Eric Cranford was — is — the very definition of a hometown hero. Just ask the residents of Drexel and the rest of Burke County.
They’ll tell you about a boy who dreamed of one day flying in defense of his country. About how he grew up, graduated from NC State and then served with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf, among other regions, before returning stateside to marry his childhood sweetheart. About how the couple moved to Washington, D.C., shortly thereafter so Eric could continue serving his nation in a post at the Pentagon.
They’ll also tell you how they took time from their own grieving on and after Sept. 11, 2001, to offer Eric’s family their condolences when he was confirmed among those lost that day. How, just a few weeks after that day’s terrorist attacks, the Cranfords created a scholarship in Eric’s memory so they could support Burke County students attending his alma mater. How lives still are being changed for the better because of this proud Pack member.
Twenty years after his death, Eric Cranford is still serving.
(NC) State and Country
It might surprise you to learn that this notable NC State alumnus was originally a fan of another university in North Carolina. A light blue university. Eric Cranford may not have always dreamed of joining the Pack, but his determination to succeed at whatever he set his mind to made him a perfect fit when he got to NC State.
“One of my mom’s favorite stories was when Eric was around 3 years old, she was looking for and couldn’t find him,” said Brad Cranford, Eric’s younger brother. “She finally found him outside holding some books standing by the road, and when she asked him what he was doing, he said he was waiting for the school bus. That was his thing. He was a really studious individual.”
Eric’s future wife might have played a role in convincing him to attend NC State. Eric had been close friends with Emily Cozort, now Emily Cranford, ever since their teacher sat them next to each other in the first grade at Drexel Elementary School (chalk up a win for alphabetical order). For Emily, the idea of Eric being at a university even 30 minutes down the road seemed too far away. The same was no doubt true for him, too.
NC State’s Naval ROTC program was also a deciding factor in Eric’s college decision. He had been accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy but turned down the offer in order to join the Pack. That decision led to him graduating in 1992 with two bachelor’s degrees, one in economics and another in political science.
“We just had an amazing time at NC State,” Emily, a 1991 psychology graduate, said. “I can remember studying together, goofing off together, exploring campus together when we were first there and didn’t know our way around. We had several friends that came from our high school, too, and then we branched out and made some more.”
One of the important, if undervalued, roles undertaken by Eric and the Naval ROTC program during his time on campus was to clean up Carter-Finley Stadium after every home football game. That included cleaning the tailgating areas, which Eric’s friends made sure to leave especially dirty as a joke for him to “enjoy.” It didn’t matter; for Eric, no service was too small if it helped others and, ultimately, enabled him to get in the air.
And it certainly did. Thanks to his time in ROTC, Eric was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy after graduating from NC State.
“I got to know Eric well when I was the battalion commander of the ROTC unit in the fall of 1991,” said Alaina Kupec, a fellow 1992 NC State graduate. “Eric was my executive officer (XO). We spent time together the summer of 1991 conducting orientation for the incoming freshman class at the Marine Corps base in Little Creek, Virginia.
“Eric was not one to bring attention to himself,” Alaina added. “He was humble, yet passionate about the Navy and his desire to fly. He held himself and those around him to high standards and was there to help encourage midshipmen to achieve their goals. He was a fantastic XO — someone I could turn to for perspective and opinions — and a great collaborator.”
Eric earned his pilot’s wings and was then stationed in Mayport, Florida, as part of a helicopter squadron flying a Sikorsky SH-60B Seahawk helicopter (the Navy’s anti-submarine version of the U.S. Army’s Blackhawk). He spent three years conducting anti-submarine, counterterrorism and anti-smuggling missions in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Atlantic and Persian Gulf.
“Eric was also one of the first pilots to do a test flight for the Navy to fire a hellfire missile from his specific helicopter in a specific pattern,” Brad said, “so that’s kind of a neat thing.”
Eric and Emily stayed in touch during those long, distant years, writing letters that Emily still treasures but can’t bring herself to read anymore. She credits them with helping the two eventually reunite and get married.
“We wrote letters at least weekly, sometimes more than that, and he would tell me stories about the people that he was on the ship with and what he could tell me about being there,” Emily said. “I can’t believe it’s been, well, 20 years since he passed away, so even more years since he wrote those letters, and I still to this day cannot read them. I just … I have them in a box, and I know they’re there, and that’s a very special part of our friendship.
“It was almost like writing to a diary, sharing our hopes, dreams, fears and day-to-day life with the person we knew would hold them safe forever,” Emily added.
Eric was promoted from ensign to lieutenant junior grade in 1994 and then to lieutenant in 1996. He and Emily later moved to Washington, D.C., so he could continue serving with the Navy while stationed at the Pentagon.
Eric was actively involved with the NC State Alumni Association and the Wolfpack Club, which naturally led to him joining the Capital Area NC State Alumni Club while he and Emily lived in D.C. The last known photo taken of him was with the latter group in the ESPN Zone restaurant during an NC State vs. Indiana football game, won by the Wolfpack, on Sept. 6, 2001.
He was proudly wearing an NC State hat.
Now as Always
Eric forgot his cover (the khaki hat worn with his uniform) and had to come back into the house on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He took the time to climb the stairs while he was there and give Emily a kiss — “just because,” he told her. Then, he headed off to work again.
Sadly, unlike many other stories that have been recounted since then of lost keys, traffic jams and other chance occurrences that prevented people from reaching their office or airplane flight on time that day, Eric arrived at the Pentagon as punctually as ever. He and 124 other military and civilian personnel, as well as 53 passengers and six flight crew members, were killed at 9:37 a.m. when American Airlines Flight 77 was crashed into the west side of the building.
Per his wishes, Eric was buried at Arlington Cemetery (Section 64, Site 4866) with full military honors on Oct. 20, 2001, and he was posthumously promoted by the Navy to lieutenant commander. He was 32 years old.
“Eric and I lost touch after I left Pensacola, Florida, for intelligence officer school,” Alaina said. “I knew he had ultimately gone on to fly helicopters, but that was all I knew. After Sept. 11, I remember looking at the list of those killed in the Pentagon, praying I didn’t know anyone. Sadly, I saw Eric’s name.
“The Navy and the world lost an amazing man on Sept. 11,” Alaina added. “One who selflessly served his nation and his sailors. One who lived and worked with passion.”
Eric’s death wasn’t the end of his legacy of selflessness and generosity, though. Just a few weeks after receiving confirmation of their eldest son’s death from the U.S. Navy, Fred and Betsy Cranford, both longtime educators in Burke County, began discussing with Emily ways to remember Eric for how he lived, not how he died.
The Eric A. Cranford Endowed Scholarship at NC State was a result.
“The scholarship was almost a no-brainer,” Brad said. “It was a way not only for my parents to have his legacy, his memory, honored, but it tied to education stipulations about students from Burke County.
“Eric got a lot out of NC State, so the scholarship makes sense,” he added. “The goal is that the recipients will put into whatever they’re doing what they want to get out of it, as Eric would have been doing today.”
The scholarship, which has been generously supported by Eric’s family, friends and many other individuals and organizations over the years, is intended for Burke County residents studying at NC State who demonstrate high academic merit. Recipients must be in the top 10% of their high school graduating class and be nominated by their high school’s guidance department. After they receive the scholarship, students must maintain full-time enrollment (at least 12 credit hours per semester) and a 3.0 cumulative GPA while pursuing their first degree in an undergraduate program.
The Eric A. Cranford Endowed Scholarship has been awarded 14 times to date, benefiting five students in total, as several of them received it multiple years.
Cranford’s impact has also been felt beyond those recipients.
“I think the scholarship is a wonderful memorial to a veteran and fellow alum who sacrificed everything in the service of our country,” Tyler Andrews, a 2015 graduate of NC State, said. “The scholarship is a great reminder for students to be the best example of the many attributes that Eric held and to take pride in the Wolfpack Spirit.”
Tyler worked for Technician (NC State’s student newspaper) while studying at NC State. He grew up in Burke County as well, and he was even a member of the same Boy Scout troop that Eric had been. When it came time to do his Eagle Scout project, Tyler chose to create something meaningful for the community Eric loved so dearly.
“Eric’s name meant more to me than that of a person who had passed away; he was a hero, and I knew that I needed to show that he was,” Tyler wrote in Technician for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The resulting monument, located in Valdese, North Carolina, features a column representing Eric in the center of a concrete pentagon that commemorates all who were lost in the attack. A bronze plaque atop the column bears a tribute to Eric’s life, as well as a piece of the rubble from the Pentagon.
Fred Cranford passed away in 2007, followed by Betsy in 2016. Today, Eric’s memory lives on in Emily, Brad, the men and women Eric served with in ROTC and the Navy and countless others who were privileged to meet him. And in those who receive his namesake scholarship. And in memorials such as Tyler’s Eagle Scout project.
“Eric was an ambitious person with big dreams,” Emily said. “He wanted to own a successful business, build my dream house, take our children to baseball games, hold public office and go as far as he could with that. I have no doubt he would have been successful at all of it.”
Eric Cranford truly embodied the Think and Do the Extraordinary mentality throughout his life. With the help of his scholarship, others are able to do the same.
Those who would like to donate to the Eric A. Cranford Endowed Scholarship may do so by visiting go.ncsu.edu/eric-cranford-2021.
— This story was originally published on ncsu.edu website on Sept. 8.
Taylor Pardue is a development writer for NC State University.