By Charles Petty

Lee County lost a giant in December.

Billy Ray Cameron was nothing short of iconic, not only in Lee County but also across the state, and in some ways, the entire nation. Cameron died on December 17, 2020 at the age of 76

“He was a living example of how to help the veterans community,” said former North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Dennis Wicker. “He was a great believer in public service and indeed lived it and committed his life to it.”

Born in Lee County but raised in neighboring Harnett County, Cameron quit college at N.C. State University – just 20 credit hours short of earning a degree in physical education – to join the United States Marine Corps as the Vietnam War raged overseas. Serving with the 1st Marine Division near Da Nang, Cameron became known as “Pops” because at 23 he was the oldest man in his squadron.

He received two meritorious combat promotions and became a squad leader, and was also the recipient of two Purple Hearts. The first came after he rode over a landmine in a Jeep and was thrown from the vehicle. The second came after he stepped on a landmine. The toll of these injuries continued to plague Cameron for years to come, but also informed his sense of public service and community.

Years later, in 1984, Cameron was the first Vietnam Veteran elected as commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an occasion so momentous that it was featured in The New York Times. During his tenure, the VFW grew to over one million members, and he remained an active member of the North Carolina VFW for decades, frequently lobbying Congress to help his fellow veterans, particularly with regards to veterans hospitals and benefits.

He also worked in public service, becoming Lee County’s director of emergency management in 1971, a role he would hold until 1993. That year, he assumed the same role for the entire state, and he became deputy secretary for the North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety in 1997. He would serve in that position until 2003.

A family man and devoted to his wife Jeannette Gilliam Cameron and his children Edward and Leah, Cameron’s friend Jim Foster described him as “Marine tough” and fondly recalled their 50 year friendship. Being neighbors and fishing buddies, Foster and Cameron often enjoyed a good laugh, helped each other in times of need and golfed with their sons in father-son competitions.

In 2003, Cameron suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to speak until his death. Jeannette cared for him faithfully at their home in Sanford right up until the very end. She remembered her husband’s strong character and kindness and how it left an impact on everyone he met.

“He had a strong attachment to our community,” she said. “He was a people person, he enjoyed people and cared deeply about others, always wanting to help where he could.”

Wicker, the former lieutenant governor, has many fond memories of Cameron. Wicker’s father, who was a World War II veteran, was a fellow member of the VFW and helped serve the community with Cameron in the organization. While serving with Governor Jim Hunt, Wicker also remembered the acts of service Cameron performed to help on the state level to raise awareness of veterans needs and conditions. His advocacy for veterans was a hallmark of his service even while he dutifully performed his job with the state department of Crime Control and Public Safety. His continued work with the state and VFW touched the lives of countless many ensuring lives and livelihoods were protected.

“He was a close friend of mine for many years,” Wicker recalled. “Billy Ray Cameron devoted his whole life to serving his country, his state and his community.”

In spite of the stroke and injuries from war, Cameron never ceased being a positive force for good. He continued to attend church and VFW meetings and, in his own way through his illness, help the Lee County community. With a smile and good will towards his neighbor, Cameron was the ultimate example of being a community-minded, caring human who left the world a better place.