Walking into the front foyer of the Fletcher Foundation (yes, we have a foyer. Read on to see why…) you see a sign that reads
“Grass Roots Opera Company”
And we’d be lying if we didn’t get amused by the confused faces on many of your faces. This sign is an important piece of the storied history of A.J. Fletcher Foundation. One that we share in person and some of you already know. But over the next few months, we’ll be sharing stories about our origins, leaders, and long time commitments to the communities we serve.
It’s only fitting that we start our storytelling at the very beginning. In 1961, Mr. Alfred Johnson “AJ” Fletcher founded the A.J. Fletcher Foundation to carry on his philanthropic interests. His primary objectives were to provide annual operating support for various cultural and education outreach initiatives, including the Grass Roots Opera Company. Created in 1948, the National Grass Roots Opera Foundation strived to make opera available and accessible to everyone and
sought to provide budding artists with the education and training they needed to build a profession in opera performance. Mr. Fletcher was an avid performer and bass singer and was remained devoted to opera all his life. As a result of these efforts, more than two million North Carolina school children experienced an opera performance, sung in English, and many of them went on to pursue artistic endeavors as a result. Over the years, the organization evolved into The National Opera Company and The Fletcher School of Performing Arts. (Learn more about The National Opera Company in this video)
Mr. Fletcher notably founded Capitol Broadcasting Company in 1937. He and a small group of partners formed the company and won a license to opera a radio station in Raleigh. It wasn’t until he was in his late-60s that he won a legendary battle for the first VHF television license for Raleigh, signing on the air over WRAL-TV in 1956 for the first time. Lesser known is that Mr. Fletcher was an accomplished attorney and entrepreneur, founding an insurance company at age 40 and practicing law for roughly 50 years.
These vast accomplishments are a long way from his upbringing in rural North Carolina but his formative childhood experiences certainly inform his tenacity and strong work ethic.
Born in 1887 in a cold log house with little comfort or medical care, Alfred Ira Johnston Fletcher began his life in Ashe County, North Carolina in the most difficult of circumstances. His father, Reverend James Floyd Fletcher founded churches in that area of the state and traveled to services on foot, dozens of miles away from his home. The family lived off a small commission from the State Baptist Association and whatever food and provisions church members would provide. A.J. Fletcher said, “I have personally witnessed many acts involving my father’s self-sacrifice where, in the bitterest cold and with snowdrifts many feet deep, he fought his way through to the bedside of a sick member of his church or to preach a funeral.”
He attended Oak Hill Academy as a young man but education was scarce — rural schools at this time held limited sessions and there were few options. So he moved to North Wilkesboro to live with his sister and worked as a stable boy sleeping in a barn and grocery delivery person to support himself and the family as he attended school. He soon joined the Class of 1911 at Wake Forest College with his modest savings and a fifty-dollar loan from his father and was quickly he was elected a leader of his class and found an outlet for his love of music with the school glee club. He was pursuing legal education but he ran out of money for school and began running the small weekly paper in Apex.
In 1910, Fletcher married Elizabeth Utley and took the $900 he had saved working at the paper to return to school. He never graduated from college but learned enough law to join the bar and run his own practice as an attorney. In 1919, Fletcher moved his young family to Raleigh. He and Elizabeth had four children—Fred, Frank, Floyd, and Betty Lou.
Betty Lou’s son, James Fletcher “Jim” Goodmon, began learning the business of broadcasting and community outreach at his grandfather’s knee from a young age. He grew up in Raleigh and graduated from Broughton High School in 1961 and went on to attend Duke University, but left for the Navy in 1965 before obtaining a degree. While serving his enlistment in Memphis, Tennessee, he met and married Barbara Lyons. The couple soon moved to Raleigh in 1968 where they became involved in various community service initiatives. Recognizing his grandson’s potential, A.J. Fletcher named Jim Goodmon Operations Manager at WRAL-TV upon his return to North Carolina and in 1975 he became CBC’s President.
In 1986, the foundation was a major beneficiary of the sale of Southern Life Insurance Company, a company Mr. Fletcher had an ownership stake in, which more than doubled the foundation’s assets.
So that’s where we begin. Over the last three decades, Fletcher Foundation has broadened its focus to pressing issues including education, human services and poverty alleviation. It also began providing seed money for emerging nonprofits to begin or grow and to supported capacity building for nonprofits, mainly through development grants to grow and sustain assets for nonprofit organizations. Today, the Foundation supports The Fletcher Academy, School of Achievement, Inc., a private, nonprofit school dedicated to children with learning differences, and other public charities located in North Carolina or serving North Carolina residents that have as one of their purposes the care or support of the elderly, infirm or indigent, the promotion of education, artistic endeavors, communication arts, public recreation, or the fostering of religious faith.
And we told you we’d get back to the foyer, right? Well, In 2012, Fletcher Foundation relocated to the restored former home of A.J. Fletcher at 909 Glenwood Avenue. Our partners and friends gather in our meeting space where Mr. Fletcher and his family and friends once sung together around the organ. Our yard is full of azaleas and flowers just as they once were. And our team uses the space to carry on Mr. Fletcher’s work to enrich the lives of people all across the state.
Over the past 55 years, we have certainly changed a lot. But some things remain refreshingly constant. The visionary leaders who see promise in our future to make people’s lives better, our work to bring necessary services and education to children across the state, and an embrace of innovative ideas that that push us forward.
We look forward to sharing stories from our history with you and invite you to share with us as well. If you have a story from working with Fletcher Foundation through the years, please use the space below to send it our way!