Zeb Alley, the teller of tales

By Scott Mooneyham | Jul 11, 2013

RALEIGH -- Zeb Alley was a teller of tales and jokes.

Most of them can't be repeated in this column.

He was also an institution in state politics for decades. From the mountain town of Waynesville, Alley was elected to the state Senate in 1970 for a single term. He turned that stint in the legislature into a long career of involvement with the state government that included serving as former Gov. Jim Hunt's legislative counsel from 1980-84.

Afterward, he became the state's most influential lobbyist for better than a decade.

Alley died Thursday morning. He was 84.

Even as he grew older, he never stopped his lobbying practice completely. When his health permitted, Alley would show up in the Legislative Building, still with that twinkle in his eye.

Because this column regularly runs in the Waynesville newspaper, The Mountaineer, Alley would often joke when he saw me, "Here's Waynesville's own."

Alley's memory was remarkable. Years after I had begun covering legislative politics, he could still recall within a year of when I first showed up with pen and paper in hand.

It was that memory which made his stories, whether they involved his time serving in the Korean War or in the Hunt administration, so enthralling. He not only remembered details that elevated his retelling of events, he could throw in a facial expression that you knew captured what he had seen at the time.

One of his favorites involved a night after the legislature had left town for the weekend, and Hunt had been left alone by First Lady Carolyn Hunt to visit her parents.

Hunt was known as something of a prude (some other politicians could benefit from such a reputation), but decided to tag along with Alley on one of his regular jaunts to the Frog and Nightgown jazz club in the old Cameron Village Underground.

Alley recalled that after a waitress had taken his drink order, she inquired of Hunt's. Alley replied, "He doesn't drink," only to be interrupted by the governor, "No, I'll have a glass of wine." Asked what kind of wine, Hunt fumbled around until receiving a suggestion.

According to Alley's telling, a woman lobbyist later talked Hunt into joining her for a dance. Innocent as it was, the episode somehow ended up in The News & Observer of Raleigh, likely in its Under the Dome column.

That's where the best part of the story begins.

Alley recalled being at a function at the Governor's Mansion a few days later. Greeting Mrs. Hunt, he remembered her turning coldly without a word. "She wouldn't speak to me for days," he said. Even at 84 and three decades later, Alley's impersonation of Carolyn Hunt pursing her lips and rolling her eyes was priceless.

With hundred stories like that, and a mountain man's gift for retelling them, it is no wonder that Alley became the institution that he did.

In a different era, they were grease that helped to lube the wheels of lobbying and politics.