Jim Holshouser, who was North Carolina’s first Republican governor of the 20th century, died June 17 at a hospital in Pinehurst, N.C. He was 78.

The family announced the death, but it did not disclose the cause. He had been active in public life until a few weeks ago, serving as an emeritus member on the University of North Carolina Board of Governors and working at a law firm.

Mr. Holshouser, a former state legislator, became North Carolina’s youngest governor at 38, when he was swept into office by President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 electoral landslide. He defeated Democratic candidate Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, father of former White House chief of staff and former UNC system president Erskine Bowles.

Although his gubernatorial goals were far-reaching, Mr. Holshouser struggled during his four years against overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. After the 1974 elections that followed Nixon’s resignation, Republicans held just 10 of the 170 legislative seats.

Consequently, he never presented an ambitious program to the legislature and the achievements of his administration were modest. He is remembered for establishing rural health clinics, laying the plan for a criminal justice information system and reorganizing state government. He spoke out against the death penalty for religious reasons.

Gov. Jim Holshouser, third from right, laughs with vice presidential candidate Sen. Robert Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, in 1976. (AP Photo/File)

One success, he once said, was a simple demonstration: “North Carolina could operate for four years with a Republican governor without the world coming to an end and without causing a major political crisis or anything like that.”

“I don’t think we were able to do as much as a Democratic governor in terms of just sheer clout on the basis of the position of the office. We had to do a little suave and charm on top of that,” Mr. Holshouser said. He was the first GOP governor elected in the state since 1896.

James Eubert Holshouser Jr. was born Oct. 8, 1934, in Boone, N.C. He was a graduate of Davidson College and UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school. He served in the legislature in 1963-67 and 1969-71. He became state chairman of the Republican Party in 1966 and continued to lead the GOP until 1972.

After leaving office, he teamed up with Democratic former governor Terry Sanford to form a Raleigh law and government relations firm. Mr. Holshouser spent years on kidney dialysis before receiving a kidney transplant in 1986.

His wife, the former Patricia Hollingsworth, died in 2006. Survivors include a daughter.

— Associated Press