Remembering a Wonderful Life
My invitation to attend “A gathering in honor and memory of Doris Betts” came from Bland Simpson, locally known as the leader of the Tony Award- winning string band The Red Clay Ramblers.
In his other life, he has been a teacher in UNC-Chapel Hill’s creative writing program since 1982 and is a Kenan Distinguished Professor of English and creative writing.
Bland, like so many writers and teachers, is an extremely sensitive man, which is evidenced in many of his books, which include “Heart of the Country: A Novel of Southern Music” and “The Great Dismal.”
It’s among the reasons he was a close friend of a woman who worked out of a cramped office in Greenlaw Hall and taught fiction writing for 32 years.
Doris Betts passed away in April, at the age of 79, at her home, Araby Farm, near Pittsboro in Chatham County, and was buried, according to her wishes, without fanfare.
But on Sunday, Oct. 7, at 3 p.m., the Alumni Hall at the Hill Alumni Center on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill was filled to capacity as faculty, friends and followers filed in to pay their respects to a woman once described by author Lee Smith as “a woman as down-to-earth as the Piedmont soil she comes from.”
UNC Chancellor H. Holden Thorp spoke of her long career and the lessons in learning she passed on to him when he first assumed his position at the university. Knowing that she could have chosen a single career as a writer, he had questioned why she deprived herself of time by staying in the classroom. His conclusion was that she simply “had” to teach.
Colleagues Marianne Gingher, Bowman, Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor; Randall Kenan, associate professor in the creative writing program; and Tara Powell, associate professor of English and Southern stories, shared their own personal insights.
In retrospect, they summed up the same woman, but as seen from behind a pair of varying shades of rose-colored glasses.
Betty Ray McCain, former secretary of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, was well-chosen to be last in the lineup of speakers.
Living up to her reputation as the “Fireball from Faison,” she added just the right dose of spicy humor to a mixture of accolades rich in homage and humility.
But it was Doris Betts, on film, promoting the 1992 Bicentennial Campaign for funding “Testifying to the Best in Teaching and Learning,” and Doris Betts, at the inauguration of Gov. James B. Hunt, Jr. on Jan. 11, 1997, who best defined herself.
Forever fostering the less fortunate students and “wannabe” writers of the world, she spoke in a voice that froze in midair on a day when the temperature reached nine degrees, to ask the outdoor audience, “Whose Child Is This?”
Steve Bouser recently invited residents of Moore County to consider taking a shot at writing a column for this paper. It’s another good move on the part of the editorial staff. But with it came a few words concerning the effort it takes to put a noun with a verb and make it interesting. His comments were not unlike another Doris Betts story Lee Smith shared in the printed program.
Following a reading, one of Doris’ students asked her, “What should I do if I want to become a writer?”
In her true nature, Doris replied, “My best advice for you, honey, is to stop if you possibly can! And if you can’t, then get ready to work like hell. Hang on to your day job. And remember, you may not make a living, but you’ll make a wonder life.”
If it’s true that we’re measured by the number of members from our own intimate fraternities who show up at our funerals, then Doris will reign among the mentors and muses most celebrated as a beloved writer and teacher; but, best of all, for the wonderful life she lived.
Contact Pinehurst writer Lois Holt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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