Life’s Funny

Masking For It

The trials of going under cover


By Maria Johnson

I knew the advice for the general public to “mask up” for the Covid-19 pandemic had hit home the moment I watched a woman in the Trader Joe’s parking lot slap a maxi-pad over her nose and mouth, then lift two sheer fashion scarves from around her neck to cover the lower half of her face.

And I thought, “Ya know, that’s not a bad idea.”

She probably had 15 years on me, which put her in the high-risk category, medically speaking. It also landed her in the high who-gives-a-flip category, an undeniable effect of aging. I’m pretty sure she saw me peering at her from over the top of my own mask — a no-sew version made from a bandana — and yet I detected zero flips given.

Her husband was masked-up, too, with what looked to be a shop rag because, as I’ve observed, men are a) less likely to wear masks to begin with, and b) if they do, they try to make it look like an accident, like a shop rag just happened to stick to their face, as it might to a Shop-Vac.

Or a turtleneck just happened to unfurl over their mouths.

Or they just happened to be wearing a camouflaged hunting gaiter (I saw you in the parking lot, too, Mr. Field & Stream) when they ran into TJ’s for a package of spring salad mix.

I get it. For a while, I resisted the idea of wearing a mask. Honestly, I thought people might assume I had Covid-19 and avoid me. Then, as the death toll climbed, I was like, “Hmm . . .”

Like I said, I’m just entering my non-flip-giving years.

I finally decided to don a mask because of my elderly mom. I didn’t want to get the virus and unknowingly pass it to her.

So I searched YouTube for a design until I found one for an easy-to-make-yet-attractive accessory of pestilence. It required a bandana, a couple of dryer sheets, some rubber bands and a shoelace.

I wore my prototype to Walmart, where I quickly discovered a few facts about wearing a mask in public.

First, there is fraternity among mask wearers. I immediately bonded with a mask-wearing couple in produce.  “I see you’re having the same problem we had,” said the man, alluding to the impossibility of getting a thin plastic produce bag open without lowering your mask and spitting on your fingers, which defeats the sanitation theme on several fronts.

“Try wiping it on something wet, like kale,” said the woman.

Shazam. It worked.

Another thing about wearing a mask: You have to shout to be heard. What my friends in produce actually said was, “I SEE YOU’RE HAVING THE SAME PROBLEM WE HAD.”

In related news, because you are muffled, wearing a mask means you are much more likely to talk to yourself in a low golf announcer voice.

“Seriously, what’s the deal with toilet paper? I know people are pooping at home more, but were they really pooping that much at work? You sir, here in the paper products aisle, did you poop at work before this? You don’t look like an on-the-clock pooper.”

Another fact of mask-wearing is that you have almost no peripheral vision below your face. Let’s say you put several packets of taco seasoning in the kiddie seat at the front of your cart. The packets could be sliding out of the leg holes, and you could be leaving a trail of taco seasoning all over the store. Theoretically.

Also, people seriously cannot recognize you when you wear a mask over half your face, which, come to think of it, might be why banks are making people go to drive-through windows. I realized this when an old friend whizzed past me in the coffee aisle. She was gone before I could get her name out at sufficient volume. “Anne. Anne. ANNE!”

Oh well, she ran like she was healthy.

Over the next few days, I tinkered with my design, editing the materials down to a bandana and rubber bands. I was putting on the new and improved model when I saw Ms. Maxi in the Trader Joe’s parking.

As I sat there, pondering her creativity, it occurred to me that using maxi pads was no stranger than using some of the other masking materials I’d heard about — T-shirts, dishtowels, coffee filters, yarmulkes, jock straps, even old bra cups.

All hail the mothers and fathers of invention.  OH

Contributing Editor Maria Johnson shouts thanks to front-line health workers, encouragement to those who are suffering from Covid-19 and sympathy to those who have lost dear ones.

Woman of the Wild

The retreat — and reach -— of biologist Ann Berry Somers

By Jim Dodson

“This is the place I love most,” says Ann Berry Somers, “because it’s where I do the thing I love most — to share and teach people about the Earth. There’s always something exciting going on down there in the pool, for instance. Let’s go have a look.”

The place she means is a lovely ephemeral pool in the midst of a 24-acre forested vale of mature hickory and poplar trees off Church Street Extension. There, the longtime UNCG senior lecturer of biology and leading advocate for box turtles, reptiles and amphibians, has made her home in a passive solar house she helped build in 1984.

On a spectacular spring morning, while much of the world is sheltering indoors due to the spread of a marauding killer virus, the wild birds of Ann Somers’ tidy forest are singing their avian hearts out as she sets off to find the elusive marbled salamander, North Carolina’s magnificent state salamander.

“Better put on these boots and take one of these,” she advises her visitors, proffering black rubber wading boots and dip nets for exploring the boggy pool below the house. Setting off, she explains that at least one other species of salamander — the spotted salamander — has recently emerged from the egg stage and the larvae have been feeding in the pool for days. There are four salamander species who depend on this wetland habitat. All four are listed as species of Management Concern due to habitat loss, making this restoration project even more important.

“It’s really a race for them to transform into terrestrial phase before the water in the pool disappears, though if they’re lucky that won’t happen until May,” she elaborates, sloshing knee-deep to retrieve a series of minnow traps attached to empty plastic bottles.

“By that point most will have absorbed their gills and be entirely adapted to land and will go underground or live deep in the leaf litter for several years before they return in the pool in order to reproduce years from now.”

The abundant life in Ann Berry Somers’ ephemeral pool — also known as a vernal pool, a body of water that seasonally appears with spring rains and typically vanishes by summer — was given a major boost by a restoration project begun some eight years ago first with a veteran forester named Joe Kelleher who just happens to be Ann Somers’ first cousin. NC Wildlife Resources Commission herpetologist Jeff Hall and other of Ann’s colleagues from the NC Herpetological Society helped survey the pool and U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Laura Fogo helped come up with matching funds to do the modifications required to restore the hydrology according to a design created by Emeritus N.C. State hydro-engineer Greg Jennings.

This team of professionals plus some of her UNCG student volunteers, she explains, collaborated on an innovative underground dam that required digging a 200-foot-long ditch that was 1-foot wide and 6-feet-deep.  A curtain-wall was created using a thick pond liner. The liner prevented the annual spring pool, which relies on rainwater, from being absorbed too quickly by the surrounding forest of trees. Over the years, Cousin Joe’s job has been to selectively thin the trees in order to maintain the delicate balance of nature that provides just enough light and water to support this annual baby boom of amphibian and insect life.

“This project never would have started without Joe,” Ann observes, leaning down to inspect a gelatinous green mass of algae floating on the tea-brown water beneath a patch of briars and fallen limbs, the signature of female salamanders at work. “Trees soak up a surprising amount of water, don’t they Joe?”

Cousin Joe is already a couple dozen yards farther along the pool, checking traps by a downed poplar tree to see if there are any marbled salamanders on view.

“Yes ma’am, that is the case!” he replies. “These trees can suck up 10,000 gallons of water per day in transpiration,” he adds with a booming laugh. “Got lots of marbled swimmers down here, by the way,” he cheerfully reports.

Somers delicately lifts the gelatinous mass from the water with the care of a priest holding an infant. On closer inspection, she discovers a few tiny salamanders still working their way out of the egg mass toward the next stages of their evolution in the pond. “Oh, how nice! Come look,” she urges her companions. “There are still a few stragglers coming out of their egg stage! They’re rather late and I hope they make it before the water vanishes!”

Life at every stage is a race for survival.   

“If I may ask,” says one of her rubber-booted visitors, “How do salamanders actually reproduce?”

“Oh, it’s terribly exciting! It happens on a rainy night in late February when the temperature is above 55 degrees. The normally subterranean adult salamanders congress in the pool in a rite of spring frenzy of breeding activity that is one of the startling impressive events in the natural world. In the aquatic swarm, males lay tiny white sperm packets on the dead leaves in the water and court the females by nudging them to absorb the rice-sized packet into their bodies, which will fertilize their yolked eggs. Later, the females lay a gelatinous mass of eggs, around which symbiotic algae grows providing oxygen for the growing larvae until they are strong enough to emerge and feed in the pool.”

Returning the egg mass gently to the surface of the pool, she chimes, “Good luck, little ones. We’re pulling hard for you!”

She looks up and smiles.

“My students love this sort of thing — especially the local kids . . . getting wet and dirty and learning about creatures they’ve never seen in the wild. Isn’t this fun?”

It is indeed.

And so is Ann Berry Somers who, at 68, is regarded as a leading environmental advocate and a passionate promoter of citizen-science, a woman who has dedicated her life to better understanding and preserving the vital role snakes, frogs, salamanders and turtles play in maintaining the fragile balance of life on Earth.

Last year, the State of North Carolina showed its gratitude for her life’s work with a host of prestigious awards that reflect her stature as a true force of nature and woman of the wild. The prizes included NCWRC’s Thomas L. Quay Wildlife Diversity Award, a Distinguished Teaching Award in STEM Education from the North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research (NCABR), and the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Public Service.

What explains her devotion to helping others learn to respect and appreciate these wild and typically unseen critters like the spotted salamander?

“They are an important part of the web of life we share,” Somers answers with gusto as she sloshes on to where Cousin Joe has scooped up a dozen marbled swimmers. “What happens to salamanders and frogs and snakes can happen to other species — including us — if we don’t take care of the environment. These are creatures, in some cases, that have been on Earth longer than we have — we have fossils that are 30 million years old! We have only been around a few hundred thousand. To watch them suddenly disappear, to blink out one by one as pollution and loss of habitat alter the planet, is absolutely tragic and consequential,” she says, pausing. “The sad thing is, that it is happening all over the world at a more rapid rate than ever.” 

It’s passion like this that has inspired Ann Somers not only to teach a course on endangered sea turtles in Costa Rica for the past 25 years, but also to lead school groups and conservation-minded folks into the wild for decades in order to learn about the importance of snakes and turtles and amphibians, to spread the gospels of conservation and environmentalism that are so near and dear to her heart.

Last year, for example, the woman who found the last threatened bog turtle in Forsyth County back in 1991 — a gentle species that once flourished in these parts — grew so keenly interested in vanishing coral reefs, she organized a course with her UNCG students to Little Cayman Island. There they donned scuba gear and learned about the environmental crisis facing ocean reefs up close and personal.

“We had our class picture taken underwater,” she points out with a laugh.


That experience in part inspired her to help organize a conference for the NC Wildlife Federation called the Ocean Advocacy Workshop that was originally scheduled for this same spring morning at UNC-Wilmington — only to be postponed for a year due to the pandemic.

“Ironically, one of the interesting things that’s happened because of this crisis is the positive effect it has had on some aspects of the environment. With so many airplanes and cars idle, the air is noticeably cleaner, the skies clearer across the world, pollution way down in places,” Somers observes.  “In Venice, I understand, the canals have cleared and dolphins have once again been spotted. Maybe we should pay attention to how fast things can get better if we would just let up on the constant pressure we put on nature, if we would just listen and hear the difference in a quieter world.” She adds, “It’s not just about saving turtles.”

But to be clear, turtles do matter to Ann Berry Somers.

Twelve years ago, in partnership with state parks and private landowners, Somers spearheaded the creation of something called the Box Turtle Connection, an innovative volunteer project aimed at collecting data on vanishing native turtle populations, including threats and conditions affecting box turtles in the wild. Today, the program boasts 32 different turtle-monitoring projects ongoing across the state. “It’s designed to go for 100 years and outlive everyone currently enrolled in order to educate the next generations of scientists. Some of the turtles we are marking will be found by the next generations, they live that long,” she notes, leading her guests out of the ephemeral pool into a meadow where sheets of discarded tin roofing repose in weedy places near what appears to be a large pile of winter damage.

Flat sheets of roofing tin lying about, one learns, are designed to attract snakes for use in her popular classroom programs. The pile of limbs and brush she calls her “Miracle Brush Pile” because it’s home to dozens of species ranging from snakes to birds, box turtles to small mammals. “You wouldn’t believe the diversity in there.”

She carefully lifts up several pieces of tin but finds no snakes in residence for the moment, only a young skink making a hasty retreat.

With a pleasant smile, she proposes, “Shall we go see the graveyard? It’s just a 20-second walk up the hill behind the house.”

In a sense, Ann Berry Somers was destined to be a champion for the endangered lives of bog turtles, spotted salamanders and red-bellied snakes.

For like those creatures, her connection to the Earth is deep and ancestral, an essential part of her family DNA.

She and Cousin Joe — not to mention 51 other Berry cousins — hail from a large and celebrated Greensboro family that has made no small contribution to the preservation of the Earth.

In 1924, Nathan William Berry started a coal company called Berico in Greensboro. Pop Berry and wife Elizabeth lived on Colonial Avenue and had 13 children. In 1942, Elizabeth Berry was named “Mother of the Year” and feted at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, where her name is displayed on a plaque today. When asked by a reporter how she managed to raise 13 children who were so accomplished, she famously replied, “Wholesome neglect.”

This was the Berry matriarch’s code for “allowing her children to follow their own hearts and instincts in life, to explore and learn in the natural world,” explains Cousin Joe, who points out some of the significant things the Berry siblings accomplished.

Aunt Merse, No. 2 in the succession, became a nun with the Daughters of Charity and managed several hospitals in Bolivia. Sons Joe and Jim became outstanding aviators in WWII.

Child No. 3 was named for his papa, William Nathan Berry. He grew up to become a Roman Catholic priest, taking the name “Thomas” after the influential philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Berry became a religious scholar who wrote several books about Asian religions and started the Riverdale Center for Religious Research in Riverdale, New York.

The world remembers him today as the priest-turned-environmental-sage whose awakening and influential writings on the imperiled Earth were an early call to humanity to save nature in order to save itself. Berry’s groundbreaking lectures and books launched a generation of inspired environmentalists interested in the nexus of religion, human evolution and nature. Considered one of the leading thinkers in the modern environmental movement in America, Berry honored his vow of poverty, humbly referring to himself as a “geologian.” Ann Somers’ daddy was Joe Berry, the ninth child in the sequence. Cousin Joe Kelleher’s mama, Teresa, was tenth. Teresa named her son after Uncle Joe, who eventually took over running Berico Fuels from his father and moved wife Jean and their seven children — Ann among them — to a house on a lake on Four Farms Road near Horse Pen Creek.

“It was kind of a log house and magical for all the Berry cousins,” recalls Joe Kelleher. “Ann’s daddy had a rope in his living room and when we cousins came out on summer Sundays, the first thing we had to do was climb the rope.” Next? “Cleaning Uncle Joe’s pigeon coop. Then we swam out to a pier in the lake.” Kelleher recalls that his Uncle Joe taught them how to shoot guns safely and encouraged them to explore the outdoors. “That usually meant getting lost in the woods but we always found our way back,” he says. “The woods were where the Well-Spring [Retirement] community sits today. It was a glorious way to grow up.”

Ann Berry had hoped to become a psychologist after finishing undergraduate studies at Villanova University, but that was not to be, so she applied for a job no woman ever had ever sought, as a lake warden for the City of Greensboro — guardian of lakes Higgins, Brandt and Townsend.

“Looking back, it was a great job because it tapped into something in my makeup from childhood, a love of nature and life in the wild.” After she graduated from Appalachian State with her Master of Science degree in Biology in 1980, Distinguished Professor Bob Gatten, then head of the Biology Department at UNCG, recruited her to join the faculty and she has been there ever since. Recently she has also become the associate director of the Environment and Sustainability Program at the university.

About 35 years ago, she and then-husband George Somers built the house Ann designed in the forest off Church Street Extension, where they raised two sons, Noah and Abe.

Leading the way up a short path to a historic cemetery once belonging to the Heath and Smith family, some of its gravestones date to the early 1800s.

Ann’s restoration efforts have included removing limbs, small trees and setting upright some long ago fallen grave markers. Four newer memorial stones stand prominently as one approaches the site.

One belongs to her Aunt Margaret, who died at age 100 last year.

Two others remember a nephew and granddaughter who died in their youth.

The fourth is a memorial stone to Thomas Berry, whom the family affectionately called “Uncle Brother.” Its inscription reads:

With love and gratitude for Uncle Brother, Father Thomas Berry, scholar, wisdom teacher, mentor, friend. Earth is the maternal source whence we come, to which we return.

Both Ann and Cousin Joe enjoyed close relationships with “Uncle Brother.”

During the 1970s when Joe attended Holy Cross in Massachusetts, he frequently stopped to visit Thomas Berry at his spiritual retreat at Riverdale, and once spent a week helping Uncle Brother restore his residence on the property.

“He was so drawn to rocks and rivers and such, I once asked him about animals that were going extinct everywhere in the world and what we were supposed to do about that? He looked at me and replied, ‘My job is to get you to think about it. Your job is to fix it!’ That was Uncle Brother!” Joe says with his booming laugh.

“That was exactly what he said,” agrees Cousin Ann. “That was the message.”

When Thomas Berry retired from public life in 1994 and moved home to Greensboro’s Well-Spring Retirement Community — built in the former woods where the Berry Cousins explored the natural world — Ann Berry and Uncle Brother met and talked weekly; and she has dozens of composition books full of notes about their conversations. Thomas Berry passed away on June 1, 2009. He was 94.

The rotunda of the Kathleen Clay Edwards Family Branch Library contains a beautiful poem by Thomas Berry called “A Child Awakens to the Universe.”

“I think about our conversations a lot these days,” Ann admits as she and Joe walk back down the hill to her house. She glances up at the trees just exploding with spring green, alive with life, promise, birdsong.

“Uncle Brother believed we are evolving as a species. I’m hopeful that is true. That the lessons we could learn from this current crisis may be an awakening, if only we would listen.”  OH

Poem May 2020

Nineteen Fourty Four
[dancing the foxtrot]

Memories surfaced, I saw my parents

young and full of themselves.

He an Army Air Force pilot.

She a hostess at the USO.

The sudden rushing realization

of youth, impetuousness, and intention

to make a difference

in a world at war.

Feeling grateful for this . . .

this source of influence is deep in my bones.

Dictates of the time

flying into the future, together,

flying in formation

towards a life together

Moving on as seeing them anew

no longer as old:                young, with all that vigor.

No dementia any more,                 gone now

they are dancing the foxtrot together to Benny Goodman.

— Raymond Whitaker

Reviving a Soulful Sound

A scruffy old guitar finds its voice again

By Stephen E. Smith
Photographs by John Koob Gessner


Ill bet you’re nagged by a furtive longing to possess something that’s impractical. Maybe it’s Aunt Amelia’s Tiffany brooch or Granddad Ralph’s ’49 Mercury sedan. In my case, it’s always been a Stahl Style 6 guitar made by the Larson brothers of Chicago. Whatever the object, we know this: If we search long enough and can shell out the cash, we’re likely to get what we want. This is America; we invented conspicuous consumption.

Inspired by what comedian Martin Mull dubbed “The Great Folk Music Scare,” I bought my first guitar, a digit-mangling Kay archtop, in August 1961, from a pawn shop on West Street in Annapolis, Maryland. I was a rising eighth-grader and paid $15 I’d received for my birthday. Every Saturday that fall, I toted my caseless Kay to St. John’s College campus, where I sat under the last surviving Liberty Tree (on the very spot where patriots plotted the Revolution) and strummed “Goodnight, Irene” ad nauseam with five or six honest-to-God beatniks. On one of those cool autumn afternoons, a Maynard G. Krebs character handed me his guitar and said, “Here, give this a try.”

I strummed a G chord, one of the three I’d mastered. “Wow!” I said.

The proud owner beamed. “Plays like silk and chimes, like a chorus of seraphim,” he said.

“What kind of guitar is this?” I asked.

“It’s a Stahl 6,” he replied.

When I got home, I had to look up “seraphim” in the dictionary, but I knew in my bones what a Stahl guitar was.

For most of the 60-plus years that have slipped by since that autumn afternoon, I never happened upon a Stahl Style 6 I could afford. If I were a more accomplished player, I might have been willing to shell out $7,000 to $14,000 for a pristine original-condition Stahl, but alas . . . 

And then, eight months ago, a Stahl Style 6 materialized on my computer screen — and it was for sale at a reasonable price! The rub: It was in sad — very sad — condition. The seller listed it as “Non Functioning,” noting that the Stahl was a “Luthier Project” afflicted with a “Non Original Bridge, Non Original Tuners, No Pins, Back Cracks with washboarding” — and an all-too-ominous caution that the guitar would need “some finish work.” But the center strip was clearly branded “WM. G. STAHL/MAKER/MILWAUKEE” (a lie, since the guitar was made in Chicago by the Larson brothers) and 95 percent of the instrument was there.

I asked the seller a few pointed questions, made a reasonable offer, and PayPaled him the money. Four days later the UPS man delivered a big box that I ripped into with, I admit, adolescent gusto.


At this point in the typical restoration epic, buyer’s remorse sets in. What have I gotten myself into? the new owner asks. But I wasn’t in the least bothered by the Stahl’s condition — not at first. The seller had been reasonably honest — everything he said was wrong was wrong — but with each careful inspection I noticed flaws he’d failed to mention. The fingerboard extension was bent — not broken, thank goodness, but obviously sigogglin — the bridge (which anchors the strings to the body) wasn’t a correct Larson brothers’ flattened pyramid type and it was glued in the wrong location, the peghead overlay was damaged, the frets needed attention, binding was missing at the bottom of the fingerboard, the 3-on-plate Kluson knockoff tuners were flat-out annoying — and worst of all, some idiot with a paint roller had applied two gallons of runny gloppy gooey polyurethane or other superfluous substance to the guitar’s body, the front, back and sides. And that didn’t include earlier overspray of shellac, lacquer and varnish that had melted into the polyurethane — a deal-breaker for any vintage guitar collector, since original finishes are necessary to produce the instrument’s authentic sound.

Collectors argue endlessly about original finishes vs. restored. You’ve probably seen those Picker guys on the History Channel who love “rusty gold” and “the look” or the erudite appraiser on Antiques Roadshow who says, “In original condition this Philadelphia dressing table would be worth half a million dollars but since you refinished it, it’s worth seventy-five bucks. Maybe.” And that’s how it is with vintage guitars. But I’m not a vintage guitar collector. I simply wanted to play the guitar, and to do that I needed to have the polyurethane removed.

Poly finishes dampen sound and I had a lot of it on the Stahl, which meant that the guitar had reached a point in its checkered life where it was up or out. I might have relisted it on an auction site and gotten my money back, but I was determined not to sell or trash my latest acquisition. I was in possession of a rare Larson brothers Stahl Style 6 serial number 27022 (a numeral not based on production numbers), which meant the instrument was 100 years old! Who knows where it had been and the stories it could tell? Guitars, like their owners, have their own DNA and quirky personalities.

How valuable are Larson instruments? Consider this: A 1937 Larson-built Euphonon dreadnought recently listed on the Reverb for $64,500. Ouch! (If you’re interested in Larson instruments, I suggest you read The Larson Brothers’ Creations, by Robert Carl Hartman, or John Thomas’ excellent article in issue #15 of Fretboard Journal.)

What I needed was someone — the right someone — to save my Stahl Style 6. I’d heard that it’s possible, under unique circumstances, to remove a secondary finish while preserving the original surface. I got on the phone and chatted with luthiers in Wilmington, the Raleigh-Durham area, Charlotte and the Triad, and settled on Bob Rigaud (pronounced “rego”) in Greensboro.

Bob is a world-class builder, a luthier whose guitars are comparable to those of the Larsons. Seven years ago, he built for me a New Moon koa tenor ukulele, a high-quality, handmade instrument that sings with a surprisingly mellow, resonant voice, and he’s supplied instruments for many A-list performers, most recently Graham Nash, who travels with his Rigaud parlor guitar and uses it to compose new music.

More important, Bob has a reputation as a superlative repairman. A few years ago, “Steady-Rollin” Bob Margolin, Muddy Waters’ longtime sideman, stopped in Bob’s shop to have an old Gibson L-00 repaired. I was curious about Margolin’s experience with Bob, so I emailed him. He replied: “Bob fixed my mid-’30s Gibson L-00. He checked it out and knew exactly what to do. He told me the guitar would come back better than I could imagine and it did. Big admiration for Bob.” Margolin was so impressed with the sound of his Gibson, he went directly to a studio and recorded the CD This Guitar and Tonight, a ragged, in-your-face acoustic outing in which the old L-00 vibrates like the blues bucket it is.

Bob had also repaired two of my guitars, one a Larson-built student-grade Maurer that required delicate finish work, which he accomplished flawlessly. He also sealed multiple cracks, back and front, and made them disappear. Better yet, he left most of the original French polish intact.

So in late May I drove to Greensboro and handed my Stahl to Bob. He was busily at work on three new guitars — always his first passion — but his face brightened as his eyes ran over the damage wrought on my Larson by time and abuse.

“I can fix this,” Bob said. “I can make it sing again.”

Bob Rigaud is possessed of a gregariousness purely borne of enthusiasm. His life is guitars, and he delights in every aspect of building and repairing instruments and hearing them sing. We sat in his modest workshop and talked for two hours. His hands fluttered like birdwings as he pointed out myriad flaws I’d failed to notice and explained in detail how he’d approach correcting each imperfection.

“Can you fix the finish problems and make the washboarding and back cracks disappear?” I asked.

He was uncharacteristically succinct. “I can,” he said, smiling.

The Stahl was in his hands.

Brimming with faith and high hopes, I drove back to Southern Pines and waited. And waited. June came and went. On the last Saturday in July, I traveled from High Point to Bob’s workshop to check out the progress he’d made on my guitar. The old Stahl was laid out like a cadaver on his workbench, the fingerboard taped off. And miracle of miracles, most of the poly finish had been removed and much of the original French polish seemed to be intact. The washboarding was gone without a trace, as were the many back cracks and a small hole I’d somehow overlooked. The once-mangled Brazilian rosewood back had been restored to its original glory.

“How did you repair the back so perfectly?” I asked.

“I flattened the wood and sealed the cracks with an epoxy I tinted with rosewood sawdust.”

But there was still much work to complete, including the peghead overlay, the replacement bridge, and the angle problems with the fingerboard extension. I left satisfied but anxious to have the Stahl back home.

August, September, October and November passed, and I was content to have Bob work at his own speed. But in early December, my friend Craig Fuller of Pure Prairie League and Little Feat fame drove me to Bob’s workshop. Bob, always the perfect host, showed us the guitars he was building, and Craig and I examined the Stahl in detail. It was close to being complete: a new, handcrafted bridge with inlays was temporarily applied, a beautiful peghead overlay was in place, and new Stewmac Golden Age reproduction tuners were installed, but the frets still needed work and touch-up finishing was left to accomplish. I’d hoped that Craig, who’s played more guitars better than I ever will, might try out the completed Stahl and give me his opinion, but Bob was still struggling to correct the intonation, the key to ensuring that a guitar sounds as good as it possibly can.

“I’ve never repaired a Larson guitar that had the correct intonation,” Bob observed.

On January 22, 2020 my phone rang; the Stahl was ready for me to take possession. “I’m proud of it,” Bob said.

I stepped into his workshop at 9:30 the following morning. And there it was, my 1920 Larson brothers Stahl Style 6 guitar resurrected. I picked it up, strummed a fat G chord and felt an instant synaptic connection: I remembered the sweet sound — the sustain, the purity of voice — that had amazed me all those years before. It played like silk and chimed like a chorus of seraphim. It had the mojo and “the look.” Bob smiled but said nothing. He didn’t need to. He absolutely understood how I felt. He was feeling it too.

“I loved working on this guitar,” Bob said. “When I was regluing the internal braces — which, by the way, are all maple, not spruce — I could see evidence of August Larson’s work, and I felt like I was having a conversation with him all these years later. A hundred years from now maybe some other luthier working on this guitar will be having a conversation with me.”

“You don’t have to reveal any trade secrets,” I said, “but how did you save so much of the original finish?”

“Sense of smell,” Bob explained. “As I take down the finishes, I can smell them and after all these years of working on guitars, I can pretty much tell you what the finish is and when it was applied. When I got to the French polish, it gave off a very distinct smell. That’s when I stopped.”

Great luthiers are the real guitar heroes.

I play the Stahl every day now. It’s my musical soul mate. I know I’ll never be a great musician. And that’s fine. The process of learning guitar continues to unfold for me. I like it that way.

Was resurrecting the Stahl worth the time, money and effort? Was it merely an attempt to recapture my youth? What I can tell you is that my Larson guitar testifies that a tradition honored 100 years ago is adhered to still with patience and pride. I’ll be passing the Stahl along someday, and isn’t the past always present in the hope we have in the future?

My Stahl Style 6 sits in my guitar room next to a Liberty Tree guitar made from the wood of the tulip poplar I sat under on St. John’s campus all those years ago. Hurricane Floyd roared through Annapolis in 1999 and fatally damaged the 400-year-old tree. Taylor guitars purchased the wood and built 400 fancy instruments. It’s strikes me as wholly appropriate that my Stahl and the Liberty Tree sit side by side.

After all, something so complete has a beauty all its own.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.


Rainy Day Cocktails

Always seem to know when it’s time to call


By Tony Cross

As I’m writing this, our state is going into a mandatory stay-at-home lockdown for folks who do not fall into the criteria of jobs considered “essential.” If you work at a grocery store, pharmacy, hardware store or even a bank, you can go to work if you choose. A lot of other folks must stay home.

This is the hardest column I’ve ever had to write. All of my friends in the restaurant/bar business are clinging to hope that this passes soon; most of them know it will not. I’m at a loss for words.

To say that these past weeks have been devastating would be a huge understatement and, in a way, somewhat disrespectful to those who have had their world flipped upside down. With that being said, a lot of people are staying home, which is good. Be responsible. A lot of you are stuck inside with your significant others. I feel for you, too. Hopefully, by the time you read this, we’ll no longer be hiding from a virus. But, just in case we are, here are some cocktails to make at home, while we’re trying to stay sane and keep hope alive.

I’m going to pick two spirits this month (bourbon and agave) and give a drink recommendation for each. If we’re still asked to stay at home a month from now, I’ll pick two more, rinse and repeat. So get out your jiggers, measuring spoons — whatever you’ve got — and try to have fun together, before you claw each other’s eyes out. As for me, all I can say is, “Cheers to being single!”


Besides drinking whiskey neat, there are myriad things that you can mix up at home, but for now we’ll stick with a classic. For those of you who come back to read this mess month after month, I know that I’m reposting this, but we may have some new friends tuning in.


The definitive cocktail, right? Spirit, sugar, bitters and water. There ya go. Personally, I prefer a rye whiskey, but when you’re stuck at home, you play with the hand you’ve been dealt. By the way, I’ve been told that our local ABC stores are essential, so I guess things could be worse. Here’s how I build an old-fashioned when I’m home. I take my rocks glass and add a quarter-ounce of a rich demerara syrup. (To make that I stir together two parts demerara sugar and one-part water over medium heat until the sugar dissolves.) After the syrup, I add three dashes of Angostura bitters, one dash of Regan’s orange bitters, and one dash of Angostura orange bitters. Why two different orange bitters? Because I’m complex. No. Because the Regan’s is dry and the Ango is sweet. Together they bring an orange balance. If you are tuning in for the first time, I completely understand that now is the time you turn the page and read something else. No offense taken.

Add two ounces of whichever whiskey you’ve got on hand and give it all a quick stir. Next is ice. I use a large cube and stir for 50 or so revolutions, until the glass is chilled, and you feel the drink has been properly diluted. Remember, water is an ingredient, so make sure you stir. Then I’ll take a swath of orange and lemon peels, expressing oils over the drink, and put them in my cocktail. If you feel it looks good enough to drink, then do it.


It’s warming up. My favorite time of year is here, and it’s almost literally the only thing I’m smiling about these days. Margarita season is upon us. If you’re new to this column, first thing’s first: no store-bought mix. Ever. Take it out of your mind. It doesn’t exist. Here’s how to make a somewhat-decent ’Rita from scratch. Grab a cocktail shaker. If you don’t have one, maybe you have a protein shaker. Not ideal, but who cares; you want a margarita, right? Add 3/4 to an ounce of fresh lime juice (you’ll need to squeeze your own) into the shaker. Take a rich simple syrup (refer to the old-fashioned recipe to make it yourself, but use white or cane sugar instead), adding a quarter or half-ounce to the shaker. If you like your margarita a bit sweeter, opt for the half-ounce. Add roughly a half-ounce of Cointreau (orange liqueur). If you only have triple sec, that will do. If you have none of the above, that’s OK, too. I’ll give you an alternative in a few.

Now comes the tequila. You’ll want a blanco tequila — it’s clear and unaged; light and crisp; perfect for margaritas. If you have a reposado, that will most definitely work as well. If you only have an añejo, I wouldn’t dare. Pour two ounces of the tequila into the shaker. Before you add ice, make sure you have your drinkware ready. If you’re having it on the rocks, make sure your glass is packed with ice. If you’d like to have a salted rim, take a lime wedge, and rim it around the glass. I recommend only rimming half of the glass; that way you can switch back and forth from a salted sip to a non-salted sip. If you’re having your drink straight up, make sure your coupe or martini glass has been in your freezer while you’ve been preparing it. Now add a lot of ice to your mixing vessel, seal it, and shake the hell out of it until it’s nice and frosty (if you’re actually using the protein shaker, you bro-shake it hard for about 10-15 seconds). Strain your margarita over ice or in your coupe. If you didn’t have an orange liqueur to add, you can take the peel of an orange, and spray the oils over the cocktail like we did with the old-fashioned. You can also add a lime wedge on the glass for a garnish, but I usually drink mine instantly and forget.

Stay well everyone.  OH

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.


Photograph by Tony Cross

O.Henry Ending

The Big Gulp

A foreign national finds himself in uncharted waters


By Cynthia Adams

In my husband’s home country of South Africa, refills on coffee or sodas are not free as they are in American restaurants. Ice is by request, and water is a scarce resource. When we began dating his first year in America, he was still adjusting. He gaped open-mouthed as a waitress brought an unsolicited glass of H2O.

“That’s amazing,” he muttered, staring at the sweating glass. 

“How come?” I asked.

“Because I didn’t order water,” he answered, as I was thinking, “Wow. Such great service,” draining my glass.

Our entire first date at a now defunct Tate Street joint, went something like this:

Him: “So.  Tell me about your growing up.”

Me: “Well, I was born in Union County, blah blah blah . . .”

Waitress: “Hon, what can I get you?”

Him: “I’ll need a menu first.”

Me: “. . . and there were five children in our family . . .”

Waitress: (Returning with menus under her arm and two more glasses of ice water): “Can I get you something else?”

Him: (Looking confused, staring at water): “I still haven’t seen the menu.”

Me: “. . . and my father was this really free spirit . . .”

Waitress: “What about you, Hon? Ready yet?”

Me: (Opening menu, sighing, as I’m just getting warmed up with my personal biography) “I’ll just have the burger.”

Him: “Umm.”

Waitress: “Will that be the veggie burger, the Tate Street Spirit burger, the Tate Street Garbanzo-bean burger, the cheeseburger, or the daily burger?”

Me: “Cheeseburger.”

Him: “Ahhh . . . er . . .”

Waitress: “Would you like a side with that, Hon? Our sides are: string fries, steak fries, waffle fries, a blooming onion, Methuselah carrot sticks, regular chips, or slaw?”

Me: “No thanks.”

Him: “Ahhh . . . uhhhh . . .”

Waitress: “And what can I get you to drink?”

Him: “Ma’am, I have waters I haven’t drunk yet.” 

Waitress: “But what would you like, Hon? We have draft beers, imported beers, low-cal beers, no-carb beers, white ales, lagers, stouts  . . .”

Him: (In a strangled voice, staring into a brimming water glass) “A Bud?”

I think it took him 35 minutes to order. The waitress alternated between coming back to take our pulse and sprinting over with a sweating pitcher of ice water to refill our glasses. Having come from a sunburnt, drought-stricken country, he felt morally obliged to drink every drop. He did his best to keep up with the steady flow, gulping as I talked. 

On that night, my future husband wound up dining on ice water, a Budweiser and a dish of vanilla ice cream. This is the truth. 

I no longer remember the total glasses of water he drank; but I do remember how long it took him to finish the beer and the melting ice cream.

When the checks arrived, his tense face relaxed. Then, alongside the bills, he emptied pockets bulging with coins. “What am I supposed to do with all these?” he wailed, piling pennies on the table.

This was America; his new chosen land, where ice water and copper pennies flowed, come hell or high . . . er, water.  OH

Cynthia Adams has an unquenchable thirst for most beverages and a special fondness for people from foreign locales. She is a contributing editor to O.Henry.


Illustration by Harry Blair

The Omnivorous Reader

The Delta Blues Legend Nobody Knew

A new biography of Robert Johnson comes alive with anecdotal details


By Stephen E. Smith

Biographers, musicologists and blues aficionados who’ve attempted to research the life and times of bluesman Robert Johnson have faced a daunting challenge: Not much is known about the elusive Johnson, who was born out of wedlock in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, in 1911, and whose lifeless body was found 27 years later in a ditch outside Greenwood.

All that remains of Johnson are a couple of photographs — and they don’t tell us much about his life — and a death certificate that lists only the date of his demise (Aug. 16, 1938) and the location of the body when it was found. And, of course, there are the 29 classic recordings, including 12 outtakes, of Johnson’s playing and singing what would eventually transform the man in a pinstripe suit holding a Gibson L-1 guitar into the definitive bluesman whose Delta style influenced a generation of guitar heroes.

Those are the available facts. The heart of the Robert Johnson legend, the details of how he lived and the appalling circumstances surrounding his death, are based on speculation, hearsay, rumor and outright invention, and despite a plethora of books, a feature film and a documentary or two, there’s been little primary source material available until the publication of Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson, by Annye C. Anderson with Preston Lauterbach.

Annye Anderson is Johnson’s stepsister. She considers Robert “family,” although they weren’t blood relatives and were linked only by a convoluted mixing of broken relationships and communal living arrangements. Still, she managed to spend time with the great bluesman through her preteens, and she willingly supplies anecdotal details and insights into his life and personal habits. She also retells stories that were passed down to her from her extended family.

Given the dearth of information surrounding Johnson’s life, Anderson’s testimony is a welcome addition to the historical record, but the serious reader must be willing to take Anderson’s recollections at face value. Although there’s a chance of falling victim to a hoax, there’s no reason to believe that Anderson isn’t who she says she is. She supplies a summary of family relationships that link her to Johnson, and her intimate knowledge of the time and place in which Johnson lived is convincing enough. It’s reasonable to assume, or at least to hope, that Anderson’s collaborator, Preston Lauterbach, the author of three previous blues-related volumes, and the publisher, Hachette Books, have done their homework.

Anderson’s stated purpose is to “set the record straight.” Readers learn about Johnson’s daily routine in Memphis and details of his hoboing, his love life, his favorite foods, his preferred tobacco, and the divergent sources of his music.

Given the time and social circumstances in which he lived, Johnson was aesthetically middlebrow. “I know his (Brother Robert’s) repertoire pretty well,” Anderson writes. “He was blues, he was folk, he was country. Jimmie Rodgers was his favorite, and he became my favorite. Brother Robert could yodel just like he did. We did ‘Waiting for a Train,’ together. . . . And you name it. All the Irish songs he did, because in the South they used to sing lots of those songs: ‘Annie Laurie,’ ‘My Bonnie,’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne.’” Like many bluesmen of the period, Johnson played at juke joints, in parks, at rent parties and dances, and on street corners and front porches, but never achieved national recognition during his lifetime.

Typical of Anderson’s recollections is Johnson’s last visit at a family gathering on the evening of the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight. Johnson, guitar in hand, was decked out in a white sharkskin suit, Panama hat and patent leather shoes. “He was razor sharp when he dressed,” Anderson recalls. “He (Johnson) did ‘Terraplane (Blues),’ ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ ‘Kind Hearted Woman,’ he and Son (Johnson’s half-brother) did ‘44 Blues’. . . . That night of the big fight was the last time I saw him.”

Johnson died not long after the Louis-Schmeling bout. “Everyone was in shock,” she writes. “He was dead two weeks before we knew. . . . We weren’t going to sing Jimmie Rogers together ever again, or sing ‘John Henry’ together anymore.”

The second half of Anderson’s memoir is a predictable tale of music-biz skulduggery. Johnson’s recordings went unappreciated until Columbia Records released King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961. In the early ’60s, Steve LaVere, a researcher and promoter of blues artists, began to focus on the Johnson legend, making himself wealthy in the process. Anderson sums up seemingly endless controversy in one paragraph: “People say Steve LaVere made Robert Johnson a legend. No. Steve LaVere didn’t tell Eric Clapton about Robert Johnson. He didn’t tell Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones. Musicians already knew Brother Robert’s work before LeVere got into the picture. That’s the whole reason LeVere got involved. Those big artists had covered Brother Robert’s songs that nobody had copyrighted. Brother Robert was already a goldmine fifteen years before he won a Grammy. Steve LaVere caught on before anyone else, and we never caught up to him.”

As for the oft-repeated myth that Johnson sold his soul to the devil and the melodramatic stories surrounding his death by poisoning or from the ravages of congenital syphilis, Anderson dismisses it all, noting that people will say “anything for a dollar.”

Despite endless legal wrangling, Anderson and her half-sister Carrie Spencer never profited from Johnson’s belated success, and a sense of bitterness shades her memoir. In addition to setting the record straight, money is surely one of the motivations behind Brother Robert. Claud Johnson, who was ruled by the Mississippi Supreme Court to be Robert Johnson’s son, received over a million dollars in royalties in 1998. “My family lost all we worked for during the past twenty-five years,” Anderson writes. “You know, I was born at night, but not last night.”

Anderson supplies blues enthusiasts with a few mundane but revealing recollections that help flesh out the character of Robert Johnson, but we still lack a fully dimensional portrait. The man remains a mystery, a mostly fictive figure whose 29 recordings have had a profound influence on an essential American art form.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

May 2020 Almanac

By Ash Alder


May is a series of miracles so intertwined that nothing feels separate from it.

Take, for example, the mockingbird fledgling, who leaps from its nest 12 days after hatching.

Twelve days.

The descent is less than graceful. More like a stone than a feather. And when he lands, stunned, on the soft earth beneath the tree, each blade of grass performs its highest service. As if cradled in the hands of an invisible, benevolent force, the fledgling rests.

Tender new life abounds. White-tail fawns take their first wonky steps. Red fox kits explore a world outside their den. And like the mockingbird fledgling, now flapping its newfound wings and hopping in the grass, these precious babes are easy prey.

As baby bird performs his hop-flap-plop routine, mama and papa bird stay close, ever ready to defend him. That’s the thing about mockers. If ever you’ve seen one chase off a raven, jay or crow, then you’re familiar with the raspy battle cry of a tiny beast that knows no fear. 

Days have passed, and the fledgling’s wings are growing stronger. There’s no shortage of ants, grasshoppers and beetles for feeding, and under his parents’ watchful eyes, he’s gaining air with every jump.

Not far from the tree where the mocker babe hatched is a quiet road not far from your house.

This is where you enter the picture.

On a leisurely walk, the air sweet with magnolia blossoms and spring roses, you notice a stopped car, the driver kneeling in front of a small lump in the middle of the road.

“I can’t leave him here!” says the driver, a young mother who is visibly shaken by the sight of this tiny being — a mockingbird fledgling whose wiry feathers and wide yellow beak somehow make it look like a curmudgeonly old man.

He isn’t injured, you observe. Just spent from a recent flight lesson. Relieved, the driver snags a toddler shirt from the back of her car, and you use it to gently scoop him off the road.

When you set him down on the earth, the fledgling gives a brave little squawk, flaps his wings, then musters the strength for a few shaky steps before plopping down in the soft grass for more rest.

One day, you think, that mockingbird will take flight. And one day, sooner than you think, he will have one hundred songs to sing.

You hear a crow caw in the distance, and as mama bird watches from her nearby perch, you can’t help but smile at the miracle of it all.


But I must gather knots of flowers,

And buds and garlands gay,

For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother,

I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

—Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The May Queen”



The Rose Garden

Red rose isolated on white background.

May is a jubilant explosion of fragrant blossoms.

Crabapple and dogwood. Violets and magnolia. Flame azalea and flowering quince.

And then there are roses.

If you’ve ever known a rose gardener, then you’ve seen the light in the eyes of a soul who has seen life after perceived death (dormancy).

I once toured the rose garden of a retired Episcopal priest who described the deep sadness of cutting his blossoms each winter, and the wonder of their return. I’ll never forget his tender nature or, for that matter, his favorite rose.

“Dolly Parton,” he told me, pointing to a fragrant red rose in the corner of his garden. “She’s wonderful. She just blooms and blooms.”


When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it
hitched to everything else in the Universe.
— John Muir


Garden Spotlight

Dill isolated on white

Let’s hear it for fennel, folks!

This perennial herb has long been cultivated for the digestive-aiding properties of its fruit (fennel seeds), but its bulb and leaves are likewise packed with nutrients.

Fennel is good medicine for the heart, skin and bones. It aids with inflammation and metabolism. And, lucky for (most of) us, it tastes like licorice.

There are dozens of ways to eat the bulb, but if you’re looking for fresh and easy, try pairing it with red plums (thinly sliced) for a slam-dunk salad topped with honey-ginger dressing. Enjoy!  OH

The Accidental Astrologer

May the Force Be With You

All things seem possible in May

By Astrid Stellanova

There’s so much to love about May: Memorial Day, Dance Like a Chicken Day and Star Wars Day.

Star Children, attention must be paid to the May born, whether Taurus or Gemini. Some May children are deeply worried, even clinically depressed. Others, unusually sunny and full of a belief in possibilities. 

Queen Victoria, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, George Lucas, Audrey Hepburn, Adele, Bing Crosby, Mark Zuckerberg, Bob Dylan and Janet Jackson share the same birth month. One way or another, they will get your attention.


Taurus (April 20–May 20)               

This we know: You could talk to a telephone pole. Your motto in life is, “I don’t talk to strangers, so introduce yourself, Honey!” In the midst of the viral epidemic, you want to wade into the crowd and give the world a big old hug and talk. Admirable, if dangerous. Dial pals for solace if you absolutely must. 

Gemini (May 21–June 20)

Hey you, with the chip on your shoulder! Do. Not. Try. Me. Your friends and family are dying to say that, want you to get off the crazy train and remember who loves you. Love isn’t always enough, but neither is rage. Grab your chance for redemption.

Cancer (June 21–July 22)

Serial hobbyist that you are, you’re itching to build a better tree house, or make the world’s finest pizza. Well, Honey, just go full tilt boogie, because it is good to explore all creative outlets. Summer brings opportunities to learn and create.

Leo (July 23–August 22)

Fluent in the language of sarcasm, are you? Sugar Booger, it’s time to find another way to mix and mingle. You’re quick with the quip but that can be tiresome for your bestie. Listen with the same dedication and you’ll learn your nearest and dearest truly need to be heard.

Virgo (August 23–September 22)

Last month was about as fun as dropping the hair dryer into the bath water. Electrifying and horrifying. There’s still some fallout, and Darling, it must unfold before you get back to whatever normal is. Your pack is waiting for you to get past that final hurdle and find peace.

Libra (September 23–October 22)

Measure twice, cut once, Sugar Pie. Not that meticulous you need to hear such advice but in these unusual times, details must be observed, and you have been way too preoccupied.  Snap out of it, and recognize freedom from a redo by doing it right.

Scorpio (October 23–November 21)

You are the boss, Applesauce, of your life. Nobody else but you.  As stubbornly as you cling to the past, the present is right there before you with a lot of hope, light and love. Still clinging to some very old notions about who was what, when you were a younger you? Fuggedabout it. 

Sagittarius (November 22–December 21)

You are closer to catching lightning in a jar for the second time, Honey. Don’t let anything convince you that your idea isn’t worth the work and worry. You see something that not everybody has the vision to see, the mind to master it and the mouth to broadcast it. Do it!

Capricorn (December 22–January 19)

You slowed the boat and now you are nearing the season when all good things will come to You Who Waited. Patience will be rewarded. Remember, Sweet Thing, all the people who supported you on what looked like a Moon mission. They stood by. Now share the spotlight.

Aquarius (January 20–February 18)

Now you are in a particularly interesting phase of your life, caught between contemplating and cogitating — and overthinking. It’s easy for you to get stuck there, because you are seeing multiple dimensions. Resist stalling, Honey, because if your hunch is right, act!

Pisces (February 19–March 20)

Now what? You like a clear path laid out and can’t see ahead. Murkiness is just the way it is, Love Bug. Nobody is getting a marked map these days with a big X over the treasure. Yet a big part of you recognizes that the treasure isn’t hidden. It’s right there, in your own hand, within your big heart.

Aries (March 21–April 19)

There’s just something about a fire sign that makes people gather round. Aries fire can either warm or burn, and some get too close. Here’s a chance to find a balance. Not everyone needs for you to bring them a Hershey bar. Or a scolding. Try subduing that big old force field for a few days.  OH

For years, Astrid Stellanova owned and operated Curl Up and Dye Beauty Salon in the boondocks of North Carolina until arthritic fingers and her popular astrological readings provoked a new career path.

A Page Out of History

The greatness of Walter Hines Page


By Bill Case

Woodrow Wilson spent the bulk of his first term steering America clear of World War I, which had raged over Europe for 2 1/2 years when he made his bid for reelection. He used the slogans “America First” and “He Kept Us Out of War” during his 1916 campaign, which led to his narrow electoral victory. However, a growing number of Americans felt that Wilson’s neutrality policy was wrongheaded following his response to a German U-boat’s May 1915 sinking of the unarmed British ocean liner Lusitania with 128 American passengers aboard. Few in his administration spoke in opposition.

One member of the inner circle who dared to question the president’s approach was Walter Hines Page, America’s ambassador to Great Britain. Wilson had appointed his longtime confidant to the prestigious post in 1913. Page’s selection was not based on his diplomacy experience, since he had none. It had more to do with rewarding the native North Carolinian for his role in aiding Wilson’s political advancement over a 30-year period.

It was presumed the ambassadorship would provide the 57-year-old Page a mostly trouble-free conclusion to a remarkably eclectic career that had included successful turns in academia, journalism, publishing, social reform, public policy advocacy and farming. But the ambassador considered it his duty to inform the president of British (and his own) disapproval with the administration’s failure to act more decisively toward Germany. His fault-finding missives from London irritated Wilson, who complained that Page “seemed more British than the British.” A degree of frost formed over their relationship.

Page was born in 1855 in a small settlement in Wake County, North Carolina, that eventually became the city of Cary. His father, Allison Francis (Frank) Page, founded the town. A rugged, God-fearing Methodist, Frank Page made a small fortune extracting turpentine from pine trees and sawmilling them into lumber. Standing an impressive 6 feet 5 inches, he commanded respect bordering on awe. Walter’s mother, Catherine, was of a more intellectual bent, usually observed with a book in her hands.

The tall, gangling, curly-headed boy’s parents steered their scholarly son in the direction of the ministry, sending the 16-year-old to Methodist-run Trinity College, located in the backwoods of Randolph County (later the school moved to Durham and was renamed Duke University).

Wat, as he was called, was miserable at Trinity, and after an unhappy year transferred in 1872 to another Methodist school, Randolph-Macon College, in Ashland, Virginia.

“It was at Ashland that I first began to unfold,” Page would later remark. “Dear old Ashland!” Though he loved school he resisted his father’s wishes that he become a minister. “I’m damned if I’ll become a Methodist preacher,” he told his father. After a disappointed Frank refused to pay for further tuition, Walter self-financed the remainder of his education.

In 1876, Page was one of 21 students gaining admittance to America’s first graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. Initially, he flourished in the intense regimen, but by the midterm of his second year, he had become bored with the nuances of Greek and Latin, disparagingly calling himself a “Greek drudge,” and left without completing his course of study.

Visualizing a career in journalism and harboring “dreams and aspirations” of owning and editing a magazine, he invested $1,000 and became half-owner and the editorial writer of a fledgling Louisville weekly called The Age after teaching there.

Unfortunately, it folded in June 1879, barely three months after his investment.

Undaunted, Page combed his native North Carolina looking for “any sort” of journalistic position, but, as he ruefully put it, “journalism didn’t seem in any hurry to make up its mind to admit me.”

During a summer stay in Cary, Page fell in love with Alice Wilson, whom he’d first met as a teenager. The smitten couple became engaged during the 1879 Christmas holidays, postponing marriage until Page could obtain gainful employment.

Unable to find his footing as 1880 loomed, a breakthrough occurred in January when Walter Page landed a job as a reporter at a St. Joseph, Missouri, newspaper, The Gazette, contributing all kinds of articles “from stockyard reports to political editorials and heavy literary articles.” After five months, the publisher promoted young Page to editor-in-chief and raised his salary, giving

Walter and Alice the wherewithal to tie the knot in November 1880. Page wrote to several Northern newspapers, advising them of his intention to travel, observe and write about the post-Civil War South.

His letter-writing gambit succeeded. The big-city papers printed his submissions and paid for the privilege. “I had money in my pocket for the first time in my life,” he recalled. Moreover, the essays impressed the editor of the New York World, who offered Page a correspondent’s job with the paper. He accepted and headed north. His beat included congressional hearings regarding tariff measures as well as the tariff commission itself.

Page’s coverage of the commission brought him to Atlanta in 1882, where he met 26-year-old Woodrow Wilson. The two men engaged in a discussion regarding the merits of protectionism versus free trade. Believing he had discovered a budding political star, Page would gush to a colleague that Wilson “has one of the finest minds in America. Keep your eye on him!”

When the World changed ownership in May 1883, Page resigned and returned to North Carolina hoping to personally own and edit a publication in his home state. With financial help from his father, he launched a weekly newspaper in Raleigh, The State Chronicle. Page’s editorials lauded Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland and derided local politicians as “small men” holding obsolete and parochial views.

The paper proved unprofitable, however, and in February 1885, Page ceded its control to Josephus Daniels (who would later buy Raleigh’s principal newspaper, the News and Observer), and retreated to New York. Though still revering North Carolina, the frustrated Page abandoned thoughts of making a living there. He told his father, “there is no (use) in my trying to do anything down south anymore. I have proved disastrous every time.”

Comfortably ensconced in Manhattan with Alice and two toddlers, Ralph

and Arthur (who would later be joined by two more children, Frank and

Katharine), Page penned freelance articles for magazines like The Atlantic and Harper’s Magazine mostly pertaining to the South and national politics. He was becoming, as one biographer put it, “a self-appointed but recognized ambassador from the South to the North.”

Page rose to prominence in New York’s magazine scene — unusual for a Southerner at the time — ultimately landing in Boston as the editor of The Atlantic — the magazine industry’s gold standard — and its book-publishing parent, Houghton, Mifflin & Company.

As editor, Page cultivated the era’s top fiction writers, and expanded Atlantic’s treatment of political topics such as American imperialism and the perils of unregulated monopolies. At Page’s behest, his friend Woodrow Wilson contributed three public policy articles.

Page’s gravitation toward national politics did not deter him from expounding on a pet concern: Southern educational reform. He spoke on the subject in Greensboro at the Normal School’s 1897 commencement exercises. In his eloquent “Forgotten Man” speech, which served as an important catalyst for educational reform in North Carolina, Page maintained that the state had

failed to develop its most valuable resource, “the people themselves . . . forgotten and neglected.” He decried North Carolina’s long history of providing scant resources to educate the less fortunate. These were the people whom “both the politician and the preacher have failed to lift.”

Though sitting in one of publishing’s most prestigious editorial chairs, Page still longed to be his own boss. He resigned from The Atlantic in 1899 and, after a brief misbegotten adventure with McClure’s Magazine, ventured into the book publishing business with Frank   in New York. Doubleday, Page & Company started small, but grew quickly. Page enticed prominent men of letters like Theodore Dreiser, Booker T. Washington, Rudyard Kipling and Upton Sinclair to join the publisher’s list. Woodrow Wilson’s book The New Freedom was sold under the Doubleday, Page umbrella. The company published a magazine, The World’sWork, which became Page’s primary focus.

Sons Ralph and Frank would follow their father into journalism. Ralph wrote a successful book as well as articles for The World’s Work. Frank became an editor.

Meanwhile, Page continued to assist Woodrow Wilson’s political advancement.

He came to his fellow Southerner’s aid in 1910 when Wilson, then the president of Princeton University, successfully ran for governor of New Jersey.

Wilson’s meteoric political rise was capped by his election to the presidency two years later. Page played a significant role in Wilson’s presidential campaign, raising money and providing reams of favorable publicity in The World’s Work. Following the election, Wilson met with Page to obtain the latter’s advice regarding prospective administration appointments. The Washington rumor mill speculated that The World’s Work editor would soon be appointed either secretary of Agriculture or secretary of the Interior.

On March 26, 1913, now-President Wilson threw Page a curveball. Instead of the anticipated Washington Cabinet post, Wilson offered Page the position of ambassador to Great Britain. The surprised Page harbored misgivings over the prospect of leaving America for an extended period but understood the ambassadorship was a glamorous assignment. He agreed to serve, and boarded the ocean liner Baltic sailing for England on May 15, 1913. “Here I am going to London to talk international affairs with the men who rule the British Empire,” wrote Page while aboard ship.

Indeed, he got along famously with the bluebloods in London’s highest places: royalty, members of Parliament, and most especially Sir Edward Grey, the foreign minister, who would become a close personal friend.

Page regarded it his responsibility to provide the president unvarnished

British reaction to U.S. policies. One such example occurred when Congress enacted legislation in 1912 exempting American ships from the payment of tolls when passing through the Panama Canal. An outraged British government claimed this measure breached a treaty providing that ships of all nations would be treated equally in their use of the canal. Page’s September 13, 1913 letter to Wilson cited “the dishonorable attitude of our Government about the Panama Canal tolls . . . We made a bargain — a solemn compact — and we have broken it.”

Wilson agreed with Page’s view and appreciated the ambassador’s hard-hitting assessment. “Your letters are like a lamp to my feet,” responded the president. Wilson persuaded Congress to repeal the exemption.

Throughout the first year-and-a-half of Page’s ambassadorship, Wilson expressed delight with his friend’s erudite correspondence. “I hope that Walter Page’s letters will be published. They are the best letters I have ever read!” exclaimed the president.

The outbreak of World War I in July 1914 aggravated the manifold burdens of Ambassador Page’s office. London-based Americans, fearful of being caught in the middle of the war, were leaving England in droves, requiring the ambassador’s assistance. But the ambassador’s hardest task was to avoid doing anything that would contravene American neutrality toward the belligerents while at the same time conveying his personal sympathy and friendship to Great Britain. The exhausting duties caused his health to deteriorate as an ulcer flared up, made worse by Page’s incessant smoking.

During the first years of the war, Wilson sought to be an impartial mediator, hoping to obtain peace by seeking common ground between the warring countries. Page considered the president’s impulses noble but naïve. According to Page, the German leaders, were “another case of Napoleon— even more brutal; a dream of universal conquest . . . Prussian militarism (must) be utterly cut out, as surgeons cut out a cancer. And the Allies will do it — must do it — to live.”

Wilson’s reading pleasure dissipated as Page’s increasingly unwelcome correspondence advanced positions out of synch with those of the administration.

With his re-election campaign looming, Wilson was determined to do nothing that could draw America into the war or undermine his role as a mediator of peace. The antagonized president ignored his ambassador’s entreaties, other than to warn him through staff “to please be more careful not to express any unneutral feeling either by word of mouth or by letter.”

Page was stunned by Wilson’s failure to comprehend the threat to democracy caused by autocratic Germany. His exasperation grew when the president issued a “we are too proud to fight” statement in response to the sinking of the Lusitania. After the Germans torpedoed another ship with Americans aboard,

Page wrote the president in January 1916 that officials in the prime minister’s cabinet had confided their impression “that the United States will submit to any indignity.”

American state department diplomats began meeting regularly with their British counterparts without bothering to notify the out-of-step ambassador.

Page visited America during August and September 1916, ultimately gaining an audience with the president on September 23. Although cordial enough, the president stiff-armed Page’s assertion that Germany was the world’s scourge. The ambassador was profoundly discouraged with Wilson’sassessment that the war was “essentially a quarrel to settle economic rivalries between Germany & England.”

Wilson assumed his bargaining hand as peacemaker would be strengthened by his re-election, but he was wrong. Two events in early 1917 would end his mediation efforts and draw America into the conflict.

In an attempt to starve out its enemy, Germany announced that it would henceforward commit unrestricted submarine warfare against any neutral countries’ ships transporting goods to England, including the U.S. This was followed by British intelligence’s discovery of the “Zimmerman telegram” cabled by the German Foreign Office to the Mexican government. It proposed a military alliance between those two countries in which Mexico would ultimately recover the states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico in the event America entered the war. Americans were outraged at Germany’s treachery, and public opinion suddenly turned in favor of entering the war.

It took another month for Wilson to abandon hopes for peace and ask Congress to declare war, but he finally did so on April 2. Page was elated. “I cannot conceal nor can I repress my gratification we are in the war at last,” he wrote. He felt vindicated that his “letters & telegrams . . . for nearly two years” had proved clairvoyant and helped alter Wilson’s pacifistic stance. “I have accomplished something . . . I swear I have.”

The war dragged into 1918, and American casualties mounted, including

Page’s nephew, Allison Page, a U.S. Marine, killed in battle at Belleau Wood.

Page’s health, never robust, got progressively worse. He suffered from hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure and early-stage emphysema. Told he would require six months’ rest, Page wrote Wilson on August 1 and submitted his resignation. When he left London on October 2, he required support on each arm to make it to his private railroad car. Upon reaching New York, further examination added diagnoses of retinal hemorrhages, heart congestion and kidney failure to Page’s mounting woes.

On December 11, Page boarded a private railroad car and came home to North Carolina. Literally carried off the train by his son at the Aberdeen station, he remarked, “Well, Frank, I did get here after all, didn’t I?”

Walter and Alice Page rented a cottage in Pinehurst.

Page was reunited with several of his siblings, but his condition declined a week later. He died on December 21. Following its practice of not printing a word about deaths in Pinehurst, the Pinehurst Outlook, coincidentally edited by Ralph, made no announcement of his father’s demise.

But Page’s Christmas Eve funeral at Page Memorial Church and burial at the Page family plot at Old Bethesda Cemetery in Aberdeen did receive international attention. Given his role in ending the “War to End All Wars,” virtually giving his life to the cause, Walter Page was hailed as an American hero. His grave became a mecca, visited by grateful Americans paying him honor. The state built a road to the cemetery to absorb the traffic.

Johns Hopkins would honor Page by founding the Walter Page School of International Relations.

While Wilson and his administration did not always appreciate Walter Hines Page, England still does. In a vestibule of Westminster Abbey is a sculpture of Page with a testament that reads, “The friend of Britain in her sorest need.”  OH

Pinehurst resident Bill Case is PineStraw’s history man. He can be reached at