Bontanicus

Bontanicus

The Natural World

In Fisher Park, a seed grows, a finch sings

By Ross Howell Jr.

Driving east on U.S. Route 421 near Liberty, I heard the North Carolina public radio announcement that my neighbor, Rob Brown, had just won the WFDD photo of the week.

I was on a sad trip. I was going to see Becky, my mother-in-law, who was in hospice care at her home in Lillington.

My wife, Mary Leigh, was already with her mom. Over the summer, we’d made many trips together — first to the facility where Becky received regularly-scheduled infusions; later, to a rehabilitation facility in Cary after she had broken a hip; and, more recently, to her bedside.

We were near the end.

Still, I smiled when I heard the radio announcement about Rob.

He lives across the street from us in Fisher Park with his wife, Lane. He’s a professional photographer. I’ve interviewed him for the pages of this magazine — a story in his own words about how the COVID pandemic had brought him back to doing the thing he’s loved since he was a kid: taking photos.

I knew quite a bit about Rob’s prize-winning picture.

It started with a sunflower seed a bird had sown in front of our house. I’d noticed the lone volunteer in the spring, sprouting about six inches from the edge of a flower bed.

If I had just taken the time to move the sprout from the edge farther into the bed, maybe I could’ve forestalled its demise.

But I didn’t. All I did was keep it well mulched.

The sunflower grew like Jack’s beanstalk.

On July 1, Mary Leigh took a snapshot of me with the volunteer. The sunflower stood higher than the gutters of the house, some 12 feet tall, with at least a dozen flower heads sprouting midway on the stalk all the way to the very top. Its broad-leafed foliage was profuse.

Neighbors emailed, thanking me for growing such a beautiful specimen. Passersby voiced their admiration. I protested that I had little, or nothing, to do with its success — that it was truly a self-made sunflower.

I thought about staking it because of its size and weight — but didn’t.

At least I thought to ask Rob to photograph the extraordinary plant when its bright yellow flowers opened.

Which he did, one hot morning while Mary Leigh and I were visiting Becky.

When we returned near dusk, twigs and leaves scattered on the street foretold what we would find. A thunderstorm had taken the sunflower down.

The leaves hadn’t yet wilted, so I hoisted up the stalk and tried to brace it with stakes. But to no avail. The roots were broken, so the stalk teetered and spun with the slightest breeze.

As the light faded, neighbors murmured encouragement and went inside. Warm light spilled from their windows into the dusk.

Near dark, I gave up, too.

We’re all under a death sentence, when you think about it. But it doesn’t pay to think about it too much.

When I was growing up in the mountains of Virginia, I often sought refuge in the natural world. There was conflict in my household, but outside, I found solace. Quietude. Beauty. Hope. And a myriad of interesting things.

The spring wildflowers I discovered in the woodlands were treasures. In school, I was careful to learn their names and characteristics. Likewise for bugs and spiders, and all number of slimy or slithering creatures.

It seemed to me that among the wildflowers and critters, death was a natural part of life. The large and constant pattern of their lives was indifferent to sorrow and death.

Early the next morning after the thunderstorm, I clipped a few of the wilted sunflowers. I arranged a place for them to dry out, planning to give seeds to the neighbors at Christmas and to plant some myself come spring — in the middle of a flower bed, so the roots could better anchor the stalks this time.

Then Rob’s photo arrived in my email inbox.

Perfection.

A goldfinch perched on a bower of gold singing to a blue sky. Indifferent to the coming storm. Captured by my neighbor’s skill, as a favor to me.

Just days later, Mary Leigh’s mom left us.

It was grim to watch her go, of course — to see how determined her body was to cling to the spirit that was leaving it.

But I’m sure Becky’s spirit found quietude and beauty. And her memory is our hope.

This spring, finches have returned and sunflowers will bloom — indifferent to destiny, indifferent even to their own beauty.

And that is the natural world.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a contributor to O.Henry magazine. Currently, he’s reading Margaret Renkl’s new book, The Comfort of Crows.

Peace and Purpose

Peace and Purpose

A spirited little girl’s art offers solace — and hope

By Ross Howell Jr.  

Photographs by Amy Freeman

The home that Austin and Shelby Tew built sits outside Stokesdale at the end of a long gravel drive surrounded by 10 acres of hardwoods. It’s unique and its story is bittersweet — even heart-breaking.

And I didn’t arrive at the house in the way you’d expect.

I began the journey at the MM Interior Design Group offices on State Street in Greensboro, where I was greeted by Mark Mitchell, business administration manager. Mark walks me into the design area. Marta Mitchell, founder, president and partner of the firm, is looking at fabric samples and stops to greet me.

Marta’s firm recently reached out to the magazine about the Tew house, a project she’s been working on for some three years. She’s a stylish woman with a wonderfully calm voice and an accent I don’t recognize.

When I ask her about it, Marta tells me her family was from the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. She grew up in the outskirts of São Paulo.

“I still have an accent, but I’ve been in Greensboro for about 40 years,” Marta says, smiling. She moved here with her husband, Peter, who’s now the marketing manager of the firm.

“My husband came for graduate school and was later offered a job, so Greensboro became home,” she adds. “Our two sons were born here.” It was the younger of the two, Mark, who met me at the door.

Marta explains that she had been trained as an interior designer — “we still called it ‘interior decorator’ back when I was in school,” she adds — and started the business in 1989, working alone.

“Now, we work in teams of three designers on every project,” Marta says. Her most senior staff are design directors — there are three of them, including her. They manage the work of lead interior designers, who serve as the main client contacts and bear overall responsibility for individual projects. The lead interior designers work in tandem with assigned interior designers on individual projects day-to-day.

“There are 14 of us now,” Marta says. “There aren’t many interior design firms this size.”

Typically, her firm is hired by a client before construction even begins. Marta guides me over to the design pod where Angela Austin — one of the company’s lead interior designers — has the computer-assisted design model of a client’s waterfront house up on her computer screen.

She shows me the floor plan for an attached guest house.

“Right now, I’m working on some selections for cabinetry,” Angela says. With a keystroke here and mouse click there, she shows me a variety of cabinet styles in place, some stained, some painted, along with variations on ceramic tile and its placement — as well as a floor plan with chairs and sofas.

“All of this was done before the contractor even broke ground,” Marta says.

In addition to using 3D models, renderings and video walkthroughs, Marta’s design group takes visualization to the next level — producing virtual reality tours.

Marta guides me to a large conference room.

Awaiting us are Shannon Harvey, the lead interior designer for the Tew house, and Chloe Fields, interior designer for the project. Shannon is an experienced interior designer born in Mississippi, who lived for a time in Germany. Chloe is a recent UNCG graduate with a degree in interior architecture. Marta is the team’s design director.

I sit down in a swivel chair.

“Here, this goes over your head,” Shannon says, handing me the VR headset.

And boom.

There I am, inside the Tew house.

“You can look up and you can look down and you can turn around in your chair to see more,” Marta says. She explains how the VR program brings daylight in, so what I’m seeing is more realistic than the 3D computer models.

I look up at wooden rafters and industrial-sized heating and cooling ducts hanging from the ceiling. I look straight ahead toward an enormous kitchen island in a long great room. Beyond the island is a bank of windows and doors looking out into woods.

“You can turn around in your chair to see more,” Marta says.

Now I’m looking at the entry wall of the house. There’s a spiral metal staircase leading up to a loft.

“The Tew project was really interesting,” Marta says, as I continue looking around, “because the house was already built when Austin came to us.”

Since he had work experience in construction, Austin personally completed or oversaw the building of the house, from pouring concrete to framing.

“It was empty, just walls,” Marta adds. “Then Shannon started working on it.”

Guests were always the first consideration, Shannon tells me, not the comfort of the Tews themselves. They also stressed that they were on a limited budget, so Shannon provided images of her furniture recommendations to Shelby, who searched for similar, less expensive pieces, while Austin implemented Shannon’s painting or finishing ideas himself.

“He’s so handy,” Chloe says. “He’s built dressers, beds . . . that concrete countertop you see.”

And there was another essential consideration — their young daughters, Braylen and Cora.

Shannon tells me to swivel clockwise in the chair.

“There,” she says. “The big piece of art on the wall. That’s Cora’s.” It’s a whimsical, colorful painting of hearts set among strokes of pure, bright colors with a single word: LOVE.

As we continue my tour, Marta explains some of the design elements that Shannon introduced — painting sections of the enormous wall with contrasting colors to break up the space and placing big pieces of furniture strategically for the same purpose.

When I’m set to remove the VR headset, Shannon gives me a hand.

“The Tews started building this home when Cora’s cancer was in remission,” she says. “But the cancer came back.”

Now, fast-forward with me from virtual to real — the heart-breaking part of the story — as my car tires crunch along the gravel driveway in Stokesdale.

Austin Tew greets me at the door and invites me in. He’s accompanied by a romping, blue-and-white pit bull rescue named Dolly. She brings me a couple toys to inspect, decides I’m not as interesting as I first seemed and returns to her bed.

I stand there, looking around the great room. It’s big, feeling even larger than the space I saw in the VR headset. If it weren’t furnished, you could drive a semi-truck and trailer inside and park. The concrete floor is polished. The windows are metal-framed. The house exterior is clad with white aluminum siding.

Turns out, Austin is the owner of Key Automotive Group in Stokesdale, so it makes sense.

“You see, I’m pretty industrial,” he says, smiling. “So we really had to find a designer who could think outside the box.”

“Marta was the only one who got it,” Austin adds. And got it, Marta’s team did. The house feels like a home.

Shelby emerges from her office at the back of the house. She’s a CPA with her own practice. Since it’s tax season during my visit, she’s in need of a well-deserved break and joins us.

The first room we step into is Braylen’s bedroom. She’s the Tews’ older daughter. The couple herd me through the bedroom quickly, since it looks just as you’d expect from a 10-year-old in a hurry to get to basketball practice on time.

We pass by a Jack-and-Jill bathroom to another bedroom.

“This is Cora’s room,” Austin says quietly.

Feeling awkward, I turn my eyes to a corner, where a rainbow is painted on the wall.

“Cora had picked out a rainbow and I promised her she would have one,” Shelby says.

“Marta found a pretty design online,” Shelby continues. “We got in touch with a mural artist named Lacey Crime, who painted this for us.” The artist also painted a lovely frame of flowers around the mirror in Cora’s end of the Jack-and-Jill.

“She never saw the rainbow or the flowers,” Shelby says quietly. She directs my attention to the ceiling of Cora’s bedroom. It’s covered in clouds.

“Marta picked out that wallpaper,” she says.

Austin clears his throat and we continue our tour.

As we walk, they tell me their story.

The Tews were living in Madison, just over the Virginia state line. They had gone out for dinner and Cora had fallen at the restaurant, hurting her leg. The Tews felt a small lump and thought it was from the fall, but the toddler cried through the night.

Shelby decided the next morning to take Cora to see her pediatrician. Later, she called Austin from Brenner’s Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem and said an oncologist was going to run some tests. The results showed Cora had cancer.

Wanting a second opinion, Shelby dove into research and found that one of the leading treatment facilities in the country specializing in pediatric cancer was the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

There, on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, 2019, Cora was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a highly aggressive form of pediatric cancer. She was 2 years old.

Between February and June, the Tews made frequent trips to Cincinnati. In mid-June, the doctors scheduled surgery for Cora.

“So we packed our stuff and hauled it up there,” Austin says. It would be an extended stay.

Surgery was followed by 23 days of radiation and chemotherapy.

Cora’s lab tests looked good. Doctors removed her intravenous port. She was clear of cancer.

The family returned to North Carolina and broke ground for construction of a new home on the Stokesdale land they had purchased before Cora’s diagnosis.

Then, on Cora’s second, 3-month checkup back in Cincinnati, scans revealed her cancer had returned.

“We couldn’t believe this was happening,” Austin says.

Shelby tells me that, during the grueling, 12-hour days of treatment at the hospital, she and Austin noticed how much Cora enjoyed coloring or drawing pictures to take her mind off the beeping machines and busy nurses — how working on the art seemed to give her strength. And they found that big sister Braylen — just two years older than Cora — would use painting to let her emotions out.

Despite their situation, the Tews understood they were among the fortunate, because they were self-employed.

“You’d see some kid all alone in the hospital during the day because their parents couldn’t be there,” Austin says. “They had to work to keep their jobs.”

And, as happened with the Tews, families would find insurance companies denying payment for life-saving treatments.

“You see these situations, and it’s devastating,” Austin says. “You want to find a way to help.”

They decided they would use their individual skills to create a business — Faith and Healing Arts — that helps other families struggling financially with childhood cancer.

Building on their love for their own children’s art, they’ve found suppliers who reproduce their own and other children’s art in large sizes on high-quality art paper or canvas. Austin builds the frames and mounts the art.

Already, Faith and Healing Arts has retailers selling the work of children from some 25 families. The art can also be purchased on the Faith and Healing Arts website. All proceeds from sales go to participating families.

For two years, Cora received chemotherapy at Brenner’s Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem, with 3-month scans at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

All the while, she played with her sister as her father poured concrete and framed the walls of her new house.

“But it was like she knew she wasn’t going to be around,” Austin says. “She never really staked a claim.”

Cora passed away in 2021. She was 5 years old.

We pause by a group of photographs on a wall so I can have a look.

“There’s my little mini-me,” Shelby whispers. “My little Cora Grace.”

They take me to the back corner of the house and I have a peek at Shelby’s office looking out on the woods. When she sees the client messages queued up in her inbox, she realizes she’d better get back to work. I thank her for her time and we say goodbye.

In the great room, Austin shows me a grouping of Cora and Braylen’s art. Then we go through a door into the beautiful private suite they’ve built and furnished, where families going through cancer treatment can stay when needed.

Austin leads me back to the kitchen area, where along the wall there’s a commercial-sized refrigerator, lots of cabinets and a hidden, walk-in pantry. A stove and sink are located in the expansive, concrete-slab kitchen island.

He pats the slab.

“There’s a ton of concrete here,” Austin says. “And a steel bar to hold it up.”

He tells me about the concrete safe room in the house, built strong enough to withstand a tornado, where Braylen and Cora used to play just after the concrete had been poured and the framing was going up.

Austin tells me about the radiant heat system in the concrete floors, proudly showing me the utility room he designed and built — each duct, fan and pipe gleamingly clean, easily accessible for maintenance.

“All the fan motors are in here,” he says. “You turn on a bathroom fan when you’re in the guest suite, you don’t hear a thing.”

It’s a great house, a one-of-a-kind house. It’s a house blessed with peace and purpose.

Recently Austin celebrated his 40th birthday.

“We had our daughter’s basketball team’s kids and parents here, we threw corn hole in the living room, we did it all,” he says, reflecting for a moment.

“You know, an empty house sucks,” Austin says. “What matters now is to live life.”  OH

For more information on the Tews’ art program to help the families of children who have cancer, visit www.faithandhealingarts.com.

Ross Howell Jr. is a contributing writer.

Wild and Wonderful

Wild and Wonderful

Pinehurst No. 2 prepares to test the best

By Lee Pace

Feature Photo: 2014 U.S. Open Photograph by Joann Dost

A December day in 1935. A man approaches the house at 120 Midland Road in Pinehurst, notices the Scottish-style stonework and arches of Dornoch Cottage, and rings the bell.

Donald Ross opens the door and greets A.W. Tillinghast.

What a meeting of the minds of the early days of golf course architecture.

Ross, 63, the son of a Scottish stonemason, apprentice in his 20s to legendary pro Old Tom Morris at St Andrews, an immigrant to the United States who set up shop in Pinehurst in 1900 and designed notable courses across the eastern United States — from Seminole Golf Club in Florida to Inverness Club in Ohio to Oak Hill Country Club in upstate New York. His tour de force, Pinehurst No. 2, sits just behind his house.

And Tillinghast, 59, the son of a wealthy rubber goods magnate in Philadelphia, who grew up playing cricket and fell under the spell of golf on a visit to St Andrews in 1896 where he established a mentor-mentee relationship with Morris. Tillinghast’s design acumen was on display across the land as well — from San Francisco Golf Club on the West Coast to Winged Foot Golf Club and Baltusrol Golf Club in the shadows of the New York City skyscrapers.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, to hear these friends and sometime competitors talk about their shared experiences — their formative years at St Andrews, their design philosophies, the challenges of maintaining businesses and servicing clients when travel was by train and communication by post.

Surely Tillinghast espoused, to some degree, his belief that “a round of golf should present eighteen inspirations, not necessarily eighteen thrills.”

And no doubt Ross would have looked at the 72-hole facility at Pinehurst Country Club and talked about how it had become the epicenter of golf in America. “I wholeheartedly believe in golf,” Ross once said. “A country which gets golf-minded need not worry about the honor, the integrity and the honesty of its people.”

Tillinghast’s visit came at the behest of the PGA of America and his role as a consultant with the organization which in 11 months would conduct its flagship competition, the 1936 PGA Championship, on Pinehurst No. 2. They carried their golf clubs past Ross’ masterful rose garden in the backyard, through the wrought-iron gates and onto the third green.

Ross showed his guest the green complexes that he had just converted, with the help of green superintendent Frank Maples, from their previous flattish sand/clay structure to undulating Bermuda grass, shaping the sandy soil around them into a cacophony of dips and swales. He noted the roll-offs around the greens, how they penalized shots even slightly mishit and propelled balls into the hollows nearby.

Ross led Tillinghast to the fourth tee and explained how he had just added that hole and the fifth to the routing, taking them from a previous employee-only nine holes, and had arrived at the final (and current) configuration after originally unveiling the course in 1907.

They felt the taut turf under their feet, reveling in how the drainage qualities of the sandy loam made for the ideal golf playing surface. As they went, Ross explained the choices golfers had off the tee — on the par-4 second, for example — showing his friend what a lovely view it was into the green from the left side of the fairway but pointed to the gnarly bunker complex a player had to flirt with to get there. Ross nodded to the native wiregrass that grew in profusion along the fairways and how it reminded him of the whins of his native Scotland.

Did the man known in the business as “Tilly” dip into his bag for a flask and a wee snort as he was wont to do? Did Ross grouse that this new and improved No. 2 was better than any new-fangled effort from Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie down in the red clay of north Georgia?

All of this, we’ll never know. What we do know is what Tillinghast said after his visit.

“Without any doubt Ross regards this as his greatest achievement, which is saying a great deal,” Tillinghast offered. “Every touch is Donald’s own, and I doubt if a single contour was fashioned unless he stood hard by with a critical eye. As we stood on hole after hole, the great architect proudly called my attention to each subtle feature, certain that my appreciation of his artistry must be greater than that taken in by a less practiced eye. Nothing was lost on me, and after our round together, I told him with all honesty that his course was magnificent, without a single weakness, and one which must rank with the truly great courses in the world today.”

And, 89 years later, the show goes on.

Pinehurst No. 2 would continue to be the site of the North & South Open on the PGA Tour through 1951, with Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ross himself among the winners. It would host the 1936 PGA (won by Denny Shute) and the 1951 Ryder Cup (won by the Americans, 9 1/2to 2 1/2, over the team from Great Britain and Ireland).

But it wasn’t in the mix to host a U.S. Open.

Left: Donald Ross (Courtesy Tufts Archives)

Middle: The Ninth hole of Pinehurst No. 2 (Copyright USGA//Fred Vuich_

Right: A.W. Tillinghast (Courtesy USGA Archives)

 

Through the 1970s that union was simply impossible because Pinehurst shut down for the summer (the founding Tufts family and the staff went to Linville or Roaring Gap in North Carolina or traveled north to Maine), and the American national championship was played always in June.

When the resort went to air-conditioning and a year-round operating calendar, the idea was still problematic because of the USGA’s preference for playing courses with firm and fast greens, a challenging task on Southern courses during hot weather months. The U.S. Open was not played in the muggy Southeast until venturing to Atlanta Athletic Club in 1975, though it had already visited hot spots in Houston, St. Louis, Dallas and Fort Worth.

About the time Jerry Pate was winning in Atlanta, officials at Pinehurst Country Club began floating the idea of an Open for No. 2. The Diamondhead Corporation was five years into its ownership of Pinehurst after purchasing it in 1970 from the Tufts family, whose patriarch, James W. Tufts, launched the town and resort in 1895 as a refuge from the cold winters of New England. The Diamondhead president, Bill Maurer, conceived the World Open on the PGA Tour and the World Golf Hall of Fame in the early 1970s and wanted all the traffic, attention and accolades he could muster for Pinehurst and its No. 2 course.

It took two more decades to figure out how to bring the National Open there.

First, there was the dodgy financial bona fides of the resort and club, which eventually went bankrupt and was taken over by eight banks for two years beginning in March 1982. Robert Dedman Sr. and his Club Corporation of America bought the facility in 1984 and provided what has turned into four decades of stability, innovation and financial security, with Robert Dedman Jr. taking the baton after his father died in 2002.

Second, there was the issue of the playing surfaces.

Pinehurst and other golf courses in the Mid-Atlantic, or so-called “transition zone,” have forever been vexed over the choice for their putting surfaces between Bermuda grass, the de facto choice for Florida and warm weather climes, and bent grass, which thrives in the North. Pinehurst officials experimented with new strains of both over the 1970s and ’80s, walking that tightrope between offering smooth and playable greens for members and resort guests for 12 months of the year, and yet having the ability to get them lightning-quick while not dying in the summer for an elite competition. Pinehurst old-timers still remembered Hale Irwin and Johnny Miller taking dead aim at flagsticks during PGA Tour competitions on No. 2 in the late summer and their approach shots going splat and stopping mere feet from the hole (Hale Irwin shot 62 and Johnny Miller 63 in mid-1970s birdie-fests).

Donald Ross must have raged in his grave.

By the early 1990s, the USGA and Pinehurst officials agreed that advances in grass technology and green foundation construction would allow them to rebuild the greens and have them stand up to the world’s best players on a 90-degree day in June. The USGA announced in June 1993 that it would conduct the 1999 Open at Pinehurst. The competition was a rousing success from the perspective of ticket sales, corporate support, traffic ebb and flow, housing and, certainly, the golf course itself.

“It’s the most draining course I’ve played in a long time,” said European Ryder Cup team member Lee Westwood.

“People sometimes ask what’s the hardest course I’ve ever played,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen. “Now I know.”

The Open has been contested on No. 2 twice more, and the course has played as a par-70 for each championship. The scores validate that what Ross completed in 1935 stands in fine fettle in the next century.

Payne Stewart was 1-under in winning the Open in 1999, Phil Mickelson was even-par, and Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods were 1-over. Michael Campbell won with an even-par total in 2005, with Woods at 2-over. Martin Kaymer has been low man in the three Opens, shooting 9-under in 2014, but his nearest competitors were a mile back, with Ricky Fowler and Eric Compton tied for second at 2-over.

The firm greens, the delicate chipping areas, the flow of the holes and the strategic nuances led Tom Weiskopf to venture in a 1995 conversation that Pinehurst No. 2 is a better year-round test than Augusta National Golf Club.

“Augusta National is good one week a year,” Weiskopf said. “I’ve played Augusta two or three weeks before (The Masters) and it’s a piece of cake — a piece of cake. Pinehurst No. 2 is never a piece of cake.”

The 2024 Open at Pinehurst will be the first played on the Champion Bermuda greens installed after the 2014 Open and the second of the Coore & Crenshaw restoration era. Bill Coore, a native of Davidson County who played No. 2 often during his boyhood summers, and Ben Crenshaw, the two-time Masters champion, coordinated an extensive makeover in 2010-11 that included stripping out hundreds of acres of Bermuda rough, recontouring fairways and bunkers to Ross’ design, and rebuilding the perimeters with firm hardpan sand dotted with wiregrass, pine needles and whatever natural vegetation and debris might accumulate.

“In the early days, this golf course was disheveled and brown, and the ball rolled and rolled and rolled,” Coore says. “That’s what gave it its character. There was width here, the ability to work your ball to get the best angles. Over time, that was lost. It was too green and too organized.”

“Bowling alley fairways,” Crenshaw adds. “Straight and narrow, just like a bowling alley.”

Don Padgett II was the Pinehurst president and chief operating officer from 2004-14 and the man who convinced Dedman that hiring Coore & Crenshaw and taking No. 2 back to its “golden age” from 1935 through the 1960s was the correct move. Padgett is a “golf guy,” in industry parlance, coming to the resort with a background as a PGA Tour player in the early 1970s and a longtime club professional. His father, Don Sr., was director of golf at Pinehurst from 1987-2002.

One March afternoon a decade into his retirement, Padgett is sitting in a rocking chair on the porch overlooking the 18th green of No. 2. It’s sunny and 55 degrees. The tee sheet on No. 2 is full.

“I think this is what the Tufts envisioned,” Padgett says. “If you’re from Boston, this is balmy. My dad used to say if you’re in the golf business, stand here because everyone will come to see you.”

The world of golf is coming to Pinehurst in June, and the game’s top players will find the 18 holes that so impressed A.W. Tillinghast in 1935 and will vex them in 2024.

“I think the golf course today probably presents itself as the best it ever has,” Padgett says. “It’s Ross’ concepts with modern maintenance behind it. I think he would look at this golf course and say, ‘Wow, I wish I’d had the ability to grow grass like this.’ These are his concepts with modern turf. It’s not distorted, it’s enhanced. I think he would bless it.”  OH

Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has authored four books about golf in Pinehurst, including The Golden Age of Pinehurst — The Rebirth of No. 2. Write him at leepace7@gmail.com and follow him @LeePaceTweet.

Home Grown

Home Grown

By Cynthia Adams

On a recent trip with friends, I casually mentioned my father’s unfortunate incarceration, an expression adopted from the character Anthony Bouvier, portrayed by Meshach Taylor, on the hit sitcom Designing Women. Fans of the show may recall that from 1986–1993 Taylor played a gentle quipster, unfairly convicted of robbery. 

I preferred Bouvier’s jokey euphemism; it landed gentler than saying, “My father went to the big house.” Or, “Dad did time.”

Prison talk is freighted, folks. Predictably, eyebrows raised.

“It’s not like he killed anyone,” I hastily added. What I didn’t add was he was merely one case among others in my family line.

A former mentor shared these encouraging words, “Normal families seldom produce writers.”

Take this magazine’s namesake and this city’s native son, William Sydney Porter — pen name O. Henry — who went on the lam to Honduras before serving time. He served three years in an Ohio prison; my father served only three months. I found myself bringing that up, as if it explains anything. Dad, however, could have easily walked out of an O. Henry plot — with a love for storytelling and an obsession for Pepsi-Colas and Mounds candy bars.

Dad, himself, and other relatives were never shy about sharing our family’s hapless narrative.

During a visit in Atlanta with my great uncle, Miles McClellan, he shared an alarming story. Our ancestral widowed Scots-Irish grandmother killed a tax collector during the Great Famine. “I’ve spent time at the Library of Congress,” Miles confided, “trying to learn more about her.”

Uncle Miles told an incredible tale: She whacked the tax collector with a fireplace poker when he attempted to collect their cow in lieu of taxes. She was spared a death sentence, but she and her children were exiled.

He died before finding proof, but the tale had taken unshakeable root in my imagination. 

There was more. Uncle Miles himself experienced incarceration as an adventurous young man who loved newfangled motor cars. He sought his fortune in Atlanta, starting one of the city’s early car dealerships. My grandmother insisted her favorite brother was framed by older, jealous rivals. Then, the narrative grew tricky: He fled after faking his own death by driving his Model T into a creek, then lived in Baltimore under an assumed name. But he returned to face the charges, just as O. Henry did, however false. My grandmother fainted outright when her brother walked up her driveway, very much alive.

After serving time, Uncle Miles went on to found another successful business — this time selling municipal water towers — and (honestly) earned wealth. He piloted his own plane, lived in an Emerywood mansion, and remained witty and compassionate, while walking the straight and narrow.

But when my father was sentenced to a federal penitentiary in Birmingham, Alabama, tales of redemption didn’t soothe us, despite his funny and considerate probation officer, Randy Harrell, who became a family friend. The fact that Dad was appointed a pre-trial probation officer seemed a clear indication of pending doom. When Dad was led away in handcuffs, I was a new college student. Three younger siblings were still at home. Dad was jailed at Maxwell Air Force Base with Watergate offender Charles Colson. My liberal father’s response? “This is cruel and unusual punishment,” he wrote to the warden and to anyone he could think to complain to. 

Dad and Charles apparently became buddies, although Dad was wary of Colson’s “jailhouse religion.” I kept a letter sent by Colson to me on Pentagon stationary urging me to keep up my studies. The logo, incidentally, is crossed out.

Dad returned to a business and family life in ruins. And the family curse continued. A young sibling would wind up spending months jailed for fishing without a license — so help me God. (He had a prior DUI). The old saw about he who represents himself in court has a fool for a client proved true in his case and mine; read on.

When appealing a driving conviction before Judge Elreta Alexander before her retirement, I tested that theory. Standing well apart from the hangdog guilty group and edging closer to the allegedly innocent, I pleaded “guilty with exonerating circumstances.” The judge snapped: “Stand there with the rest of the guilty!”

Admonished, I slipped a folder of images of “No Right on Red” signage at a downtown stoplight behind my back, now terrified of actually presenting my evidence. Would this clever judge realize my wide-angle lens might have distorted the sign’s distance from the stoplight? I had sworn to give honest testimony; but were the pictures just a tad misleading?

After systematically finding each “innocent” plaintiff guilty, Judge Alexander beckoned me to approach the bench. “You. The one who doesn’t know if she’s guilty or innocent. What is it that you brought?” she asked, demanding the ill-concealed folder.

As she studied my pictures, I lightly joked that the worst that could happen was she would find me guilty. Fixing me with an assessing look, she warned that, no, things could get worse. 

“Read your ticket,” the judge said grimly. She could, in fact, jail me for illegally turning right on red. And levy fines. 

Jail?! I grew redder than a fully ripe McIntosh apple.

Perhaps because the ticketing officer failed to appear, Judge Alexander relented, ruling prayer for judgment continued, a PJC. 

I paid the court costs and sprinted out — a near miss as a jailbird. 

Long afterward, I refused to turn right on a red light, no matter how many horns honked or fingers flipped me off.

Felonious grandmother, uncle, father and brother, know this: I vow to break the chain of unfortunate incarcerations.

That annoying driver who rubbernecks before proceeding right at the stoplight? It’s probably law-abiding little ole me. Just wave hello and please don’t honk; there’s some serious ancestral baggage riding with me and a curse I’m doing my best to shake.  OH

Cynthia Adam is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.

Thinking Outside the Jewelry Box

Thinking Outside the Jewelry Box

With his grandfather’s tools, Jake Wosinski makes his mark on McGee Street

By Cassie Bustamante  

Photographs by John Gessner

Behind the jewelry case at Jacob Raymond Jewelry on McGee Street sits the artisan and proprietor. His bald head is counterbalanced by a large, full gray beard and atop his long, narrow nose sits a pair of blue-framed glasses behind which dark brown eyes peer outward. The sleeves of his plaid shirt are rolled up to his elbows, revealing tattoos on both forearms. In short, Jake Wosinski, 52, is not someone you’d expect to be selling engagement rings.

And yes, you read that right: His last name isn’t Raymond. The Raymond in his shop’s name comes from his grandfather — his father’s father — who first sparked his interest in jewelry making. In fact, Wosinski still uses many of the tools he inherited from his grandfather. He holds out a pair of dividers engraved with a patent date of June 2, 1885, by Starrett, a company that Wosinski notes is “still in business in Boston, still making these.” The dividers also feature the engraved initials of those who have used them before. Pointing to a tiny set of curlicue letters, Wosinski says, “And so I scribed my initials on there.”

Among the tools he inherited and uses on a daily basis are these nearly 140-year-old dividers, a large polisher and a steel ring mandrel, which aids in shaping and sizing. While he isn’t sure how far back the mandrel goes, it dates at least to the ’50s because it bears the inscription of a name familiar to Wosinski: George Beaudet.

Beaudet was the jeweler who originally taught Wosinski’s grandfather, Raymond, the craft in Milwaukee, where Wosinski originally hails from. When Raymond moved to California — where Wosinski’s own family headed soon after — he took his skills and tools with him and continued the trade. “I kinda grew up around it,” says Wosinski.

While the first jeweler in the family that Wosinski can recall is his grandfather, he comes from a long line of men who’ve worked with their hands. “Most of my family on my dad’s side were tool and dye makers, or mold makers,” he says.

He thought he’d follow suit, but decided to attend the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg, where his family had relocated when he was 16. He began working toward earning a degree in English, but the family once again moved, this time to Greensboro. After working for a year, he planned to switch gears and study structural engineering at N.C. State as soon as he qualified for in-state tuition. “But I never made it back [to college].”

Wosinski’s brother, Brad, worked with a bartender who also happened to be a gemologist. Through him, Wosinski discovered the Gemological Institute of America and, at the age of 20, began a correspondence course. The institute would send him gems to identify with equipment he’d purchased — a microscope, a polariscope and a refractometer. From there, he ventured into a gem-cutting class at Randolph Community College.

The class itself bored him, but in it he first learned about the Sawtooth School for Visual Art in Winston-Salem. He enrolled in a jewelry making course that would change his life. “As soon as I took that class, I was like, yeah, this is what I am doing.” At that moment, the dream of having his own jewelry business one day was born.

Had he always been an artist? In training, no. “Maybe I could have done better if I had taken an art class,” he says, “but at the same time, since I don’t have rules of art or whatever, I am just doing whatever I want, thinking more outside of the box.”

A man on a mission, he sold his motorcycle to buy the tools he needed, set up shop in his parents’ garage and tried to get a job working for a jeweler. Lacking experience, “No one would hire me,” he says. “Finally, I went into a jewelry store and said, ‘I will work for you for free. Just let me learn.’” A shop in Winston-Salem took him up on the offer. After two years, he left in search of a paying job. Despite his experience, he still came up empty.

Not willing to give up, Wosinski decided it was time to attend an actual jeweler’s school and left for the now defunct Atlanta Jewelry Institute. Lo and behold, right after graduating, he landed his first paying jewelry job at a Greensboro store where he did repairs.

“But I wanted to make jewelry,” adds Wosinski.

Next stop? A shop in Winston-Salem, where he worked for six-and-a-half years.

“I made lots of awesome jewelry,” he says, “but it wasn’t my design.” At the same time, Wosinski worked on designing and creating jewelry at home, with plans to create wholesale pieces to sell to stores — both one-of-a-kind pieces as well as manufactured pieces that he could reproduce in mass. When he wasn’t at work, he was building his inventory in preparation of launching that business. In the meantime, he’d also gotten married to his wife, Liz, and had three young kids at home to consider.

“It was just too much,” he says. “I thought, ‘I will never see my family.’” Being the sole provider, he opted instead to look for a job where he could continue to hone his skills and offer design services while waiting for “a later date” to pursue a business of his own.

Armed with a collection of his designs, Wosinski went to an interview at a Chapel Hill jewelry store. “[The owner] actually bought $3,500 worth of jewelry at the interview!” Naturally, he was hired and the family relocated to Mebane to be closer to his job. While there, rings he designed won 10 American Gem Trade Association Spectrum Awards. But because it wasn’t his shop, his name was not on the awards.

After 10 years there, “a later date” had arrived. It was finally time to take a chance on his dream. He’d mentioned to his friend, Nate Hall, owner of Legacy Irons Tattoo Co. on McGee Street, that he was contemplating a move back to Greensboro and wrestling with the idea of finally opening his own place.

“He basically said, ‘Well, the jewelry store two doors down? I think they want out of their lease.’”

The landlord, Jeff Yetter, confirmed and put Wosinski in touch with the shop owners.

“We were at the grocery store on a Saturday night and I get a call,” he says. The jewelry store owners were heading out of town for six weeks and told him that if he wanted to come take a look, he could come now. Or he’d have to wait.

“We bought our groceries, went home, hopped in the car and drove to Greensboro.”

As luck would have it, the owners wanted to sell their jewelry cases and safe, items that would have been costly at startup. Everything was outfitted exactly as he’d need it.

He recruited his former Winston-Salem employer to come take a look at the shop and share her thoughts. Her response? “You need to do this.”

It felt as though it was meant to be, Wosinski muses. After working his last Friday in Chapel Hill, he opened the doors to Jacob Raymond Jewelry for the first time the following day and assumed his business, like that of his previous employers, would go “gangbusters from the beginning.”

And? “It didn’t go as planned,” he admits. “I don’t know anything about running a business.”

After a year of commuting from Mebane, the family moved to Greensboro, renting a home and using the equity from the sale of the previous house to survive. Bank accounts dwindling, Wosinski feared that his dream was over, that he was doomed to failure. What are we going to do echoed in his mind.

Liz had left behind her own job with the move and struggled to find employment in Greensboro, but still, she remained supportive.

“That kind of financial difficulty and hardship can make a couple draw apart or fight,” he says. “We just leaned into each other more. And we did a lot of praying.”

Wosinski admits that he holds a certain amount of pride in his natural talent and capabilities. And God was just taking him down a notch, saying to him, “You’re taking credit for things I have done.”

So that financial struggle? “God was just showing me, you may be great at this, but unless somebody comes in the door and buys it, you’re done.” It was, for Wosinski, a lesson in humility.

Slowly, organically, the business picked up steam. Liz now handles the company’s managerial tasks, such as shipping, accounting and banking. “Every year we’ve been here, we’ve grown.” While it’s not the growth he’d envisioned, his circle has widened and he enjoys the sense of community cultivated by downtown Greensboro business owners and regulars. And he’s able to do what he loves— create one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces. Award-winning one-of-a-kind pieces. Since opening his doors, he’s won two awards under his own name: the 2018 Platinum Innovation Award in the evening wear category and the 2020 Platinum Innovation Award in the bridal wear category.

No surprise there. His favorite pieces to create? Engagement rings. “That’s always like, this is for life,” he muses.

His designs begin, he says, in his design sketchbooks. He’s currently on his fourth. Inside, he loosely draws a plan just to get an idea out of his head and onto paper before it’s forgotten. “But then, every time I go to start making a ring,” he says, “other ideas pop into my head.” It’s very rare that a final product matches its original design. And most often, he notes, his pieces are “one and done” — no other in the world exists.

“As you can see, I’m all over the board,” he says, peering over his glass case filled with all sorts of bejeweled oddities. The artist in him appreciates — and designs — in a variety of aesthetics, from Art Deco to his “contemporary estate style. I love doing what I call my ancient style, which looks like something from the Middle Ages or Roman times.” A cuff bracelet looks like something that would have graced Cleopatra’s arm.

Wosinski loves working with sapphires because of their durability and the rainbow of colors they’re available in, but what really sparks him is fire agate. This rare opalescent stone shines in oranges, greens and purples, and is found in the American Southwest as well as northern Mexico. What appeals to him about this stone is exactly what appeals to customers about his jewelry: “Every one is different.”

Sparked by fire agate’s kaleidoscopic luster, Wosinski is determined to create a market for it. According to crystaldigest.com, fire agate is associated with passion and creativity and “is said to help one actualize their highest potential.”

These days, though most clients come to him locally, he serves several customers across the states — even across the globe. He recently completed two custom pieces for a doctor from the U.K. “He’s been following me on Instagram for years, threatening to have me do something for him,” Wosinski quips. Finally, the doctor made good on his promise and visited the United States, bringing with him a 44-carat lab-grown sapphire and a 22-carat lab-grown ruby. He dropped his gems off in November with plans for a March return and pickup.

With those gems, Wosinski crafted a pendant that resembles an amulet and a ring. The doctor’s reaction? “He was like ‘aaaah’ and I was like, ‘Is that a good aaaah or a bad aaaah?’” Palms sweating, Wosinski stood by with bated breath. “It was a good 30 seconds before I knew that he liked it!” After all these years, Wosinski admits that nerves strike when presenting custom orders.

Back on U.K. soil, the doctor sent Wosinski a message: “Thank you for making my dreams come true in jewelry form.”

As for his own dreams? He’s still taking it day-by-day. Since 2017, he’s had only one employee other than himself, and that’s his dad, who — much like he once did — works for free. “I pay him with pretzels and peanuts,” he says with a laugh.

He hopes that perhaps his own 23-year-old son will take an interest and join him down the road. No pressure, though: “We all have our path that we need to go,” he notes.

The ultimate goal is to have a team of employees who can work with clients on custom orders but also create pieces of their own design. He dreams of one day employing jewelers he can mentor, and yes, they’ll be allowed to label it with their own names.

But he’s not there yet. “I can still go two days and not have anybody walk in.”

Just then, the shop door chimes, announcing a customer.

“Hi there!” Wosinksi greets her. “What can I help you with?”

“I want you to make me a ring,” she answers. She tells him that her daughter, a client, says he’s the go-to guy to for custom work.

Woskinski’s face lights up at the opportunity to make her something, something beyond anything she could ever imagine.  OH

 


 

One and Done

In 2003, just before our wedding, my soon-to-be-husband, Chris, and I stepped into a tiny jewelry shop in New Orleans. Our mission? The rings, with which we’d wed.

As we perused the glass cases, Chris selected a simple, wide, gold band for him. And for me? I looked up and down that store, waiting for something to speak — no, sing — to me. After all, this was eternity we were talking about here!

In the end, under the pressure of time, I chose a $40 plain, gold band “for now” that was similar in width to the diamond ring that had been handed down from his grandmother and which I happily wore for years. It was made from simple, yellow gold, with a solitaire diamond. (I’m told her first ring was prettier, but she lost it in the ocean.)

For years, I was too busy raising kids to think about replacing my “for now” ring with my “forever” ring. Though I loved honoring tradition, truth be told, the diamond was constantly snagging on things and I was afraid I’d be responsible for losing Chris’ grandmother’s second diamond. Buying a third was not an option at the time, so I took it off.

When we moved to Greensboro in 2019, Liz Wosinski reached out to me via Instagram messenger to introduce herself. She’d been following me there and, as it turned out, lived in my neighborhood. She told me about her jeweler husband, Jake, whom she was very proud of, and I immediately followed him on Instagram, showing Chris his art.

Of course, shortly after that, the pandemic hit. Finally, in February 2022, 19 years after shopping in New Orleans, Chris and I walked into Jake’s McGee Street establishment. My wish? Something unique — anyone else an Enneagram 4 out there? — that would use the gold and diamond from my existing bands to create one wider ring. And this time, an organic style with mixed metals, because sometimes ya feel like silver and sometimes ya feel like gold. Plus, the diamond needed to be inset and snag-free.

Just eight weeks later inside the walls of Jacob Raymond Jewelry, Chris slipped a work of art onto my finger. The diamond, encircled in gold, sparkled along with the silver of the band. It hasn’t once gotten snagged on anything. But the best part? Knowing that my ring, as well as my marriage, is “one and done,” as Jake says.
— Cassie Bustamante

Art of the State

Art of the State

Wild Clay, Ancient Art

Takuro and Hitomi Shibata shape pots — and their community

By Liza Roberts

Eighteen years ago, when ceramic artists Takuro and Hitomi Shibata moved to Seagrove from the ancient pottery village of Shigaraki, Japan, they had with them nothing but a couple of suitcases, a rescued stray cat and plans for a short adventure.

Today they are pillars of the community. Hitomi is a respected and prolific Seagrove ceramic artist, and Takuro, a fellow potter and the procurer and refiner of most of the area’s local clay, is a community fulcrum. They live with their two American-born sons on Busbee Road in a striking modernist house designed by a protégé of famed architect Frank Harmon, built in part with their own hands. Their wood-fired kilns are a stone’s throw from its front door, and the tiny farmhouse where they first lived on the property now serves as a gallery for their work. Their former garage is now their studio.

The art they make here and sell under the Studio Touya name is distinctly their own. Hitomi’s sculptural pieces have the rounded, organic shapes of abstract feminine nudes. Takuro’s are distinct for their architectural geometry, acute angles and jutting planes. It’s impossible to see the couple’s pieces side by side and not admire the harmony of their yin and yang. 

A reverence for local clay is at the heart of the couple’s individual art and their mutual business. They put that shared love and knowledge into Wild Clay: Creating Ceramics and Glazes from Natural and Found Resources, a book they co-wrote and published with Herbert Press in 2022. Its publication took their local story to an international audience, changing their business and their work in the process.

“We have been very busy doing more exhibitions and workshops outside of North Carolina, nationally and internationally,” Hitomi says. “Especially after releasing our book, we were invited to ceramic conferences, meetings and workshops to talk about our clay stories from Shigaraki to North Carolina.” When so much time on the road meant less time for making pots, the couple decided to refine their work. “We tried to improve the quality of our art,” Hitomi says. “Also, using beautiful wild clays and natural materials, which we have been doing for many years, became even more important for our artistic practices.”

Finding Home 

The couple credits the Seagrove community and its native clay for nurturing the art they originally learned in Shigaraki. The first time they saw this place, they had a feeling it would be important to them. “We were surprised,” Hitomi recalls. “There were so many pottery studios. We realized Seagrove was the biggest pottery community in the United States.” 

They’d come down from a Virginia artist’s residence on a Greyhound bus at the invitation of Nancy Gottovi (now executive director of nearby arts hub Starworks) and her husband, Seagrove potter David Stumpfle, who had visited Shigaraki a few years earlier.

The Shibatas loved what they saw, but their visas were up.

Two years later, Gottovi called again. She was working with Central Park NC, an organization dedicated to preserving the natural and cultural assets of central North Carolina, and offered Takuro, who has an engineering and chemistry degree, an opportunity to establish a clay factory to serve Seagrove’s potters.

The Shibatas jumped at the chance. People in Seagrove, they believed, truly understood the value of pottery. In other places, Hitomi says, “people love art, but they don’t think that pottery is the same thing as art. But here, people are so crazy about pottery. They love the tradition, they have so much appreciation . . . it’s part of the history of the state.”

The Pottery Ecosystem

Today, Starworks Ceramics is an integral part of the Seagrove pottery ecosystem, and it’s growing. “We went through a tough time during the pandemic,” Takuro says, “but now we have more people working, and it’s a great team. Our clay is getting more popular, and potters and artists support not only our clays, but the story of a clay factory.”

The process is laborious: Takuro takes raw clay dug from the earth and turns it into a viable material. The equipment he and his assistants use to refine it is massive and low-tech, the stuff of a fairy-tale giant’s bakery. Some of it is from the 1940s. There’s a shredder, a mixer, a separator and a vibrating screen; there are things called filter presses and pug mills. All of it fills a cavernous warehouse room. Massive buckets of what looks like sticky dirt go in one end; several days of man and machine power later, neat clay cubes come out the other. These cubes are sold in increasing numbers to potters in Seagrove and around the world.

“Using wild clays for pottery in the studio is a growing trend in American ceramic art education and in small pottery businesses,” Takuro says. “It’s good for people to think about sustainability and the environment. However, these methods have been used and improved for thousands of years all over the world. Nothing is new.”

He hopes his clay and the couple’s book inspires more potters around the country to learn about the clay histories in their own regions: “Our clay story is very personal, and our clay experience doesn’t cover all wild clays, but we heard from readers that many places in the world have interesting histories, communities and people who work in clay. We believe clay is universal.”

At the same time, Takuro knows that what makes and sells at Starworks can’t be found just anywhere. “North Carolina clay is special,” he says. “It’s high in silica, it can be fired at high temperatures and it is from this place.”  OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

Poem June 2024

Poem June 2024

Poetry

This came before Hip Hop

This plants street crops

Won’t stop for red octagons

This thing sings songs

Prolongs life after death

Moves in stealth

Improves the quality of your life

Flows through pipes to irrigate land and turn grass green

This thing steams the wrinkles out of my daily

Therefore you’ve got to pay me

For this is Poetry

And. I never realized the power of my voice in this world

The power of this ink merged with this paper

And each day I laugh at my countless attempts to make sense of this gift

And each day it lifts me higher

Lights my soul on fire

And I wire these words like a telegraph to anyone that will listen

And some that won’t, so please don’t test me

Because this is dangerous

It’s like skin to me, it’s like kin to me

This thing befriends me when all else seems lost

I’ve paid my way by showing a way to the lost

And it came before Hip Hop

This plants street crops

Won’t stop for red octagons

This thing sings songs

Prolongs life after death

Moves in stealth

Improves the quality of your life

Flows through pipes to irrigate land and turn grass green

This thing steams the wrinkles out of my daily

Therefore you’ve got to pay me

For this is Poetry

                  — Josephus Thompson III

Greensboro’s first poet laureate, Josephus Thompson III, has created both a
song and a book out of this poem. The book,
Poetry Is Life, can be found here: josephusiii.com/product-category/books; the song can be found here: youtube/91K-WmDcMpQ.

Wooden It Be Nice?

Wooden It Be Nice?

With Gary Lowell at the helm, weathered vessels take on the waters again

By Billy Ingram  

Photographs by Mark Wagoner

There’s a cautionary, oft-shared adage among well-healed seafarers that I’ve heard more than once: “You don’t own a boat; the boat owns you.” That commonly refers to those unwieldy, 130-foot floating hotels with which few of us will ever be financially burdened. But it may also be true, albeit in a much different sense, when it comes to smaller, vintage, wooden watercrafts, where ownership manifests itself as more of an emotional, familial connection.

There’s an unmistakable allure to those magnificent American-made maritime machines of the 20th century — the bold contours and fanciful interior chrome accents of a 1958 Century Arabian; the elegant simplicity associated with a 1949 Chris-Craft Racing Runabout; the playful luxury that defines a 1941 Gar Wood Flagship Streamliner; the distinctive shark-like fin of the 1955 Chris-Craft Cobra, a genuine aquatic hot rod, powered by a 331 Hemi Chrysler Marine Engine; or consider the aerodynamic sleekness of a Glastron GT-150, which James Bond piloted (on land, sea and air!) across the Louisiana bayou in Live and Let Die.

It’s been 30 years since Gary Lowell dropped anchor on a career restoring — in many cases, resuscitating — these highly sought after collectors items, having discovered his love of vintage boats at an early age. “When I was about 10 years old, my dad bought his first wooden boat and I just got into them then,” Lowell says of that initial spark. “My first job right out of high school was in television. I was the director of The Good Morning Show at WFMY and a puppeteer for The Old Rebel Show.” On weekends, Lowell would make a run for the coast to haul back some old wrecked vessel in an effort to make it seaworthy once again.

Emblematic of one’s personal style and appreciation for the finer things in life, any boat from a bygone era is sure to attract attention and spark lively conversations. And ones crafted from wood almost universally are regarded as the most impressive in any harbor, partly because each plank is meticulously handcrafted and laid. These veritable works of art are imbued with a singular personality not merely reflected in their appearance but also in the idiomatic sensations its skipper feels when breaking through choppy waters, rocking to rest in a slip or quietly cruising placid waterways.

Those salvaged boats he dragged home to restore? Inevitably, “Somebody would say to me, ‘That’s nice. Let me buy it from you.’” That pattern continued until Lowell realized he’d unknowingly stumbled upon his true calling. “I started working in my backyard and then I got a little shop — and then a bigger one.”

Lowell expanded his operation from 1,800 square feet to his present day cavernous 18,000-square-foot studio on Blue Bell Road, where dozens of boats are dry docked or hanging from the rafters in various stages of completion. While he has clients here in the Gate City, “the regional lakes like Lake Norman, Lake Gaston, Kerr Lake and Smith Mountain are where a lot of my customers come from.”

The golden age of compact wooden boats is considered to be 1948 through about 1959, which tracks with the rise of automobile ownership in America. “Some of those boats actually took on the look of cars,” Lowell notes of the time when molded fiberglass chassis offered a viable alternative to wood, allowing for more extravagant body types. “Especially in the ʼ50s with the tail fins, cars loaded with chrome and big ornate steering wheels.” Indeed, from 1956 into the early-1960s, independent manufacturers began using more sculptural fiberglass to create outboard motorboats that mimicked the streamlined modernity of automobiles.

For vacationers seeking motorized symmetry, a tail-finned 1959 Chevrolet Impala land yacht could be paired with a virtually indistinguishable (from the rear) Reinell Jet Flight runabout. A ’57 DeSoto (“Tell ‘em Groucho sent you!”) might have been cruising that year over one of the nation’s brand new interstate highways in tandem with its Hurters Flying Fish doppelgänger. The iconic red-and-white 1957 Corvette convertible sporting a powerful, 265 cubic-inch V8 under the hood could easily tow behind it a matching two-toned, Fiber-Glassic Lone Star Meteor speedboat — the ultimate in after-market automotive accessories. But those once-fashionable hybrids are of little interest to Lowell, who focuses his efforts exclusively on refurbishing mahogany- and oak-framed watercraft.

Every classic boat comes with a backstory, having weathered the elements for a half-century or more. Gesturing to a gas-powered Sea Skiff designed to ferry a dozen or so revelers, Lowell explains, “A teacher over in Wake County bought this because he used to spend a lot of time on the lakes up in upstate New York.” After stripping away the paint on both sides, “We found carved into it the name ‘Canoe Island Lodge.’ We looked it up and [that resort] is still in operation. So I contacted them and sent them a picture of it, and they sent me a photo from a 1958 brochure that showed people on their lake in this very boat.” The boat’s owner told Lowell his grandfather used to vacation at Canoe Island Lodge. “By coincidence, he’d bought a boat that his grandfather had actually ridden in.”

Naturally, what every client wants to know up front is: how much is it going to cost and how long is it going to take? It’s a great deal more complicated estimating how much time and effort will go into reconstructing a craft that spends most of its life in the water, which lends itself to harboring unseen damage that doesn’t come to light until peeling back the lower layers. That’s why, as an investment, the return is not going to be a financial one. “It will cost more to restore a boat than the resale value,” Lowell says. “You have a boat that you might be able to sell for $25,000 but we’re going to have to put $75,000 into it. But if it’s your grandfather’s boat and you want to fix it up for your grandkids, which some of these projects are, then it’s worth it.” Sentimental value? Priceless.

While an automotive “barn find” is unusual, it does occasionally still happen; the maritime equivalent might more likely be uncovering a watercraft that’s been sleeping with the fishes. “I had one project we called the ‘Fish Boat,’” Lowell recalls. “It belonged to an older couple, one of whom had a grandfather who kept a boat on Lake Norman.” To their dismay, the couple discovered the boathouse had structurally collapsed, causing the boat inside to become fully submerged for an extended period. “When we hauled it up, it was full of fish, hundreds of them. It stunk for months so we kept it outside here, ripped it apart, hosed it down and restored it. It’s just a gorgeous boat that’s now on the show circuit going around the country.”

While he’s taken in fixer-uppers from as far away as the West Coast and New England, most of Lowell’s clientele reside in the mid-Atlantic area. “This is the typical boat that we do today. This one is in for a touchup,” he says, pointing to a compact Chris-Craft runabout. In the past, he’d already worked maritime magic on this very boat. “We ripped everything off, flipped the boat over, replaced the broken framing, then installed an all new bottom on it.”

Utilizing tools and techniques boatbuilders have employed for hundreds of years, there’s very little that can’t be accomplished under this studio’s towering roof. “The engines, if it’s minor, like the external workings and regular tuning up and all of that, we do in-house,” Lowell says. Many of those old boat motors were originally installed in tractors, tanks, and landing craft during World War II. “So there’s a lot of that left over, but the actual mechanical parts are sometimes hard to find.” As for the seat coverings, some higher-end boats are appointed in marine leather, others covered in a marine vinyl with a faux leather texture. These can be repaired using remnants on site. “In a lot of older boats, you’ll find the upholstery is in good shape. If it needs all new foam and cushions we have vendors that specialize in that.” Lowell turns to a local artist for the calligraphic flourishes that spell out the often clever nicknames inscribed across these crafts. “There’s a guy in town I use, Mike Gregson, who does all the gold leaf on the county’s fire trucks.” Lowell insists one of his hardest tasks was coming up with names for his personal vessels. “Most powerboat names are tacky or even crude,” he says referring to double entendres often based on the term “wood.” “The best are ones that are named after someone’s grandmother, such as Lena, Maren, Mozel or Amelia Jean.”

Mahogany and oak are the main boat-building materials so, with Greensboro’s proximity to the furniture capital of the world, there are ample avenues for acquiring hardwoods. Currently, Lowell is restoring several mid- to late-1950s, 18-foot and 23-foot Chris-Craft Continentals, an almost iconic mid-sized model adorned in dark mahogany siding with white pin striping up top. “Just a fluke that we’ve got all of these Continentals in at the same time,” he quips. He’s also putting the finishing touches on a 1954, 18-foot Riviera, which connoisseurs regard as the “quintessential 1950s Chris-Craft runabout.”

Some of the more unusual water crafts Lowell and his crew have on deck are a fleet of small electric models from 1934 and 1935. “They reside at a lake up in the North Carolina mountains,” Lowell says. “Most people don’t realize there are electric boats that old.”

While it wasn’t uncommon for manufacturers to install easily attainable automobile steering wheels in their boats, customized chrome ornaments, frames, and dial casings can be difficult to come by at times. “Even with a rare car, they still made thousands of them. Some of these boats, they maybe only made two of some models.” Making such a limited number wouldn’t have been the plan but, “if they made a 16-footer in 1953, but everybody bought the 18- or 20-foot versions, the next model year they’re not going to make the 16 anymore. You end up with a rare 16-footer you can’t find parts for, so you have to recreate them yourself.”

When it comes to bending those long mahogany planks to conform with a boat’s outline, Lowell explains, “They go into a big box that we hook up to a beer keg with a burner under it to boil water and we steam the wood for about an hour or so. When it’s ready, we pull it out and fold it around a mold or sometimes directly on the boat so it takes in not only the curve but the twists as well. That’s kind of a fun process.”

While he and his precision-oriented crew will take on any type of boat as long as it’s wooden, sailboats are Gary Lowell’s true passion. What’s their “it” factor? “Something about the mast and the rigging that I like better than the mechanical power.” Not to go all Christopher Cross here, but there is a majestic quality to the art of sailing where sun, wind, canvas, punctuated by the ocean’s salty spray, induces an unparalleled level of serenity that, for thousands of years, sailors and adventurers have continued to chase.

“It wasn’t until years later that I came to find out that I’m part of a famous Lowell boat-building tradition that dates back to 1793.” Distant relative Simeon Lowell is credited for producing the earliest shallow-draft American Dory fishing vessels, for which his shop became famous. Positioned alongside the lower Merrimack River shore in Massachusetts, Lowell’s Boat Shop, the nation’s oldest, still operating, remains dedicated to the art of “preserving and perpetuating the art and craft of wooden boat building.” Lowells are still building watercraft in Maine and throughout the rest of New England.

Born in Greensboro but raised in Maine, Lowell returns to The Pine Tree State every summer to visit family and to teach restoration, marine painting and varnishing techniques at the prestigious Wooden Boat School in Brookline, which he’s done for 25 years. Closer to home, he’s conducted seminars at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort. Plus, one of his crew is a graduate of Cape Fear Community College, where a degree in traditional woodworking skills and precise joinery techniques required for assembling wooden boats is offered, as well as a diploma in composite boat manufacturing and service.

Lowell also invites interns and school groups to drop by the shop. “With one intern, we’re making several oars to be donated to Greensboro Parks and Recreation to use on row boats they rent.” He’s also a part of TWSBA, Teaching with Small Boats Alliance, an international organization of boat builders educating young people on subjects related to boating, such as geometry.

Wooden boat shows, like their classic car counterparts, are always a big draw, where 40 or 50 antique crafts will be gawked over by thousands of boating enthusiasts converging from around the country. In September, Smith Mountain Lake will host one of these festivals, where you’re bound to encounter an array of Lowell’s cultured pearls-of-the-sea. If you’re thinking of dipping your toe into the water, so to speak, the 34th annual Georgetown Wooden Boat Show in South Carolina will be held in October, an event that kicks off with the Goat Island Regatta Auction. Bring your checkbook, but leave room for plenty of zeros.

Perhaps one of these gatherings will ignite your own infatuation for navigating cool waters in a vintage custom-crafted wooden boat, unleashing your inner James (or Jane) Bond.  OH

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Letters from Death Row

Finding purpose behind bars

By Anne Blythe

Much has been written about how the art of letter writing has been in decline for years — except in prisons. Behind the barbed fences, putting pen to paper remains a vital connection to the world outside the prison walls. It was one such letter that launched Rap and Redemption on Death Row: Seeking Justice and Finding Purpose Behind Bars, a book by Alim Braxton and Mark Katz.

Braxton, born Michael Jerome Jackson on June 1, 1974, has been in prison since he was 19 years old, incarcerated more than a quarter-century of that time on North Carolina’s death row. His co-author, Katz, is a music professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who started the Carolina Hip Hop Institute in the summer of 2019.

Braxton, who chose the Muslim name Alim in prison, read a newspaper story about the program and wrote a letter to Katz in August 2019 asking for help. Rap music had been a big part of Braxton’s life, even before prison. He had been writing and recording lyrics over the phone but was not pleased with the sound quality.

Let’s get this out of the way: Braxton killed three people and robbed two others. He accepts responsibility and apologizes for killing Emmanuel Ogauyo, Donald Bryant and Dwayne Caldwell, as he does for robbing Susan Indula and Lindanette Walker.

“I know my situation may seem despairing and perhaps unlike anyone you’ve worked with before, but despite the circumstances I still have faith and I still have a dream, and I believe that with the right sound and someone who knows what to do with my vocals I can accomplish something BIG!” Braxton wrote to Katz, who held on to the letter for a month.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to offer my help,” Katz writes in the preface to the book. “I didn’t know him, and after all, this request was coming from a convicted murderer.” He decided to respond anyway.

“I was intrigued by his passion. I also saw an earnestness is his neatly handwritten letter that amplified the sincerity of his words,” Katz writes.

That led to a relationship and the exchange of many letters to build a team of people who worked with Braxton to record his first album — the first-ever recorded from death row — and to this book.

“It wasn’t long into our correspondence that I came to believe that Alim’s letters were worth preserving and making public, and that is what spurred me to suggest the possibility of a book,” Katz writes. “Earlier in my career, I had spent many hours in archives reading correspondence by famous musicians. I would count myself lucky anytime I found a single paragraph of interest out of a batch of letters. That is not the case with Alim’s letters.”

Braxton’s blunt but colorful accounts of how he got to prison and his life inside it are contemplative and eye-opening. He gives readers a glimpse of the inmate hierarchy, the violence, the loss of dignity, privacy and rights, the code of survival and his path to redemption, love, a wife and even hope for the future despite his circumstances.

His rap, which is interspersed with the narrative, is personal and wide-ranging. His lyrics offer views of the George Floyd protests, COVID, pop culture and much more. In telling his story, Braxton wants to make sure that the stories of others — those on death row who maintain their innocence and have cases he believes involve wrongful convictions — are lifted up with his rap.

Braxton grew up in a rough-and-tumble Raleigh neighborhood about 2 miles from Central Prison. There are times he dreams of nearby places he visited as a boy or the rolling Dix Park across the busy boulevard from the prison cell “the size of a bathroom” he now lives in.

“I have fond memories of my childhood growing up in Raleigh, but as I wrote in my song, ‘Unremarkable,’ it’s also where I learned ‘to thug it properly.’ Stealing, fighting and drinking were rites of passage in my neighborhood,” Braxton writes. “My descent into crime didn’t happen overnight. I got my feet wet shoplifting around the age of 11. By the time I was 16 I had gone to prison for two months for stealing a car. I soaked up more criminal knowledge while inside, and after my release, the front gate became a revolving door, with three dozen arrests and three additional stints in prison.”

In vivid detail, Braxton goes on to describe his first time with a gun, his move from a pistol to a sawed-off shotgun, the first time he killed a person, and the almost out-of-body experience he had during those times. It was as if he was playing a role in a movie or a TV show, he wrote. He says the adage “the decisions you make today determine your tomorrow” rolls around in his head, especially when he thinks about the 1993 robbery spree where he claimed the lives of two people.

“Why didn’t I just leave at some point during that February night in 1993?” Braxton writes. “The truth is that I was afraid that I would look weak. I know now that it’s not weak to walk away from something you don’t want to be involved in. . . . Not walking away was a pivotal decision that changed the course of my life forever.”

Not walking away from a conflict in prison is what landed him on death row. He had been spared the death penalty and given two life sentences plus 110 years for the 1993 robbery-turned-kidnapping-turned-murder. Then he stabbed a fellow inmate to death.

Although North Carolina has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2006 while lawsuits make their way through the courts, the possibility of executions starting again looms.

“The true reality of life on Death Row is that every day is a life of fear, regret and humiliation . . . ,” Braxton wrote in a newspaper letter to the editor published in the book. “I live every day with the fear of standing before my God and accounting for my deeds.”  OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

The Gift of the Fan Belt

What goes around . . .

By Harry Roach

Note from the editor: This was second place in our 2023 O.Henry Essay Contest.

In the summer of 1969, I was driving a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair. Yes, a Corvair, not a Corvette. Manufactured from 1960–1969, the Corvair was America’s first and only automobile with an air-cooled, rear-mount engine. That engine was the heart of the vehicle, and near the center of this story.

After a long day trip to a state park in southeastern Missouri, my wife and I were in the Corvair, engine off, waiting in line for a ferry to carry us across the Mississippi River to southern Illinois. We chatted and laughed, recounting the highlights of the day.  From the ferry landing, fields of corn flowed north and south to the horizon, filling thousands of acres of bottom land between the river and the levee. I could say that the scene reminded me of that ominous Stephen King story, but he didn’t write it until 1977.   

With the late afternoon sun behind us, we could see the ferry crossing toward us from the east bank, slow as a tortoise on vacation. It was carrying its maximum, just nine cars. On our side, the Corvair was seventh in line and, because the ferry did not operate after dark, ours would be the final crossing of the day.

As the ferry maneuvered toward the slip, drivers ahead of us started their cars. I turned the key in the ignition, the engine immediately fired up. Bang! What was that? Red lights on the control panel lit up like a Christmas display. I got out and opened the hatch over the engine. The Corvair had thrown its fan belt. Late on a Sunday afternoon. Miles from nowhere. We were stuck.

The fan is essential to an air-cooled engine, and its belt also runs the generator and the power steering. I was thinking maybe we could coast down the incline and onto the ferry, then, after the crossing, get help pushing the car up the ramp onto the Illinois shore. Where we’d probably have to sleep in the car. Not a bright prospect.

“Can I help you, buddy?” It was the guy in the truck behind us. Who happened to be a Chevy mechanic. Who also owned a Corvair. And had a Corvair fan belt in the back of his truck. What were the odds? Our miracle mechanic installed the new belt so quickly that we were ready to roll just when it was our turn to board. My wife and I were two very thankful people.

Years later, I was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, driving a different vehicle with an air-cooled rear-mount engine: a Volkswagen bus, the vehicle of choice for happy hippies, van campers and large families on a budget. By then, I had learned how to install a fan belt, change the plugs, adjust the timing, and other rudiments of amateur automobile maintenance. A quarter mile ahead, a red VW bug sat sadly on the shoulder of the road, its open engine hatch gaping at three perplexed women. Their bug had thrown its fan belt. I got out my tools and spare belt and in 15 minutes had those very thankful people back on the road. And I, too, was grateful for the opportunity to return the gift of a fan belt bestowed by that miraculous Samaritan so long ago.  OH

Harry Roach and his wife, Liz, live in downtown Greensboro, where they spend a lot of their time dancing.