Published in Summer 2015 | The circumstances of my journey to the Methodist Orphanage in Raleigh are not unlike those of many children who grew up there.
My father died a sudden and tragic death in May 1941, leaving behind a 23-year-old widow with three children. At 2½, I was the middle child with a 6-year-old sister, Ruth, and a 2-week-old brother, James.
Our mother was devastated by our father’s death. With a 4th-grade education, no income and no experience other than the work required of a child growing up on a tenant farm, she was unable to face the bleakness of her circumstances. She abandoned her children. Our sister was doing her best to care for us when we were discovered alone, and family stepped in to take us. Ruth went to live with an aunt, while James and I went to live with our maternal grandparents.
My grandmother soon became the love of my young life, and I never fully understood why I had to leave her until I requested my records at age 76 from Methodist Home for Children. I learned for the first time that my grandparents were too old and too poor to keep us. In November 1943, the Elm City Methodist Church filed an application for our admission to the Methodist Orphanage. Ruth entered in December, but with no vacant beds for boys, I was deferred until Valentine’s Day, 1945. James arrived four months later.
My first memory of my mother is the day I was delivered to the orphanage. I remember that she showed up out of the blue, and we rode to Raleigh in the backseat of someone’s car. I don’t know who the car belonged to or who was driving it. We stopped in front of the infirmary and my mother asked me to get out of the car. I recall that the only thing she said was for me to be a good boy. I stood in front of the infirmary crying my heart out as I saw them drive away.
With the love and patience of Miss Mary, my 1st- and 2nd-grade teacher, I learned to live in the orphanage, and my 10 years there influenced the rest of my life. I was taught that there is right and wrong and good and evil in the world, and that good trumps evil, right trumps wrong, work trumps laziness and love will win out if you give it a chance.
At the age of 18, my life was turned over to me. I understood perfectly that the rest of my days would be determined by the choices I made. My first big decision was to join the Army. Being in the Army was a lot like the early years at the orphanage. I slept in a small bed, in a very large room with 29 other boys. I had a wooden box for my worldly belongings. I was told when to go to bed, when to get up, when to go to meals in a very large dining room with 300 people. The most glaring difference was that a sergeant replaced “the bell,” which regulated our lives at the orphanage, telling us what to do and when to do it.
My second major choice was to get a college degree. With one year remaining in the Army and a salary of $160 per month, I saved enough money to cover my first year at Atlantic Christian College. I graduated in three years by going to school year-round. I later attended N.C. State studying archives administration and later still attended UNC-Chapel Hill studying public administration.
Over the years, I worked as an archivist for the N.C. Department of Archives and History, as an administrator/criminal justice planner for seven mountain counties and 21 years as a county manager.
Along the way, I met the lovely Annis Ward of Watauga County. Surely the best decision I ever made was to ask Annis to marry me. She has been most successful in her own right: a graduate of Atlantic Christian College with a Master of English at East Carolina University, an English instructor at Atlantic Christian, coordinator of English as a Second Language for the N.C. Community College System and author of 22 published books.
We have one daughter, Michelle, two sons, Anthony and Christopher, and four grandchildren. We retired in 1993, purchased a 25-acre mountain ridge farm just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Alleghany County, and we spend every day working at the things we love most: gardening, riding trails on our horses, woodworking (for me) and writing (for Annis).
I have had a good, happy and successful life. I’ve had many good friends. The friends who remained constant and enduring are those children I met at the orphanage when a friend was the most important thing in my life.