Gerald L. Baliles, the 65th Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, died on October 29, 2019 after an illness that was announced publicly in September. He was at home, surrounded by his family, in Charlottesville. He was 79.
Baliles served as Governor from 1986-1990, in a time of social transition and technological advances. His election in 1985 made national news as he led the most diverse ticket of candidates in Virginia’s history, with Mary Sue Terry as the first woman Attorney General, and L. Douglas Wilder as the first African American Lieutenant Governor.
His legacy lives on in Virginia’s transportation system, its public schools and universities, a cleaner Chesapeake Bay and the international markets where Virginia’s products and services are sold.
A native of Virginia, Baliles was born and raised in rural Patrick County in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He lived with his grandparents on their farm and in close proximity to his father, aunts and uncles, all of whom had a positive impact on his childhood and throughout his life. His passion for books and knowledge became his pathway to the future.
He attended Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro, Virginia, where, in his senior year, he became Battalion Commander of the school’s Cadet Corps, and also won an international debating competition in Toronto, Canada. He went on to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in government. In 1967, he received his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. He then joined the Virginia Attorney General’s office, where he became known for his expertise in environmental law.
He left the Attorney General’s office to practice law in Richmond, focusing on energy and environmental issues. But the call to public service led him to successfully run for the “floater” seat in the Virginia House of Delegates’ 35th District to represent Richmond and Henrico County between 1976-1982.
In 1981, he was elected as Virginia’s Attorney General. During his term, he was chosen as the Outstanding Attorney General of the United States by his peers.
Support for his leadership grew and he became a candidate for governor, running on the issues that reflected the priorities and hopes of people in both rural and urban communities.
Campaigning across the state, meeting thousands of people, he delighted in using his unusual talent of remembering the names of all those he met at events and thanking them at the end, by name, for supporting him. He won with more than 55% of the vote.
He delivered on his promise to make transportation an economic building block, critical to the future of the state. He saw education as the key to economic development, and raised teachers’ salaries beyond the national average. Identifying themes for each of his four years in office, he gave clear purpose to state government policies.
With transportation funding, expanded international trade, new family and mental health care services, increased environmental protection standards and education initiatives for prisons, he provided evidence of a significant return on public investment strategies.
He expanded Virginia’s horizons in global trade by “opening doors and closing deals” for new markets, creating Virginia’s Inland Port in Front Royal and improving facilities at the Port in Norfolk; he encouraged alternative crops for Virginia’s farmers in response to the demise of tobacco sales; and his economic policies produced the highest per capita income in the South, with more than 300,000 jobs during his administration.
Other standout accomplishments include national recognition for his appointment of women and minorities to boards and commissions as well as to his executive staff; he appointed the first woman to the Virginia Supreme Court; he took a stand against the “men only” policies in place at the Virginia Military Institute, which was a state funded university; he drew a clear line between sports and academic standards at Virginia Tech by replacing several Board members after a scandal involving athletes; he was elected as the Chairman of the National Governors Association; he created the Virginia Film Festival, which continues today; and he led a delegation of business and cultural leaders to Israel as part of the work of the Virginia-Israel Commission, established during his term to promote closer ties with the nation of Israel.
He also initiated a practice of “work weeks” when he would take his senior staff and Cabinet members to different parts of the state for several days for meetings with business and community leaders to discuss their concerns and ideas.
His insistence upon preparation and detail was reflected in his staff’s understanding that every trade mission, every event, and every meeting with local, national or international dignitaries must be accompanied by a briefing book that included all relevant information for the occasion.
Whenever possible, he would find a way to include a fishing trip in the schedule, including leaving his Capitol office on some days to fish in the James River under the Mayo Bridge, accompanied only by his State Police executive protection unit officer.
Because Virginia’s governors cannot succeed themselves, he left office in 1990, after helping Lieutenant Governor L. Douglas Wilder become the first African American governor in the country. Many wanted him to seek one of Virginia’s U.S. Senate seats, but Baliles, a Democrat, ruled out running against his friend, Republican Senator John W. Warner.
Instead, he joined the international law firm of Hunton & Williams (now Hunton Andrews Kurth), based in Richmond, as a partner, focusing on aviation and international law. He was appointed by President Clinton to lead a blue ribbon commission to improve the airline industry, which led to safety and operations recommendations and policies. In 1995, he authored a book, “Preserving the Chesapeake Bay.” During his time at the law firm, he also served as chairman of the Public Broadcasting System and the Virginia Historical Society.
He left Hunton & Williams in 2006 to become director and CEO of the University of Virginia Miller Center, now recognized as the nation’s leading institution for presidential studies. While there, he created the National Discussion and Debate Series and the National War Powers Commission, increasing the visibility and influence of the Center and the University.
In 2014, he announced he would step down from the position to “reflect and perhaps write about the many steps and facets of my work in public office … .” In recent years, and as a frequent visitor to the old Homeplace where he was raised, he created the Patrick County Education Foundation.
He was in demand as an inspiring and thought-provoking speaker, including a speech earlier this year to the State Council on Higher Education calling for a “Marshall Plan” for Virginia’s rural communities, to provide funding for education and incentives to close the economic gaps between rural and urban prosperity in the Commonwealth.
Governor Baliles was preceded in death by his grandparents, James Lee and Emma Baliles; his father, Syrus Baliles; and his brothers, Larry W. Baliles and Stuart G. Baliles.
He is survived by his wife of 16 years, Robin Marshall Deal Baliles, his children Laura Baliles Osberger (Steve), Jonathan Tabor Baliles, Katherine Deal Stone Walsh (Steve), and Danielle Deal Hudak (David); his grandchildren, Madison and Emily Stone and Olivia and Nadia Hudak; his former wife Jeannie Patterson Baliles; and his father-in-law, Lt. Col. (Ret. Army Reserves) Robert W. Marshall.
Funeral arrangements will be announced at a later date.
The family wishes to thank his personal caregiver, Ms. Beryl Mitchell; his nurse, Sarah Dewitt; and his CNA, NaShell Williams for their attentive and loving care during the Governor’s final days; and his entire medical team at the University of Virginia Medical Center.
Donations may be made in his honor to the Patrick County Educational Foundation, P.O. Box 497, Stuart, VA 24171.