed on the operations of the facility.

Groves, the Emeritus Henry Brandis Professor of Law at UNC-Chapel Hill, drove the legislation to enactment using his considerable force of will, and catching the industry unawares.

“The developer of Springmoor had some real political pull, but he didn’t use it, because he didn’t think I knew what I was doing,” Groves said recently, seated in the small apartment in which he’s lived alone since his wife, Evelyn Apperson Groves, passed away in 2011. “He thought I was just another old guy puttering around.

“By the time he realized that this could be a fait accompli, he got busy – but it was too late.”

At that time, Groves said, continuing care communities were just springing up, “and almost none of the legislators knew a damn thing about them. So they listened to what I had to say.

“One of my best friends here said, ‘You’d never get the law passed now. Never.’”

A path of much resistance

This wasn’t the first time Harry Groves exerted his will against the conventions around him.

He was born Sept. 4, 1921 in Manitou Springs, Col., the grandson of slaves. His father built private roads in the mountains that provided access to the homes of the wealthy.

“He would have wanted me to enter his business,” Groves said, “but I had other interests. I had academic interests; I wanted to teach, and that’s what I prepared to do when I went to the University of Colorado in 1939.”

The university had always been integrated, but not the dormitories. Groves objected, and became the first nonwhite admitted to a men’s dorm.

He earned a degree in English and got a teacher’s certificate, but was called into the Army, serving as a second lieutenant in an artillery unit in Europe during World War II.

After the war, Groves entered the University of Chicago to pursue a graduate degree in education, but was soon once again tacking an alternate course.

“I often get asked why I chose the law,” he said. The reason he provides is that the University of Chicago’s education curriculum offered him no challenge; the courses were too easy.

“But somebody told me there was a challenge to be had in the law school.” So he enrolled, and, “I liked the law very much.”

“I knew that I wanted to teach,” he said, “and so it was law then that I would teach.” His first teaching job was at North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University.

With the outbreak of the Korean War, Groves was called back into the Army and assigned to an infantry company at Fort Bragg. Though Harry Truman had ordered the integration of the armed forces after World War II, “it hadn’t filtered down to make any significant changes,” Groves recalled.

“I decided I wanted to be transferred to the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Well, that had to go all the way up to Washington.” Permission was granted, and Groves spent the duration of his tour with the 82nd Airborne Division, which remained at Fort Bragg.

He was then hired as dean of the law school at Texas Southern University, a traditionally black institution, where he began admitting white students.

He next went to the University of Singapore as a visiting professor and was appointed head of the law department and dean of its faculty.

“That was a wonderful experience, the best experience of my life. The work was challenging. The school was quite new. It graduated its first law school class the year I went there.”

In 1965, Groves became president of Central State University in Ohio, which at the time was a predominately black institution.

“It was a riotous time,” Groves said of his tenure, from ’65 to ’68, at the university. “I was a young president; I was liberal, and I really couldn’t figure out what the problem was.”

He called the student body president into his office and said he was told, “‘All we want you to do is stand aside while we remove the white students from campus.’ And I said, ‘You can’t do that. I can’t permit you to do that.’”

His life was threatened and a riot ensued, and Groves shut the campus down just before Christmas break.

“I resigned after the riot, because I thought any president who had to have the police come in, particularly the state police, ought to resign. If you lose that kind of control of your institution, you need to step down, and that’s what I did.”

After classes resumed, a petition was circulated asking that he return, which he did for a time. But his wife was in poor health and her doctors said she needed peace. He again resigned.

“My life was in danger,” he said. “It was hardly peaceful.”

In 1981, he was offered a newly created chair at UNC. He and Evelyn bought a 14-acre farm with a pond in Durham County, built a home and tended to a horse, ducks, chickens, two pairs of swans and some African pygmy goats.

He remained at UNC until his retirement in 1986.

A movement, and a bill

In the summer of 1988, disturbed by the Springmoor executive director’s response to his food-related issue, Groves began investigating the state’s oversight of continuing care retirement communities. He learned of a law that required CCRCs to file disclosure papers regarding the administration of the community, but that there was no penalty if the CCRCs failed to file the papers.

“They didn’t have to file,” he said. “So it meant nothing – absolutely nothing.”

He began to research laws protecting residents of CCRCs in other states, found that some had good ones, and resolved to write one for North Carolina, “improving on the best of those that I had found.”

He then set about to organize. He formed a not-for-profit corporation, now called the Carolina Continuing Care Residents Association (NCCCRA), and began to build a constituency, enlisting members first at Springmoor in Raleigh and Carolina Meadows and Carol Woods in Chapel Hill. Then he hit the road, traveling across the state to build support.

He next needed a lobbyist, and recruited himself for the position.

“I didn’t think any lobbyist would know what I knew about the law,” he affirmed. “I wrote it; I wrote every word of it, and I didn’t think that [anyone] could go in lobbying with the background, the information and the interest that I had. So I decided to do this lobbying myself, and I did.”

The legislative building became a second home: “I spent day after day over there at the legislature. I’d go in the morning and I’d have lunch and I’d stay into the afternoon, and I visited every legislator that I could, which was most of them.”

The bill sailed through committees in both houses with no opposition, with Groves on hand to explain the particulars and answer any questions. But he’d been savvy enough to call in some backup.

“I brought a couple of carloads of residents of these communities – nice little white-haired old ladies and bald-headed gentlemen – to just sit out there in the chairs in the hearing room. They didn’t have to say anything … I explained the law. But I wanted the legislators to see, ‘There’s grandma sitting out there.’ And they did. They felt, ‘Well, this is something that might affect my mother or grandmother.’

“And that worked; that really worked very well.”

The bill went to the Senate and passed unanimously there, then hit a snag in the House. Apparently, the chair of the House Rules Committee at the time wouldn’t let the bill reach the House floor because, Groves said, he was in the midst of a personal battle with the representative who had introduced it in the Senate, and “he didn’t want him to get credit for anything.”

Appeals were made, AARP muscle was summoned, and the bill passed in the closing hours of the 1989 session.

The law stipulates that license to operate a CCRC must be received from the state Department of Insurance, a disclosure statement must be provided annually to residents and any prospective residents, specified financial reserves must be maintained, an owning entity may not sell or transfer ownership without prior approval from the state and residents have the right to organize and be kept apprised of the facility’s operations.

The Department of Insurance now conducts annual financial audits and has the right to intervene if a CCRC appears to be in financial trouble. Previously, there was no auditing.

The NCCCRA now has more than 4,000 members. It’s been active recently in protecting residents’ rights to return to their communities after hospitalization.

‘They’re meeting’

“I think it’s been effective,” Groves said of the law.

Before it was enacted, he said, a would-be developer could solicit investors in a new community without any guarantee of the resources to complete it.

“You could have sent out a brochure saying, ‘Send me $25,000 and I’ll put you on my mailing list to get into this beautiful community, and here are some drawings of it,’” Groves said. “People could do that; there wasn’t anything to prevent them from doing that. You can’t do it now.”

Over the years, Groves would receive calls from CCRC residents requesting legal advice. Not long ago, a man called and said his executive director wouldn’t provide residents with a room in which to meet.

“He said the residents didn’t need to meet,” Groves said. “Well, I have a provision in the law which says that residents have a right to meet, and that if they are prevented from doing so the person preventing them is committing a crime and can be prosecuted either by the attorney general of the state or any local prosecutor.”

He mailed the man that section of the law. “I said, ‘Take this to your executive director and ask him to read it.’ And he did, and he read it.” Due process prevailed.

“Now they’re meeting,” Groves said.

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2 Comments

  1. SaraMar 22, 2013 at 9:26 am

    hank you for this beautiful story about the courageous and amazing harry groves.

  2. Tony DockeryApr 6, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    I like this story..I just wish good endings like this happened all the time in government unfortunately money rules and that’s it period..Most politicians have been put in place by those who have payed their way (most hmm I mean probably all) and them who came in with a clear conscious to do good realized they couldn’t and became players themselves and so just joined the gang and become complacent and as they say “The show must go on”..Just take the check and vote this way..retire with a million bucks and a nice lobbying job.. Yeah that’s the ticket.

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