I was having lunch in the ultramodern cafeteria at SAS Institute, the Cary-based software giant renowned for its lavish employee benefits, when I noticed a young couple feeding two adorable twin girls who, as it turned out, were exactly nine months old that day. Michael and Clelia Fry were tempting Madeline and Isabella with Gerber bananas, about half of which was making it to the intended targets.
Michael is an AutoCAD technician with the company. When I asked him how he liked working there, his response surprised me. This job is the reason we have our children, he said. We had to have invitro fertilization. It wasnt covered under my last companys health plan, but SAS covered 80 percent of the cost.
Clelia was just as enthusiastic. I really think [SAS president Jim] Goodnight knows that if you keep families happy, workers are happy. After touring the subsidized on-site day care and watching numbers of young children skittering through the office corridors, I had to agree.
Reporting this story evoked a rather painful sense of paradise lost. Im a native North Carolinian. My grandmother lived in Raleigh, and I went to college there. Cary was always a quiet little rural community tucked amidst the pines and pastures and tobacco fields. But even as I interviewed person after person whod moved here from the North extolling the areas virtues, I couldnt help but notice the cookie-cutter subdivisions, the strip shopping plazas, the massive parking lots, and the five-lane roads. According to a recent Brookings Institute report, from 1992 to 1997 North Carolina developed a staggering 17.8 acres (7.2 hectares) of land an hour. Little Cary, little no longer, was one of the epicenters of that growtha classic example of the suburbanized South.
After driving around Cary for a week, I had a surreal sense that I had somehow stumbled onto the set of The Truman Show, that perfect little slice of fifties utopia where the weather is warm, the people are friendly, and the children all have good manners. Even peoples names seemed too good to be true. The towns most generous benefactor, SAS Institutes CEO, is Jim Goodnight. The president of the Cary Chamber of Commerce is none other than Howard Johnson. The director of development for the massive new 1,200-seat St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church and a former town councilman is a certain Richard Burton. And Carys most recalcitrant critic and enthusiastic cannoneer, Charles Dreher, Sr., pronounces his name DREER, which seems to fit his outlook on life. But things are rarely as they seem. I was fascinated to learn that Mr. Dreher, whose accent could have come from the North Georgia hills, is actually a son of Ohio. Even Carys most unreconstructed southerner is a Yankee.