“Culture’s Guardian”


Who are the guardians of culture in small town USA? I’d have to say people like Hazel Valentine of Nashville, N.C.; that’s who.

Valentine was in her 90s when I interviewed her in the early 1990s. She started our conversation with a few questions for me. Who are your people? Where are they from? Valentine wanted to know. Imagine my surprise and her amusement, when we found that both she and my mother were born in Hamilton, N.C. and that her uncle was also my great-grandfather.

Once my family history was out of the way, I stood on more solid ground with my subject. We got to Nashville, the Nash County seat, and its cultural legacy. Removed as it was from nearby Rocky Mount, Nashville needed cultural opportunities of its own, she said. How the town took on this task was her story.

Valentine had become program chairman of the Nash County Cultural Center in the early 1990s, after she and others had rescued the former Nashville Baptist Church building, which needed repairs and renovation; the group received permission from the county, which owned the building, to “dust off the pews and have a few programs.” Then the building became home to the Nash Arts Center, which Valentine helped found.

Valentine ultimately persevered in all sorts of ways, through heating issues in winter and needed repairs. She enlisted area church choirs to perform at the center’s Christmas Music Festival; four choirs participated. A rousing success. She asked women of nearby Momeyer to come and discuss ornaments they’d made for a community Christmas tree. They came, presented a program about the ornaments, all representing Christian symbols. Plans began to repeat the music festival the next year.

She seemed determined to move the center forward, to develop programs in any way possible, focusing on history through music, art and drama, things that bind communities. The histories presented in the stain-glass windows would make interesting programs for the center, she told me. She always had an eye on history, while she looked ahead to what was next.

The center had brought in talent and had created a following. People knew where the center is and that they could use it.

In 1997, the Nash County Cultural Center became Nash Arts, Inc., housed in the Nash County Cultural Center, better reflecting the programming focus. According to its current website, Nash Arts presents juried and competitive exhibitions, more drama, literature and creative writing, educational programs, in cooperation with local schools and other community agencies.

Valentine, a parole officer at the National Training School for Girls and a school teacher, was Nashville postmistress for 16 years, but her real legacy lies in her later years and her volunteer work, especially at the cultural center.

The Nashville Graphic newspaper once described a vivid collection of artifacts in Valentine’s house thus: “Mementoes of yesterday and plans for tomorrow.” That was Valentine’s approach to preserving history. Nash County owes her a lot.


“The Store”

CountryStore_Sepia.jpgWhen my Uncle Johnny took my hand for the two-block walk to the store in Pinetops, N.C., I was four or five then and didn’t fully appreciate that, at that time — 2 p.m. — most people were at work, or at least at school. There is a picture somewhere of me, my entire hand holding tight to one of his index fingers.

I went with the promise of a cold drink. My uncle, actually my great-uncle, had given up farming two miles from town, enlisting tenants to make the crops. Thus he could more fully enjoy those times spent in the store. He was a man of leisure, so we took our time going and coming.

Once there, we conducted our business — my drink with some salted peanuts and Uncle Johnny got his drink. Then he pulled up a chair and leaped headlong into some conversation. I remember the six or eight men all trying to get a word in. I was allowed to mill around, but to stay close by. Uncle Johnny kept an eye on me and kept up his end of the conversation. I didn’t follow much; I was busy, eyeballing the candy display behind a class showcase. The entire excursion was exciting, new. I remember asking him more than once about going back there. (Graphic by Rick Melvin)

For me still, memories of the general store harken as much to what is said there as what is done there. It had groceries, hardware goods and whatever small town residents or area farmers needed. Decades later, I visited countless stores as a reporter in eastern North Carolina, embarking on a feature page about various communities. I chose at random, from 30 to 40 communities. I set my sights on the crossroads community, Salem in Nash County.

To find sources of information about social life, economy etc. there, I stopped at a general store in the crossroads community, got a drink, introduced myself and asked a question about the farming community. An hour and a half later, I had one story and sources for two others.

In another feature page about Momeyer, I landed in The Bass Brothers Grocery; this general store 2.0 had evolved over time, hardly resembling the 1905 original. That store was described as having two aisles bordered by counters with stock reaching to the ceiling. In 1965 that Bass store was replaced and now the store is four times more spacious than the original.

I got a feel for that second store. Customers told me the spacious store carried everything people needed, to the point of people invoking the oft-used phrase, “if you can’t find it, go to Bass Brothers.” The merchandise offered were a “given,” wide-ranging and expected. But what else made it special? Friendliness. Excellent service. The staff knew lots about what they sold.

But I particularly enjoyed the banter, whether it was across the store in raised voices or in a small nook where the more serious conversations were held. There you got plenty of what people are thinking: politics and current news. When I visited, “class” — what they call the discussions — was in session and the topic for that day, a recent plane crash in a nearby pasture.

Although bigger and more modern, the store seemed to have all the same warmth, the sense of community found in those stores with their obligatory pot-bellied stoves. If ever in the region, I look for a reason to detour by Bass Brothers. “Course, I’ll have to think of something for “class.”

“Hands In”


The 1990‘s headline “Repair team provides valuable service” was nothing out of the ordinary, except that the team members were retired men answering calls for needed repairs or home maintenance. (graphic illustration by Rick Melvin)

Two men in Nashville, N.C. had enlisted 25 to 30 others and divided them into four teams based on skills. They conducted a fundraiser to bankroll their projects and buy supplies. There is no charge for their work. Most were newly retired. A retired military officer. A career plumber. Numerous others.

The common thread: They had time and skills. Tasks ranged from simply changing a light bulb to constructing a wheelchair-accessible ramp, enabling a resident to return home after surgery and rehabilitation. Advertising was by word of mouth. The venture was so successful that other communities sought guidance in starting their own such teams.

I wrote a feel-good story of a senior asking for and getting needed help. I didn’t fully appreciate the workers themselves beyond the fact that they’d helped others and derived good feelings for their efforts.

Now I find myself in the age range of those men then; I appreciate now their willingness to give, especially when they might stand in a certain kind of limbo: between their work life and retirement. As I grapple with questions of “What next?” I assume those men were doing the same thing then.

Identifying retirement at a specific point has created a kind of forced inactivity. What to do? Those men in Nashville, N.C. “kept their hands in,” in a less structured way, with fewer hours I assume were mostly stress-free.

In the run-up to my own retirement, I remember asking a family member about her recently retired husband. She said, “Oh, he’s busy, figuring out retirement.” Figuring out retirement has been a process for me, too. I inched into it earlier than some people, helping a family member a few hours a day and using the balance of the day with my own writing projects.

Late last year, my great niece suggested she become my running instructor. So out of the blue, I hired her as trainer for a 10-mile race in late April. I had no physical issues to prevent my trying; Certainly, I had the time. I did have mental reservations as did many others. Refrains of “You are too old” or you can’t do that” accompanied my training, which began in the fall.

Run the hills, my doctor advised me. He’d run the race and knew the course. I gave it a go, trained carefully. I got into condition and, thanks to my instructor’s you-can-do-it approach, I began running the hills in Chapel Hill, including the dreaded one near the actual end of the race. I began to actually think I could navigate the 10 miles. I finished the race, which was my goal.

Retirement has no actual rules; everyone navigates the unknowns of it somewhat alone; for me, “keeping a hand in” by writing, but remaining amenable to changes in plans, whether that means travel, running uphill, taking a risk or what is key. And accepting the idea that what I do retirement is as much a mental exercise as anything else.

“The Man and the Rock”

DeansPic_Sepia.jpgThe picture of Ronald Deans walking on Flat Rock, a massive granite slab near Red Oak in Nash County, N.C., recalled for me the interview and published story more than 27 years ago. A remarkable piece of granite, 150 feet long and 48 feet at its widest, it has a gathering place for friends and the Deans family on State Road 1524.

The Deans family history interconnects with the rock next to Flat Rock Branch. The original story demanded an interview with a family member, but Randolph Deans (see photo), the family patriarch, was traveling when I first interviewed Ronald in March of 1990.

Ronald Deans, a son of Randolph Deans and Mollie Deans, told me the story of the rock and how his father had opened the six-acre tract as a retreat in the early 1970s, hosting Christmas parties, church picnics, Boy Scout campfires. You name it. Recreational vehicle enthusiasts (RV’ers) rallied there.

The senior Deans had sold RV’s, and son Ronald continued that practice. “And Flat Rock became a haven for Winnebagos and other smaller campers and trailers,” Ronald Deans said. “Those RV folks were almost like family.”

Thanks to Google, I recently learned from Mollie Deans’ obituary that she’d been an avid traveler, touring 49 states and 20 countries in RV’s. Her husband Randolph’s obituary said about the same thing. I figured the rock had served as a stepping off point for adventures, for campers, RV’ers in organized caravans and even for the Deans themselves.

I called Ronald Deans recently for an update about the landmark; he told me that the trailer hookups, installed so long ago by his father, are gone, but family members still frequent the place. When we first spoke, he said, his parents had already retired and were on an RV trip in Florida.

His father had lived on the family’s tobacco farm since he was a child; he hadn’t really wanted to be a farmer. Tenants typically farmed tobacco on the farm. After the Depression, Randolph Deans got into sales, cars, RVs mostly. “He was a true salesman, a Willie Loman,” Ronald Deans said.

The Deans, beginning with Randolph, had made the Flat Rock their own, creating a swimming hole in the branch. They relocated a 16-foot-square tobacco barn to the rock face to go with another rustic building a local club built there. Turned out the rock surface was perfect for Sunday School groups, who could build fires without setting the woods afire. “It was a natural gathering place,” Ronald Deans said.

For the first story, I had started with the rock’s tranquil setting: baby goats, I remember, ambled over the rock to the stream, grazing or drinking water. That story evolved through an appreciation of Randolph’s enterprises. For this piece, I asked Ronald what about Flat Rock had first beckoned his father.

“It had to do with his independence,” he told me. “Dad’s Grandmother Arrington, who he called Mamma and virtually raised him, lived with the family when he was a little boy.

“Often when he’d get into trouble with his father, to ease potentially volatile situations, she’d say to young Randolph, ‘Let’s go to Flat Rock and catch some branch fish.’ He had a strong feeling about that place.” From an oral history recorded in 1993, Randolph Deans himself added, “When I go to Flat Rock, I feel that Mammy is there with me.”

Flat Rock had been a kind of sanctuary for the young Randolph in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Decades later, family members, while scattered, return to Flat Rock. Some of Ronald’s family camp there. It was also the site of a family wedding in September of 2015. Descendants of the senior Deans walk the rock to the stream, and, no doubt, see some of those branch fish, like Randolph Deans did so many times before.

At the rock, he was home.

“Political Courage”

In 1990, I wrote an opinion column praising Rep. Tim Valentine, a Democrat from the Second Congressional District of North Carolina. We were a regional N.C. paper and, while in his district, the coverage fell to reporters from our newspaper chain. We seldom covered the congressman, unless the subject warranted the attention. This one did.

Valentine had changed his mind and reversed himself, voting against a constitutional amendment prohibiting the desecration of the American flag. That action deserved a tip of the hat. The amendment was a bad idea, not because flag burning is bad; it is. Given the country’s insistence on protecting rights found in the Bill of Rights, flag burners, gulp, have their rights, too. Why then the furor to change the Constitution over a few recorded instances of flag burning or desecration?

For this post, I researched the backstory, only part of which I knew at the time of the first column.

Initially, Valentine, a six-term congressman, had joined more than 150 others in co-sponsoring the measure. Political reasons had first spurred him to be a co-sponsor of the amendment. He had chosen that route, thinking it would be too much trouble to explain his opposition to the amendment to his constituents.

But before the vote, he joined several conservative Democrats in defeating the amendment. In a dramatic statement to his colleagues, Valentine asked that his name be removed from the measure. ”Over the rhetoric of the last few days, I have finally heard the voice of my own conscience,” he said.

Later, in an interview with a colleague of mine, he said, “… I began to think about how the Bill of Rights has survived for 200 years. We had never watered down the right of dissent, and I didn’t want to be a part of that. I did not want it to be said that, for political reasons, I had participated in the desecration of the Bill of Rights….”

Rhetoric and politics played their roles in the discussion. Some Republicans had stressed that opponents were in a minority, and that their votes could be turned into a political weapon against them in the next election. Valentine’s patriotism was challenged. Proponents, led by President H.W. Bush, had claimed the amendment was the only way to protect the flag.

Republicans had sought a quick vote in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision that struck down an eight-month-old Federal law making it illegal to deface or destroy a flag. The previous year, the Supreme Court had also struck down a Texas statute making it a crime to desecrate the flag. This had prompted Congress to enact a federal law making it illegal to deface or destroy a flag.

Valentine’s act was one of political courage, not often been seen in Washington, at that time or since.

“Rev. Russell Fleming”


Growing up in Rocky Mount, I found Sunday church services more tedious than engaging, something to endure. The first church I attended was led by a slow-talking, long-winded older man. During one particular service, for entertainment, Tommy, an older brother, pretended — I thought — to swallow a small bar magnet, only to retrieve it by holding another magnet to his mouth; he added a slight cough and produced the lost magnet. I stifled laughter then, and we avoided trouble. At another service, Tommy timed the pastoral prayer at 19 minutes. That was the last of many straws. Our family changed churches.

The West Haven Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount was different. The minister, Rev. Russell B. Fleming, must have quickly detected some of Tommy’s restlessness, enlisting him for a number of chores before Sunday worship. Tommy missed Sunday School, which was OK by him.

Fleming was a soft-spoken man with close-cropped hair. You couldn’t help but notice he’d lost four fingers of one hand, severed at the joint midway from the knuckles to the fingertips. I was always curious about that. Early in every worship service, he presented a junior sermon, with young children gathered around him at the front of the sanctuary. There he told about a fictional congregation of animals led by Pastor Penguin. Those children sat spellbound, eyes wide open as he spun a tale in a conversational tone, with no microphone; he seemed to speak to each one in turn.

My father became a church usher, my mother joined a women’s circle, and my other brother, Joey, and I attended Vacation Bible School. One fateful summer day, another student in Bible School borrowed my Bible, but when he returned it, he called my name and then tossed it 10 feet or so to me. I caught it. Maybe it was the ornate, mahogany-colored leather binding but for some reason, I took offense at his tossing the Bible. We started fighting and soon we were dispatched to Rev. Fleming’s office.

“I’m going out of town for a few days, and I would hate to know you two are back here fighting, in Vacation Bible School, of all places,” he said. “Let’s keep this episode among ourselves.” We nodded and said, “Yes, sir.” He shook his head, disappointed.

By the late 1950s, our family relocated to Chapel Hill, and Rev. Fleming took a pastorate in Raleigh; we lost contact with him, but when my brother died in Vietnam in 1968, my father enlisted Fleming to help conduct the funeral. At a time of immeasurable sadness, it was wonderful to hear his reassuring, comforting voice. Even when words seemed almost meaningless, Fleming had a special way, speaking with a certain ease, whether in church and in our home.

Through the ensuing years, I’ve come to realize how ministers pour so much of themselves into countless hours of counsel in the church office, visitations of all kinds, innumerable meetings to bring some program into being or a fundraiser to fruition.

For this post, I learned Rev. Fleming helped to spearhead building and growth of that Rocky Mount church, culminating in a new sanctuary in the early 1950s. In 1958, he moved to Raleigh and the Western Blvd. Presbyterian Church, pretty much undertaking the same thing there. Fleming later was pastor of the Galatia Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, N.C. He served as State Chaplain for the N.C. State Legislature during the 1960’s.

Single when he got to his Raleigh church, Fleming married a divorced woman with children. Certainly, a social taboo then. The couple soon won over congregation members.

“A Doctor in the Family”


In the last decade, I’ve embarked on a long-held wish: to research and write a book. The book, fiction, steps back into the 1920s, the time of my grandparents and when my own parents were children.

One storyline deals with medicine of that time, I think, because of my maternal grandfather, Edgar Miller Long. He was a doctor, a general practitioner, as was his father, Benjamin L.Long. For me, their stories were shrouded in secrecy somehow, due in part to pain and loss.

Little was said about him in the family. As I got older and more curious, I began to piece strands of their history together. Once when my aunt, who was much older than my mother, visited us, she recalled details about their father, things my mother had never heard. I wondered how could that be.

“He had a reputation as a great diagnostician,” she said. A Martin County publication, I later learned, detailed family lineages, including those of the Longs and their contributions to the people of Hamilton, N.C. and to Martin County. They were only town doctors during the first two decades of the 20th century. The account restated the ‘great diagnostician’ label in referring to my grandfather. Comforting and still perplexing somehow. I wanted to know more.

I visited Martin County, where my mother lived during her first few years, once with her and other times alone. I reviewed county records. I hoped to find a county elder who had a first-person account. Courtesy of the Martin County Historical Society, I met a few older residents and I interviewed two men who had been treated as young men by my grandfather. One had contracted polio, the other had been injured in a fall.

When I learned the doctors had both attended medical school in Baltimore, Md., I inquired at the registrar’s office and found a wonderful source of information about medical school training of the 19th and early 20th centuries. A staff member listed the courses my grandfather would have taken there more than a hundred years ago.

Memoirs of some country doctors agreed with my findings about Depression-era doctors’ getting payment by eggs, ham, chicken or other farm product. I gleaned that medical treatment then relied on relatively few medicines; the contents of the black doctor’s bag were fairly light, with comparatively few options. Once I’d developed character and plot, I enlisted a neighbor of ours, a retired professor of pediatric medicine, to be my window into medical conditions and treatments of the period.

To create a town of the times, I delved into histories of a handful of small towns, ones that might approximate the one I’d heard about from my mother. I had to take a crash course in the geographic, economic and social landscape of the day. Martin County’s history was punctuated by the Roanoke River, and river transport was crucial to the economic survival in the late 1800s before the coming of the railroad. For economic viability, the existence of pine forests led to the manufacture of turpentine, tar and pitch (“naval stores”), a key livelihood just as farmland enabled the cultivation of major crops like tobacco and cotton in the Jim Crow South.

Sooner or later, I had to stop researching, which many journalists — myself included — have trouble doing. In 2015, I wrote a first draft, enlisted a well-published novelist as my editor. Now to find a publisher for the book. I know I need an agent. To enlist an agent, I found I’d have to show I have a readership or a platform; thus, in 2016, I detoured a bit and began writing the blog. I hope an agent will promote the book, a family saga, to a publishing house. I am in the second year of the blog; later this year I’ll continue manuscript revisions. Stay tuned.