Hanging among the family photos and memorabilia that line the front hallway of Margaret Carter’s home is a framed letter from late North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham, thanking Carter for her many years of service.
While the letter alone serves as a testament to this remarkable woman and her career, it’s the handwritten note from Graham at the bottom of the page, signed “your friend,” that speaks volumes.
Carter, 86, served the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) for 47 years, paving the way for future generations of female scientists. She also was one of the first women to earn a degree from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, receiving a bachelor’s degree in agricultural and biological chemistry in 1950.
“My daughter told me, ‘You believed in women’s lib before there was women’s lib,’” Carter says. “I knew it would be a challenge.”
The youngest of seven children, Carter says her father fueled her determination to pursue a college education.
“My dad was offered a football scholarship, but it didn’t cover his freshman year, so his family couldn’t afford to send him to college,” Carter says. “He instilled in us that we should find a way to go to college. You have to have it instilled in you. You really do.”
She moved from her hometown of Americus, Ga., at the age of 16 to live with her sister in Charlotte. Carter spent her freshman year there at Queens College, then moved with her sister to Raleigh and enrolled at N.C. State.
Along with a number of chemistry classes, Carter also studied calculus and physics, competing for enrollment slots with the influx of veterans returning at that time from World War II.
“I was the only woman in many of my classes, especially engineering,” Carter says. “During my first year at N.C. State there were a lot of girls. Then it tapered off. I studied hard and worked in a lab during the summer.”
Carter began her first job with the NCDA&CS a couple of years before finishing her degree. A junior chemist with the Food and Drug Protection Division, she worked in a number of labs that focused on quality control in everything from beverages to antifreeze.
“What we did was protect the public,” Carter says, recounting a time she served as an expert witness in a trial in which a grocery chain had laced its meat with sulfites to keep it looking fresh.
Carter retired in 1995 as supervisor of an NCDA&CS food lab.
“I loved working there,” she says. “There was a lot of variety in my job, and I enjoyed the people. I could have retired earlier, but I just wasn’t ready to leave.”
Immediately upon retiring, she launched herself into another important job: grandmother.
“I retired just one month after my first granddaughter was born, and I helped keep her,” Carter says.
She has two children and four grandchildren, and the whole clan lives in Raleigh, with the exception of her oldest granddaughter, who is a freshman at the University of South Carolina.
A self-described “sports nut” – especially when it comes to her beloved Wolfpack – Carter used to cover sports for the university’s Agromeck yearbook. She also regularly attended N.C. State football and basketball games, as well as baseball spring training games and pro football training camps. On the prospect of becoming a fan of her granddaughter’s new university sports teams, Carter says with a grin, “I might could pull for them.”
Above all, says Carter, is her family.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” she says. “I got a good education, coming to a big university from a small town.
“It’s my family that keeps me going,” she adds after a moment of quiet reflection. “Those kids – to see their faces – makes it all worth it.”
— Suzanne Stanard