At 92 years old, Roy Wilder could lay claim to the title of “Oldest Rat in the Democratic Barn.” But unlike the late Secretary of State Thad Eure, who took great pride in that title, Roy has never held public office. Regardless, he has been a player in North Carolina politics going back to the Kerr Scott campaign for governor in the ’40s. He talks with familiarity about Gov. R. Gregg Cherry (1945-49) who preceded Kerr Scott, who served as state commissioner of agriculture when Cherry was governor.
Cherry, of Gastonia, was a noted attorney with a penchant for alcohol and a reputation for straight talk. As we sat before the handcrafted stone fireplace in Roy’s Spring Hope log home, he told me a couple of Gregg Cherry stories.
Cherry and the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina were contemporaries, and their terms as governor of their respective states overlapped. Sometime during their relationship, according to Roy, Thurmond became exasperated with Cherry. “Gregg,” Thurmond supposedly said, “I think you don’t like me.”
“Strom, I like you, but I’m no damn fool about you,” Gov. Cherry replied.
When Kerr Scott was commissioner of agriculture, he still lived on a dirt road in Alamance County. When he decided to run for governor to succeed Cherry, Scott went to Cherry and asked for a favor. Scott explained that living on a dirt road would be a shame for the future governor. “If I pave it after getting elected there will be a hue and cry from the press,” Scott said. Cherry obliged him. Former Gov. Bob Scott, Kerr Scott’s son, and wife Jessie Rae still live on the Scott family homestead. Their address, appropriately, is Cherry Lane Road.
Journalism was Roy Wilder’s first love, and he started out in a most conventional way. He attended the UNC School of Journalism, but he was eager to get on with it and never finished. Some time ago, the dean called to chat and inform him that he is the School’s oldest living graduate. Roy, in his usual fashion, cut straight to the chase. “You are wrong on both counts,” Roy said. “First, I never graduated, and two, you have a graduate older than I am living right there in Chapel Hill.” He gave the dean his name.
Roy is a voracious reader and a stickler for facts. His sitting room is a clutter of materials, including The New Yorker magazines, and he draws on a network of friends in libraries and elsewhere that he calls for instant information. A mainstay of the local historical society, he has made a personal cause of reviving the cultivation of horse apples in Nash County. Roy says the apples accounted for the fine reputation of Nash County bootleg brandy. The historical society has planted a small grove of horse apple trees beside its offices in Roy’s honor. We checked it out on our way home from lunch at the Nashville Exchange, Roy’s favorite eating spot in the county seat.
As a fledgling journalist, Roy was drawn to New York. He had short stints with the World-Telegram and New York Post and then wrote for the Herald Tribune, an experience interrupted by service in WWII. He wrote for newspapers in Wallace, Sanford and Greensboro and returned to the World-Telegram for awhile.
While in New York, Roy established a life-long friendship with North Carolina-native Joseph Mitchell of Robeson County who wrote for The New Yorker for almost 60 years (1938-1996). Mitchell crafted what has been described as “plainspoken essays about gypsies, oystermen, bartenders and other colorful New York characters.” One work, Joe Gould’s Secret, was made into a movie in 2000. He and Mitchell corresponded, and Roy has given those papers, as well as his collection of Mitchell’s work, to the Southern Historical Collection at UNC.
Roy Wilder cut his teeth in the campaign of Gov. Kerr Scott, becoming a friend and political ally of former Gov. and Sen. Terry Sanford, who was Kerr Scott’s campaign manager. He was in the thick of things. He was a driver for Frank Porter Graham in his unsuccessful campaign against Willis Smith for election to the United States Senate. Smith died in office, and Wilmington Congressman Alton Lennon was appointed to fill out the term. Scott challenged Lennon in the Democratic primary and defeated him, then went on to win the seat in the General Election. Roy, along with Scott family loyalist Ben Roney, went to Washington and served on Kerr Scott’s senate staff.
To prove that all is fair in love and war and politics, there is this story. Kerr Scott also died in office, and Gov. Luther Hodges would appoint his successor. It was agreed that after Scott’s funeral, Dr. Henry Jordan — a cousin of Kerr Scott’s wife, “Miss Mary,” and a mover and shaker in Democratic politics — Terry Sanford, Ben Roney, and Roy would meet at Roy’s place in Spring Hope to talk about a successor. However, Dr. Jordan did not show up. Soon they got a call saying that Gov. Hodges was going to appoint Dr. Jordan’s brother, B. Everett Jordan, a textile executive, to the seat. Jordan was to serve out the term and then step down for Hodges to run for the seat when his term as governor was up. Sanford was furious, and according to Roy, sat down at his typewriter and fired off a heated statement to The News & Observer.
But the deal backfired on Hodges. Everett Jordan took a liking to the US Senate and decided to stay. Hodges never got to serve. Despite the family connections, there had always been bad political blood between the Scotts and Jordans, and when Jordan was appointed, Roy and Ben Roney both resigned and came back to North Carolina.
Before going by Roy’s house on my Saturday morning visit to Spring Hope, I stopped in at Joe Wilkinson’s antique shop downtown. I mentioned my destination. Joe started laughing. “Roy Wilder has showed me the fountain of youth,” Joe said. “Two martinis a day.”
Later, while talking about Terry Sanford, Roy commented, “You know Terry had a better sense of humor than most folks gave him credit for. One day I received an envelope with the return address of one of New York’s best hotels. I recognized the handwriting as Terry’s. There was nothing inside but a dried lemon twist. He just wanted me to know that he was living the high life and drinking martinis in New York.”
Roy was in and out of politics, handling press in Sanford’s gubernatorial campaign and then working with Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles in the old department of Conservation and Development. I was a great fan of Skipper’s. We talked about how Skipper’s bid for governor ran aground in the final days when campaign consultant Walt DeVries gave an interview to a reporter and turned off voters with insider descriptions of campaign tactics that most voters today accept as business as usual. Many people believe that interview, plus an 11th hour rebuke of state employees by Skipper, gave the election to Jim Holshouser. During the Bob Scott administration, Roy had the state’s lucrative advertising contract. Skipper did not endear himself to Scott loyalists like Roy when he told the press that when he got elected his folks would get the “white meat” and the Scott folks would get the “dark meat.”
After lunch in Nashville, we decided to stop by former Congressman Tim Valentine’s house. Roy’s home was built by Tim’s parents around 1920 with pine logs off the place. Tim lived there until second grade when his father, an attorney destined to become a Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, moved the family to Nashville. It’s one of Down East’s most unique homes.
We never found Tim, but we did pass the home of the late Congressman Harold Cooley. Built in the early 1900s by a mercantile tycoon named Bissett, today it is a showplace owned by Betsy and Jack Lawrence.
Cooley represented the 4th Congressional District from 1933-1967 and chaired the House Agriculture Committee longer than anyone else in history. He was a powerful man, but he lost touch with the folks in his district. It is said that on occasion he would campaign from the back seat of his limousine, shaking hands through the window.
During his heyday, Cooley brought a host of national political figures to Nashville — folks like former President Harry Truman, Congressman Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman and Gov. Frank Clement of Tennessee. Tim Valentine said the lights burned bright when Cooley, who lost his seat to Rocky Mount’s Jim Gardner, was home. Cooley’s last campaign, which featured billboards with a picture of his committee gavel, proved that running on experience doesn’t always work — even against a brash young challenger like Jim Gardner.
Roy Wilder authored a delightful book, titled You All Spoken Here, about the way we native North Carolinians talk. I am sure you can find it on the Internet. And if you want to hear some stories from the “Oldest Rat” himself, stop by FD Bissett & Sons in downtown Spring Hope almost any weekday morning about nine or so when Roy and buddies Joe Bartholomew, Marshall Edwards, Joe Woodward, Warren Boone and others gather under a bold sign reading, “Politics, Truth, Lies, Exaggerations.” Between you and me, I expect it would be hard to get a word in edgewise.