RAEFORD – More than 40 years ago, residents of Hoke County embraced the son of a Kinston tobacco farmer and accepted him as one of their own.
Julian W. King
Julian King has returned the favor many times over throughout the years, becoming so ingrained in his adopted community that he still lives in the same house he moved into three weeks before his 1969 marriage to his Hoke County sweetheart and still worships at the church, Raeford First Baptist, where they were wed.
King is just as committed to FirstHealth of the Carolinas. Earlier this year, he became the first Hoke County resident ever named chair of the FirstHealth Board of Directors, the 15-county health system’s primary governing body.
His elevation to the post came at a pivotal time for FirstHealth, which had just welcomed a new chief executive officer, and specifically for FirstHealth in Hoke County as the organization ramped up its commitment to the area with a host of locally based programs – the most significant being a community hospital for the most populated county in North Carolina without one.
Although stalled for months by state proceedings and local impediments, plans for the eight-bed hospital project now appear safely on track and King can see a time when FirstHealth is indeed “in Hoke for Hoke” with a community hospital.
“We are determined we are going to have a hospital in Hoke County,” he says.
A background in textiles
Julian W. King grew up in eastern North Carolina’s Lenoir County at a time when tobacco was king and the textile industry was heir apparent. When college-bound, he set his sights on a work-study position at DuPont, Kinston’s largest employer, hoping to share the spot with a friend who was going to Virginia Tech as King headed for Georgia Tech.
“We were going to hold down one job,” King recalls.
The chance to play baseball at N.C. State coupled with the offer of scholarships from both the university and its School of Textiles changed his plans, however. Instead of DuPont and Georgia Tech, King set out for Raleigh and what he describes as “a hybrid degree” combining manufacturing with engineering and management.
The opportunity for an internship at Burlington Industries in Raeford completed his change in plans.
“Raeford is a very typical small North Carolina town, where people take you to heart,” King says. “I took a shine to them, and they took a shine to me, and I really enjoyed my work.”
As King saw it, “the sky was the limit” so far as potential for a long-term relationship with Burlington, which was then the world’s largest textile company. He was offered a permanent job during his senior year in college, but it was 1967, the war in Vietnam was raging, and he had an obligation to the military.
As an ROTC graduate from N.C. State, King was commissioned a second lieutenant in combat arms at Fort Bragg by Gen. Bill Yarborough, the “father of the modern Green Berets,” and was “ready to go” if called to serve in Vietnam. Instead, he left Fort Bragg for Fort Campbell, Ky., then headed to Fort Bliss, Texas, and then to Korea and a tank battalion with the Seventh Infantry Division.
He had been in Korea, where Russian MIG flyovers were common sights, only briefly when he was made a first lieutenant and Headquarters Company commander.
When his two years of active duty with the Army were behind him, King returned to Raeford, moved “into the house I’m in now” and got married. He and his wife, current Raeford City Councilwoman Mary Neil King, have two sons and two grandchildren.
From retail to FirstHealth
With his return to Raeford, King also returned to Burlington Industries and a junior management position. “The people who worked in textile mills were my kind of people,” he says. “I got along well with them.”
After several years in the industry, he was ready for a change, though, and he left textiles for a furniture and appliance business in Raeford. Retail “came naturally,” but making money selling furniture and appliances proved more difficult.
After a couple of years, King and his wife, then a teacher, decided to look for a business “that would give us some foot traffic,” he says. The opportunity presented itself with Radio Shack and various stores in Raeford, Laurinburg, Southern Pines, Pinehurst and Aberdeen.
King still operates the store in Aberdeen.
King’s relationship with what is now FirstHealth of the Carolinas and his commitment to the various and very different communities the organization serves began in the mid-1980s. Seeking retail expertise for the for-profit arm of the not-for-profit organization, Moore Regional Board Chair I.E. “Ike” Killian enlisted him for the board of Paradigm Health Services (later Regional Services).
King served two terms and eventually chaired the board, a responsibility that also meant a spot on the Moore Regional Board of Trustees. He rotated off the Regional Services Board only to be coaxed back into FirstHealth service by Stuart Voelpel, then president of Moore Regional and FirstHealth’s chief operating officer.
He joined the hospital’s Facilities Committee and in 2006 was appointed to a spot on the Moore Regional Board of Trustees.
“Things happened pretty quickly after that,” King says.
By 2007, King was vice chair of the Moore Regional Board. The following year, he became its chair and a member of the FirstHealth Board of Directors. A year as vice chair of the FirstHealth Board preceded his January 2012 elevation to the current role as chair. That was when retiring Chair Alex Bowness made what King now knows was an apt observation about his new position.
“You’re going to love it most of the days,” he recalls Bowness as saying. “You’re going to be busy, but you’re going to love it.”
On more days than “most,” King does indeed love his new role with FirstHealth. His regard comes from real faith in the organization that long ago earned his trust and admiration.
From the beginning, King says, “It was apparent to me that these folks knew how to ‘run a railroad.’”
King quickly came to respect Charles Frock, FirstHealth’s first CEO, and “the caliber of people that he brought along.” He calls new CEO David Kilarski “the right guy,” describing him as “a relationship kind of guy” at a time when relationships with physicians, employees and the various communities FirstHealth serves are crucial to its future and to its success.
Hoke County, says King, has played a strategic role for both Moore Regional Hospital and FirstHealth of the Carolinas for many years, but that relationship has become even more important as the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process brings greater numbers of service personnel and their families into an area long noted for its military presence.
Hoke Countians have historically chosen FirstHealth for their health care, says King, and he expects that tradition to continue with the current influx of new residents.
“Having a hospital (in Hoke County) will seal the deal,” he says.