By Bruce Boyer
Kernersville Alderman J.R. Gorham knows the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is having information, but wisdom comes from God. “And wisdom always comes out on top,” said General J.R. Gorham, “because it is doing the right thing for the right reason.” J.R. draws upon three sources for his direction in life: his dad, faith, and family. Those three sources have empowered him to make the right decisions.
His father, Roy Gorham, was a sharecropper, a wise visionary, and a “God-fearing man.” J.R. Gorham said, growing up in the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s when America “began the countercultural movement … rebelling against parents, rejecting materialism, and turning inward to ‘find oneself,’ we continued in old-fashioned values.” In rural Falkland, North Carolina, the Gorham family was financially poor but rich in faith and family. His father’s knack for childrearing came from God Himself. Teach me Your way, O LORD, and lead me in a smooth path because of my enemies (Psalm 27:11). These were difficult times, but the elder Gorham taught his son, “It’s your choice how you react to others, and not let emotions control you.”
Many life lessons of General Gorham’s upbringing are highlighted in his book, Sharecropper’s Wisdom. One of the critical values J.R. Gorham learned was that hard work is the recipe for success. J.R. and his brother worked in the fields as sons of a sharecropper and earned a reputation for their work ethic. Everyone knew: “Hire Roy’s boys. Roy’s boys get it done.”
Kernersville experienced that work ethic in the recent November election. J.R. was one of eleven candidates for the five-seat Kernersville Board of Aldermen. He was ten years removed from a local banking career and had recently served in Raleigh as Commissioner of Juvenile Justice in the N.C. Department of Public Safety. After filing at the Board of Elections, he knocked on over 1,200 doors all around the community, introducing himself to the citizens of Kernersville. For most of the residents, that was the first time a candidate had ever taken the time to go into the neighborhoods and meet people where they live. As an elected official, he has continued that approach in researching challenging issues facing the Board of Aldermen. He knocks on the doors of people living in an area affected by a proposed development or pending issue to learn how it affects people who live there, before making a decision. He said, “I learn a lot about the people of Kernersville by knocking on doors.” When asked about going the extra mile, he said, “If you are willing to do what other people won’t do, then you can go where other people can’t go.”
Married for 35 years, J.R. Gorham views his wife, Barbara, as the thread that knits the family together. Barbara has supported J.R.’s service to the community and country through her own sacrifice. That was particularly evident when J.R. served in war-torn Iraq for 14 months with the U.S. Army National Guard. Barbara single-handedly managed the family. J.R. calls her his “Proverbs 31 woman,” which scripture describes as a virtuous woman. (Proverbs 31:10-31).
J.R.’s deployment to Iraq was a positive test of his commitment to our country and role model for his children. He was eligible to retire from the military and avoid wartime service, but he chose to be an example of loyalty for his children. He drew strength from a verse from Joshua 1:9: Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
“God has always had His hand on my life,” he shared. In an interview for this article, he said that the “journey is perplexing.” He said, “I don’t understand why God has blessed me as He has.” As J.R. sought to understand why God was by his side during good times and bad, he concluded that he would always love his children, no matter what they have done. And he would do anything for his children to enable their success. “God does the same for me.” It is called “Grace.”
J.R. Gorham went to Iraq (2004) as a Lieutenant Colonel and was promoted to Colonel (2005). Upon returning to the states, he became the first African American Brigadier General in the N.C. National Guard (2008). Back in the U.S., J.R. focused on Exodus 4:12, which said, Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.” God provides opportunities to serve in many ways, but you have to be willing to step up and “go.” If you don’t go, you will never know what God has in store for you.”
The Board of Aldermen is not his first elected position. As a 14-year-old high school freshman, he decided to run for student government. Even though he was new to the school and relatively unknown, he ran for Vice President. He won and enjoyed interacting with administrators and student leaders. Now, as a Kernersville elected official, he gets the opportunity to meet people he would never otherwise meet and help guide the town’s direction for the future. He hopes that his example will inspire more people of color to become involved in the leadership of their community.
The Forward chapter of Sharecropper’s Wisdom poses the rhetorical question, “How does a small-town African American boy … grow up to become a General in the U.S. Armed Service?” In his lifetime, J.R. Gorham became a high-ranking military officer, a commercial banker, a civil servant in state government, a local elected official, and “most important, a husband and a father.” He believes that leadership begins in the home. His faith is interwoven into all aspects of his life. J.R. Gorham speaks from the heart and with wisdom from the Lord, his dad, and his wife. Together, they provide the wisdom to lead.