Remarkable Social Notes From '37
The notice appeared in one of those folksy little columns that are the staple of small-town newspapers - "Mrs. George so-and-so entertained Tuesday afternoon at a luncheon at her home on Massachusetts Avenue."
Nothing earthshaking, just local gossip of interest to no one outside the community and quickly forgotten by those readers who paused to take notice. But the Feb. 22, 1937, edition of The Pilot mentions two visitors to Southern Pines who would have a lasting impact on the history of the 20th century.
The first was 11-year-old Tom Wicker - who would, 30 years later, accompany the presidential motorcade as it wound its way into Dealey Plaza. Wicker, who died on Nov. 24 - almost 48 years after the Kennedy assassination - visited with his grandmother, Mrs. Mary C. Cameron of Southern Pines, on the weekend of Jan. 16, 1937. His visit was dutifully reported in The Pilot.
Wicker lived with his parents in Hamlet, where his father worked for the railroad, but he had numerous family and ancestral connections in Moore County and was probably a frequent visitor here.
According to online obits, Wicker decided to become a journalist after his attempts at writing novels failed. In 1949, he wrote for The Sandhill Citizen in Aberdeen and was paid $37.50 a week to report on local news stories such as the discovery of "the first beaver dam in anyone's memory on a local creek."
As Managing Editor David Sinclair wrote in Sunday's front-page feature story, Wicker would study journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and would move on to the larger Winston-Salem Journal, where he worked for most of the '50s. In 1957-58, he served as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and then took a job with The Nashville Tennessean. He was hired by The New York Times in 1959 and began covering the White House in 1961.
From Dallas, Wicker wrote of Mrs. Kennedy: "Her face was sorrowful. She looked steadily at the floor. She still wore the raspberry-colored suit in which she greeted welcoming crowds in Fort Worth and Dallas. But she had taken off the matching pillbox hat she had worn earlier in the day, and her dark hair was windblown and tangled. Her hand rested lightly on her husband's coffin as it was taken to a waiting hearse."
Wicker went on to work as an editor and columnist for The New York Times and retired to Vermont in 1991. He published 20 books, including "A Time to Die," which recounted his 1971 experience as mediator of the prisoner revolt at New York's Attica prison.
So who was the other notable visitor to Southern Pines during the week of Jan. 17, 1937? In a one-sentence paragraph below the mention of Wicker's visit, The Pilot announces: "Thomas Wolfe of New York is the guest of Mr. and Mrs. James Boyd for a few days at their home in Weymouth Heights."
Wolfe was, of course, the author of "Look Homeward, Angel" and other works of fiction that would become a part of the American literary canon.
According to a letter written by Boyd to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe arrived in town at 4:47 a.m. on Jan. 18, 1937, probably on the Cotton State Special, which was traveling north from Atlanta. He would have stepped onto the station platform just a few hours after young Tom Wicker had headed back to Hamlet.
The late James Boyd Jr. recalled in a 1998 interview, "I came down to breakfast, and there was this disheveled creature lying on the sofa. 'Who are you?' I asked him. 'Don't you talk to me like that!' Wolfe replied. Later, Wolfe read my father and me some of his writing, and I must have been a real s.o.b, because I said that it was too wordy. Wolfe got angry. 'What do you mean, too wordy?'"
No doubt, the citizens of sweet little Southern Pines went about their business, just as they do now, unaware of their proximity to greatness.
Contact Stephen Smith at email@example.com. Autographed copies of his latest book, "A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworths," are available at the Country Bookshop.
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