ROANOKE — After a four-year battle with cancer, former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles has entered a palliative care program, his family said.
Baliles, 79, had been getting treatment of renal cell carcinoma, including surgery in 2016 for removal of a tumorous kidney and targeted therapy of renal cancer cells that migrated to his lungs, his family wrote in a statement.
A recent diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis has added another complication requiring additional care and treatment. As he receives specialized medical care, it’s unknown how much more time he has.
Baliles, a Democrat, served as governor from 1986 to 1990, a period marked by an action-oriented administration that political observers — including Republicans — believed would establish Baliles as one of Virginia’s great governors.
He took bows over the years for winning record tax increases to finance ambitious transportation improvements, for reforming the state’s income tax structure, for bringing global awareness to the state’s education and economic development efforts, for making major strides in environmental protection and social program initiatives.
He chaired the Southern Growth Policy Board and the National Governors Association. In 1988, he appointed Elizabeth Lacy as the first woman to the state Supreme Court.
“I had a road map when I got here and I pursued that course,” Baliles told The Roanoke Times in 1989. “I reach the end of the term with a feeling of satisfaction, not exhaustion, with a feeling of accomplishment, not anxiety. I approached this office with a view that I knew that I wanted to achieve. And I went after it.”
No previous governor before the Patrick County native did more to try to shore up the economic base of Southwest Virginia, according to news coverage as he left office.
His term as governor saw a few dozen new businesses opening in the region, about as many business expansions, thousands of new jobs and nearly $200 million in capital investments.
As governor, Baliles argued it was legally and morally indefensible to deny female students admission to then-male-only Virginia Military Institute — a call that didn’t receive any other public support from statewide political figures.
In 1987, he halted an athletics versus academia scandal at Virginia Tech by delivering a commencement speech warning the university to shape up and then packing the board of visitors with people who would see to it.
Education — especially higher education — was an important passion of his. He hosted President George H.W. Bush’s Summit on Education. He also chaired the Commission on the Academic Presidency and the Task Force on the State of the Presidency in Higher Education.
Recently, he has been calling attention to the “two Virginias” — an urban crescent that is prospering economically and a rural Virginia that is not — and proposed a “Marshall Plan” for rural Virginia to address education needs.
Baliles was elected to the House of Delegates in 1975. He practiced environmental law before being elected attorney general in 1981.
Baliles was elected governor in 1985 with 55% of the vote. His popularity at the top of the ticket helped secure the narrow election of Lt. Gov. Douglas Wilder, who would go on to become the country’s first elected African American governor.
His other running mate was Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, the first woman elected to statewide office in Virginia.
After his term as governor ended in 1990, Baliles went back to private practice with the Richmond law firm Hunton & Williams, specializing in aviation law.
He was hired as the director of the Miller Center, a public policy research institute at the University of Virginia, in 2006.
Under his leadership, the center greatly expanded its profile with the addition of “American Forum,” a talk program featuring former and current policymakers, historians and journalists. He stepped down from that position in 2014.
His family said that since his diagnosis, Baliles has “maintained an active, if somewhat reduced, schedule of travel, speaking and advocating for a greater commitment to making education available to rural and inner-city students.”