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HHS graduate called to global trouble spots

David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, is a 1974 graduate of Hendersonville High School. David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, is a 1974 graduate of Hendersonville High School.

If there’s trouble in the world — of the intractable, decades long, genocidal magnitude— David Tolbert gets the call.


He worked in the former Yugoslavia prosecuting war crimes. The United Nations called on him to pull the Khmer Rouge trial out of the ditch. He worked for years to push factions in Colombia to end the longest running civil war in the western hemisphere.
Tolbert traces the inspiration for his life’s work to family background and a challenging class at Hendersonville High School.
“In my senior year I took a government class that was important and instrumental in my international career,” he says in an interview from New York, where he heads a nonprofit agency that works for justice and human rights. “I think it’s the kind of issues and the robust discussion we had that really triggered an interest in government and politics and more broadly in international affairs.”
After he graduated from HHS in 1974 and spent a year in Europe, Tolbert enrolled at Furman University, where he graduated magna cum laude. He went on to earn a law degree at UNC at Chapel Hill.
Since 2010 he’s been president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, a nongovernment agency that helps nations build judicial systems, conducts truth-seeking investigations and advocates for victims’ rights.
Thirteen years of work by ICTJ helped forge the historic peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Although voters later turned down the accord in a national referendum, the effort to settle the 50-year-old civil war earned Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
“It’s really quite a political morass in a way,” Tolbert says. After Santos reached the agreement with FARC, a former president emerged to campaign against it in the national vote. Tolbert says his organization “has a strong office there” and continues to work on the accord. “Where we end up I don’t know,” he says.
Except for a short stint in private practice in Charlotte, Tolbert has spent his law career trying to sort out the truth, expose corruption and bring bloody regimes to justice around the globe.
One of his most challenging assignments came in 2005, when the United Nations asked him to fix the war crimes process mired in corruption in Cambodia.
“Tolbert, a tall, garrulous North Carolinian with a world-weary manner, was to bring his experiences in the heart of the world’s worst recent genocidal moments to Cambodia, where a past genocide was being litigated,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joel Brinkley wrote in World Affairs. “The problems he found there were altogether different from the ones he had been dealing with (in Bosnia). The court had been trying to organize itself for several years, but Tolbert says that when he arrived, ‘it had no administrative leadership, particularly with respect to court management, including translation and interpretation and the witness-protection program.’”

Civil rights activist
The son of Joe Tolbert, who worked at General Electric, and Rosemary Tolbert, a homemaker, David grew up on Glengary Drive in Flat Rock Forest with a brother, Richard.
“My elementary school was segregated, so segregation was a very real experience for me,” he told an interviewer when he was named among the Lawdragon 500 Leading Lawyers in America last year. “My paternal ancestors were from South Carolina. They had opposed secession in the Civil War period, had opposed slavery, and had tried to defend the rights of African Americans.”
His grandfather, an attorney in South Carolina, had defended African Americans.
“He was assaulted and crosses were burned in the yard and a number of other acts of violence were taken against him,” Tolbert says. In what he described as “a very Southern, almost Faulknerian type of story,” the grandfather “ended up committing suicide, I think, because of all the pressure. I feel this real identity with him and what the family tried to do during those times.”
That will to fight for victims was also nurtured in Keith Dalbec’s government class at HHS.
“We did some debates about economic inequality,” Tolbert says. “He used to get us to take positions and argue back and forth, which stimulated a lot of interesting conversation. It really opened my mind to things that I had already felt and wasn’t able to articulate.”

Baptized at First Presbyterian Church, Tolbert received his Christian teaching in the church and in a household that he describes as conservative and religious. Later, his parents would join a group that left First Presbyterian (PC-USA) to form Covenant Presbyterian on Kanuga Road, which affiliated with the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America.
His family background and upbringing and stimulating discussions at HHS drove him “very much on the side of victims, whether it’s oppression or war crimes,” he says. “My whole career has ended up being about that.”
Rob Tolleson, Tolbert’s classmate at HHS, recalls the intensity of the classroom exercises.
“In those classes we did these simulations and Dave and I would take it fairly seriously,” Tolleson says.
Dalbec recalled setting up a simulation that had Tolbert’s rich country taking advantage of Tolleson’s poor nation — provoking a lively discussion between two bright seniors with strong political views.
“I don’t doubt it,” Tolleson says of Dalbec’s description. “I can’t imagine that Dave didn’t somehow save the world. It seemed like there was a room set up for it and stuff was laid out on tables and I know were divided up into countries with alliances and resources. It was great fun.”
In that tumultuous time, Tolleson and Tolbert, who was senior class president, were among the politically engaged activists challenging the establishment.
“I think we were trying to get the school to write a letter in support of impeaching Nixon,” Tolleson recalls with a chuckle. “Really giving the principal a headache. We started the human relations council and got into locker privacy issues, once again giving the principal a big headache.”
Dalbec and Tolleson have been surprised that his nomination of Tolbert to the HHS Alumni Association Hall of Fame has been twice passed over, given the ’74 graduate’s achievements in reconciliation, truth-seeking and peace brokering around the globe for three decades.
“It’s laughable” that the Alumni Association would pass over Tolbert, Tolleson says. “The guy’s a personal friend of Kofi Annan. We knew that Dave was a special guy even back then. There’s nobody I’ve been more proud of.”
Dalbec, who went on to serve as HHS principal from 1992 to 1997, thinks Tolbert deserves recognition in his hometown and at his alma mater, which shaped a world view that has improved the world.
“I wouldn’t want to disparage the Hall of Fame committee,” Dalbec says. “He’s one of the most impressive students I’ve had in my career and he seemed to be a solid and thoughtful person when he was a senior in high school. I’m just really excited about what he’s done with his life.”