Southern People

In the days of a more level playing field, a healthy mistrust of unregulated private enterprise, and a reliance on the federal government to protect and encourage the eager and energetic under-funded (I refer to 1973 BRR… Before Ronald Reagan), I walked into Terry Sanford’s office at Duke.

Actually, I had humbly asked his secretary for an appointment at some future date, and she instead ushered me directly before the man himself.  Uncle Terry, as he was to become affectionately known to the undergraduates at Duke, appeared the antithesis of a political powerbroker… more like a Sheriff Andy Taylor in pinstripes. To call him relaxed would be as understated as calling Fred Astaire limber.  You couldn’t not like the guy.

Since I had graduated there a few years before Sanford became president of Duke, I walked into his office with a couple of credentials in hand: a record for working in public education and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts intended to present indigenous folk musicians to North Carolina school kids. However, the $5,000 grant was contingent on getting $5,000 in matching funds. I handed the grant proposal to Sanford with minimal hopes that he would direct me toward some promising sources of matching funds. I was prepared for exhaustive legwork in finding the money.

Of course, Sanford had a soft spot for North Carolina public education, which had been his main focus as governor from 1961-65. He also had a talent for good naturedly disarming opposition as he walked a delicate line nudging the state toward a more tolerant and liberal agenda on economic and civil rights issues.  He had been the first southern politician to endorse John Kennedy’s presidential campaign, eventually earning him consideration as a potential vice-presidential running mate for the 1964 race, till of course, Kennedy’s assassination ended that prospect.

So, as I sat before his desk in 1973 waiting for crumbs to fall from the table, Sanford read the particulars of my grant. Then he leaned over and picked up the phone to call the administrator of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. “I’ve got a young fellow here with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’d like you to give him $5,000 in matching funds.”  My naïve and under-funded jaw visibly dropped. This small amount, in 1973 to a 28 year old, seemed like a fortune.

Sanford looked at me and said, “Well, that’s taken care of.  We’ll forward this information on to the foundation, and then you can deal with them directly.” As I began stuttering my profuse and confused thanks, he sensed that I was surprised at this brief 15 minutes of petition offered and action granted. He smiled and said, “You see, those folks owe me a favor.”

Walking out of his office, my feet slightly elevated from the floor, I had a very profound “Oh, that’s how it works” revelation. I had lived my entire life to that point in a place where tiny rewards were gained at great price. Never before or since have I experienced such a confirmation that there’s another stratosphere where gratification is effortless, swift and abundant.

Over the next year, every time I called the fellow at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation for an incremental draw on the matching funds, the check was quickly mailed.  The administrator never failed, however, to inform me that this kind of project was not something they normally funded. Hearing his somewhat condescending attitude about the notion of paying for blues guitarists and fiddle players to entertain school kids, I chuckled to myself, wondering what must have been the favor they were repaying at Sanford’s request.

At the time, I had no idea, or interest actually, in who this Z. Smith Reynolds was.   It must have been almost 20 years later that I learned that he was the youngest and most wayward of the R. J. Reynolds children, the tobacco heirs. As a teenager in the 1930s he had little better to do than fly his airplane to New York City and hop from one night club to another. In these adventures, the young Reynolds fell completely silly for a nightclub blues singer named Libby Holman.  She was amused by his advances and proposal of marriage, but took it a little more seriously once he flew her to Winston-Salem and circled the Reynolds mansion from the air.

It was not long before they were married. And, it was not long after that, our young heir was found shot dead in the mansion after a night of drunken revelry with Libby and friends. Fast forwarding: scandal and money, given enough time, eventually turn into venerated respectability.  The mansion is now an art museum, and the foundation, in Z. Smith Reynolds  memory, has funded endless honorable pursuits.

And, my small project in the early ’70s has been a part of that list.  Without that one-stroke infusion of matching funds, it may have never survived the first year. And, I’d venture to say, I stretched that $10,000 so thin that more people have rarely been entertained and informed by more performers at less cost. Tea Party criticism of squandered federal dollars ignores these gems of fiscal efficiency. For every pork barrel disaster, I suspect there is a frugal success that never makes the news.

By the second year, the schools were willing to chip in the matching amount for concerts that included bluegrass bands, gospel quartets, ballad singers, blues guitarists, harmonica players, hollerers from Spivey’s Corner, and the emerging generation of young folkies carrying on the tradition.  And, needless to say, Terry Sanford had my unwavering political support in his ensuing runs for office, eventually becoming our U.S. senator from 1986 through 1992.

As the years went on, I read more history of the Smith Reynolds/Libby Holman drama and discovered an ironic twist to the story. Could it in any way explain the resentment of that Z. Smith Reynolds foundation administrator toward funding blues singers?  No one knows to this day who pulled the trigger of the gun that killed Reynolds.  However, Libby was arrested for the crime, and went before a grand jury which did not find cause to try her for the murder.  She returned to New York to resume her cabaret singing career.

Libby Holman sings, Josh White plays

Libby was one of the more daring performers of stage and nightclub in New York. Her recordings included her signature song, “Moanin’ Low” and the Cole Porter classic, “Love for Sale.” She was a frequent performer and recording partner with the black blues artist Josh White.  This was a hard pill to swallow for the traditional oligarchy of North Carolina who suspected that this “gold digging” New York vamp had both corrupted the young Reynolds (not that he needed help) and done him in. Libby, on the other hand, proclaiming her innocence, always maintained that she had barely escaped a lynching in North Carolina.

There’s a natural tendency to present the most admirable side of any story in a public setting, though my preference is to tell the whole story with a sense of balance and tolerance for human frailty.  The Reynolda House Art Museum, for instance, doesn’t note that notorious summer night within its walls in 1932, or direct anyone to the upstairs porch where Z. Smith Reynolds lay sprawled in Agatha Christie splendor. And, though Libby Holman’s later life eventually dissolved in more tragedy, she and particularly Josh White were at times true pioneers in the struggle for racial justice. Libby actually funded Martin Luther King’s trip to India to study with Gandhi.

And, you probably won’t find in the libraries of Reynolda House or the Z. Smith Reynolds foundation the books that tell the story: The Gilded Leaf by Patrick Reynolds, Barbarians at the Gate by Burrough and Helyar, Libby by Milt Machlin, and most recently Kid Carolina by Heidi Schnakenberg, though you’ll find all four well read copies on my shelves at home.

Whether or not the administrator of my matching funds in that first year cringed at the thought he might be funding some North Carolina blues artist tainted with the legacy of Libby Holman, widowed wife of the namesake of his foundation, I don’t know.  As I eventually put all the pieces of the puzzle together, I may have imagined or wished for more intrigue than was actually there.

But, in retrospect, my fifteen minutes with Uncle Terry, not only started me on a three-year journey of highly entertaining and productive travel around North Carolina meeting some wonderful people, it also has given me a later reflection on how the fates and actions of so many diverse people can intertwine in true stories that, as they say, “You could never make up.”

Bill Phillips

Bill Phillips

A lifelong North Carolina resident with an interest in local history, outdoor adventures, politics, and culture.  

Started out as a high school history teacher, then worked in public schools under grants from the 1964 Civil Rights Act (teacher education programs.) Then a three year stint as a social worker was followed by several years as a “folkie,” playing string band music, making musical instruments, and presenting indigenous folk performers in public school concerts under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Change of course: became a carpenter, then a home remodeler, then a home builder, then a remodeling designer. Now, am merging that with free lance photography and writing.

A hopelessly compulsive writer, with more unpublished stuff in the closet than you want to know about. Have recently seen the light of day with a blog on Google Blogger. If an article of mine on Like the Dew interests you, you will find it on the following blog with many more high resolution photos relating to the post.

North Carolina, People and Places

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