Simple Life

Simple Life

The Wish Book’s Final Chapter

Saying a fond farewell to Sears’ last remaining North Carolina store

By Jim Dodson

I learned that the last Sears department store in North Carolina honest-to-goodness brick and mortar store — was closing. Out of simple curiosity, and a dose of nostalgia, I went to pay my respects.

Truthfully, I hadn’t set foot in our local shopping center’s Sears since purchasing a new Craftsman lawnmower there more than five years ago. Happy to report, it’s been a fine mower.

Before that, my last visit to Sears was probably as a kid in the mid-1960s when, fueled by the firm’s famous “Wish Book” Christmas catalog, every kid I knew haunted the toy department at the downtown Sears retail store during the run-up weeks to the holiday. My first bicycle came from Sears, and was later parked outside the store the year my buddy Brad and I innocently drifted from the toy department into the adjacent lingerie department to stare in wonder at the display mannequins in all their undergarmented glory. As she escorted us to the exit doors, the unamused clerk with the pointy-blue eyeglasses refused to believe we were simply looking for presents for our moms.

That iconic downtown store, in any case, is now a giant hole in the ground, awaiting construction of a swanky office building as time, life and commerce march resolutely on.

Let’s pause and have a moment of fond reflection for — as Smithsonian recently described it — “The retail giant that taught America how to shop.”

Sears began modestly in 1887 when a former railway lumber salesman named Richard Sears moved to Chicago to partner with an Indiana watchmaker named Alvah Roebuck to launch a catalog selling jewelry and watches. Both men were still in their 20s. Six years later, they incorporated as Sears, Roebuck and Company, putting out a 500-page catalog that sold everything an American farmer or thrift-conscious housewife could ask for at a “fair price,” shipped directly to the customer.

In a nation where most Americans still resided on farms or in small towns, this marketing model exploded like a prairie fire, fueling the growth of urban factories. Even Henry Ford was said to have studied the Sears marketing model for making and selling his cars. The company’s first stock certificates were sold in 1906. “If you picked up a big enough chunk of stock when the company went public,” writes Investopedia, “you’d never have to work again.”

The first Sears retail store opened in Chicago in 1925. Four years later, on the eve of the Great Depression, the company was operating 300 stores around the country. By the mid-1950s, the number topped 700. By then, the corporation’s reliable Kenmore appliances, lifetime-guaranteed Craftsman tools, DieHard auto batteries and Allstate Insurance were beloved household names in America’s ballooning mass consumer culture. The stores followed the consumer’s migration from Main Street to shopping centers and, eventually, suburban malls.

Perhaps the company’s most enduring product line was introduced in 1908 when a Sears executive named Frank Kushel came up with the idea of kit houses sold through a specialty catalog called “The Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans,” offering 44 styles of mail-order homes ranging in price from $360 to $2,890. Generally shipped by rail, house packages provided everything down to screws and nails, including pre-cut and numbered framing lumber, flooring, doorknobs, wiring and plumbing.

Between 1908 and 1947,  an estimated 75,000 Sears kit houses — from Bungalow to English Cottage, Craftsman to Queen Anne — were shipped to Americans. Old House Journal notes that unknown Frank Kushel’s Modern Home Program wielded as much impact on the development of American architecture as famous contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright.

Sears boasted that its houses were built to last, explaining why thousands of them remain highly prized, lovingly restored jewels in older neighborhoods across America, relics of a bygone golden consumer age.

By the 1970s,  the firm owned the tallest skyscraper in the world in Chicago, was among the first to introduce home internet services, and jumped into the real estate, credit card and financial services businesses.

Perhaps it was too much for the gods of commerce to tolerate. Critics pointed to the company’s legal affrays over sex and race discrimination and a business model fueled by corporate hubris. 

In 1993, just shy of its 100th anniversary, Sears discontinued its famous catalog. Walmart was now the nation’s leading retailer, and Americans were suddenly buying things “online.” One year later, a former hedge fund guru named Jeff Bezos started up an online book service called Amazon, pretty much putting the finishing nail in the coffin of the historic brand. After 75 years on Wall Street, Home Depot took Sears’ place on the Dow Industrials. As the company’s sales steadily spiraled downward, a forced marriage with K-Mart in 2004 failed to stem the hemorrhage.

In January 2017, shortly before I purchased my Craftsman mower, the iconic tool brand was sold off to Stanley Black & Decker.

Less than a year later, in October 2018, Sears filed for bankruptcy.

Last December, the company emerged from bankruptcy but announced the liquidation and closing of all its remaining stores. According to reports, less than a dozen made it to this spring. Only one in North Carolina.

Which is why, out of some strange, old fashioned sense of brand loyalty or happy memories of lawn mowers and provocative lingerie mannequins, I felt a final farewell trip was in order.

Bright yellow “Going Out of Business” banners festooned the building. I wandered through looking at the remaining stock items. Fifty-percent bargains were everywhere. I looked at Kenmore refrigerators, top-line Samsung dishwashers and GE Elite ovens, all half-price.

I decided on a lightweight Craftsman toolbox to remember the place by, a steal at $27.

On my way out, I paused to chat with a clerk, Janice, who has worked for Sears for more than two decades. “It makes me really sad to think that Sears is going away for good,” she said. “Like millions of Americans, everything in my house as a young married woman came from Sears. I guess nothing lasts forever, does it?”

She surprised me with a sudden, feisty grin. “You know, I think if we’d only stuck with catalogs, by golly, we’d have beaten Amazon and still be going strong!”

I loved her company spirit. I wished her well.

Then I went home to mow my lawn.

Whenever the math of this world doesn’t quite add up — when the sad subtractions outnumber the hopeful additions, or vice versa — I find temporary comfort by mowing my lawn. Crazy, I know. But it briefly puts things in perspective.

Besides, my Craftsman mower never lets me down.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at



Rare and Mysterious

On the lookout for the unusual white hummingbird

By Susan Campbell

If you happen to look out the window and see a flash of white at your hummingbird feeder or flowers, you may not be seeing things. Late summer is when I receive at least a report or two from hosts who have glimpsed a rare pale-colored hummingbird. Given the number of people who feed hummers here in North Carolina, birds in unusual plumage tend to get noticed. And given the network of bird enthusiasts I am familiar with, reports of unusual hummingbirds find their way to my phone or computer pretty quickly.

White hummingbirds include both leucistic (pale individuals) as well as true albinos (completely lacking pigment). Gray or tan hummers are more likely than full albinos. Light-colored individuals have normal, dark-colored soft parts such as dark eyes, feet and bills. Albinos, on the other hand, are very rare. These snow-white birds that sport pink eyes, feet and bills have been documented fewer than 10 times in our state. Only three have been banded and studied closely here to date.

It is not unusual for people to think they are seeing a moth rather than a hummingbird when they encounter a white individual. They do not realize that these beautiful creatures are possible. As much as we now know that they do exist, we know very little about white hummingbirds. Opportunities to study these unique individuals are few and far between. What we do know is that they tend to appear in July or August as young of the year and do not survive into their second year. White feathers are very brittle and likely cannot withstand the stresses of rapid wing beats and long-distance migration. Another curious characteristic is that all of these eye-catching birds have been female. So it is likely that, for whatever reason, this trait is genetically sex-linked.

The first white hummer that I managed to band was a creamy bird in Taylortown  a number of years ago. She was an aggressive individual that roamed the neighborhood terrorizing the other ruby-throateds. The first true albino I documented was in Apex in Wake County, and that individual was even more aggressive; chasing all of the other birds that made the mistake of entering her airspace. For me to have a chance to study a white hummer, I must get word of it quickly before the bird heads out on fall migration. I have missed more than one by less than 24 hours.

The last white hummer I had the privilege to examine close up was an albino a decade ago in Washington, N.C. A mostly white hummingbird gave me the slip in Charlotte four years ago. So, I am way overdue to band yet another. Who knows who I might encounter this season? Each one is so unique. I simply hope to at least hear about another of these tiny marvels before all of the hummingbirds in the central part of our state have headed south.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at

Sporting Life

Sporting Life

The Old Home Place

Where have the small farmers gone?

By Tom Bryant

As I slowly rocked back and forth in one of Mama’s old rockers, I suddenly realized that I didn’t know a single solitary farmer anymore. It was quite a revelation in as much as my father was the first in our family not to make a living on the farm.

Linda, my bride, and I were visiting my sister who lives in the old home place in South Carolina. We had been reminiscing about old times and catching up on the latest news from the family. It was mid-July and hot, as only July can be in the low country. The ladies were inside putting together a light lunch, and I was suffering through the heat on the front porch of the ancient Southern house.

Built in 1830, the vintage old home was constructed to handle the Southern heat. A long rain porch supported by columns stretched across the front of the house. The structure was constructed so that it faced east to utilize the prevailing winds. It also rested on brick foundation posts about 5 feet off the ground. Inside, 14-foot ceilings dispersed the heat, and 6-foot windows helped what breeze there was to circulate.

It was still July, though, and hot. My sister had installed air-conditioning when Mom was still alive, and it made all the difference. But I remembered earlier times when the only real way to cool off was to take a dip in Black Creek, a little stream that slowly meandered down the northern border of the property.

My Uncle Tommy was the last to plant the cleared acreage of the farm, growing corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton. As a youngster, I can remember cotton stretching to the horizon like a new snowfall, and then later, there was a green sea of tobacco.

Tobacco was the money crop in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s. My granddad planted many acres of tobacco, and I used to follow him around as he checked on his growing crop. He often said that the best fertilizer a farmer could have are his footsteps in the field, and we sure made a bunch of those.

I never really understood how tobacco allotments were given to growers — even though Granddad tried to explain it to me a time or two — but after doing a little research, I found that, like with a lot of things that involved money, the government held forth. They imposed production limits on individual tobacco growers but guaranteed an artificially high price for the crop. That policy maintained order in the tobacco growing business for years and kept many small farms alive. A farmer in those early days could realize an average profit of $2,000 an acre, enough to keep him down on the farm.

Farming has changed in tremendous ways. A good example would be our own homestead, which was broken up and inherited by different members of the family. No one actually works the land, but the cleared farm acreage is leased to huge conglomerates who bring in giant agriculture equipment and plant hundreds of acres in a short period of time. When harvest season rolls around, they gather the crop in the same way, in and out quickly with little manual labor involved.

In the days of tobacco growing on Granddad’s place, I learned the hard way how much work it took to grow a good crop and, more than that, how much real labor it took to harvest. Priming tobacco, or picking the leaves for curing in the barn, was designed to make men out of boys, or so said Granddad. I never had to do a lot of that dirty, mind-numbing labor, just enough to satisfy me that I wasn’t cut out for it. After a day in the field, I would return to the kitchen porch of the old house, sticky and black with tobacco tar. Grandmother greeted me, saying, “Hose off all that dirt before you come in and mess up my kitchen.”

Over the years I’ve had baths and showers in wonderful places, but nothing could beat the pleasure of standing under that cold, streaming hose after a blistering day under a South Carolina summer sun.

Nothing stays the same, and agriculture is no different. The days of small farms are gone forever.

A soft breeze began to blow out of the east, offering a little relief from the July sun, and as I watched a big red-tail hawk fly lazy circles in the cloudless sky, I thought back to an encounter I had with big tobacco when I was still doing my day job.

Business North Carolina magazine hired me after I decided to come out of early retirement. I realized that I needed something constructive to do other than fish and hunt. Linda agreed with that decision whole-heartedly. The organization made me regional sales manager of the Triad area of North Carolina.

My territory included Danville, Virginia, home of Debrell Brothers Tobacco, an old established company going back to 1873. This tobacco business purchases, processes and sells leaf tobacco, and operates as an importer and exporter. They do business in 24 countries throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and South America.

I learned long ago in the selling business, if you don’t ask, how can you tell if a potential customer wants your product? It took several months of phone calls and messages, but eventually I wrangled an appointment to meet with the marketing director and a couple of his assistants about a special promotion that BNC had in the works.

I was up and at ’em early the morning of our meeting. When I’m in a new area I try to be a little early. A few extra minutes sometimes can save you a lot of trouble. Today would reinforce that notion.

I pulled into Danville in plenty of time to get a cup of coffee at the local McDonald’s. I sat in the old Bronco sipping coffee and going over the presentation I had put together the evening before. My briefcase was open on the passenger’s seat, and noticing the time, I put everything back in the case and eased into traffic heading to the Debrell office. As I neared a railroad track crossing, the car in front of me stopped suddenly. I still had half a cup of coffee, and the abrupt stop dumped it right into my open briefcase.


What to do? My appointment was in 15 minutes. I pulled in the parking lot of the office, hopped out, got the soggy media kits out of the case and used a wad of Kleenex to try and sop up the rest of the coffee that was staining everything. It was time for the meeting with people I had never met before.

Well, I thought, in for a penny, in for a pound.

The receptionist was sitting well back in the corner of the entrance to the offices. A hall led down the center of the building. Everything was mahogany and polished brass, accented with deep oriental rugs. The entire place reeked of money.

After I introduced myself she said, “Your meeting will be in the central conference room. I’ll walk you back there.”

The marketing director and his assistants were waiting and cordially greeted me as I entered the opulent space. Paintings of farm scenes, mostly featuring tobacco, were on the spacious walls.

After everyone was settled, the receptionist asked if she could get me some coffee. The other folks were sipping theirs from china cups and looking at me expectantly.

“Well, ma’am,” I hesitantly said, “I just had a cup. Most of it is still in my briefcase.”

I then pulled the soggy media kits from my case, holding them so they wouldn’t drip on the rugs. After I explained the particulars of the mishap, it took a while for them to stop laughing.

They bought a six-month contract with their first ad to appear in Business North Carolina’s special promotion. It proved my theory: You never know what to expect in the selling business.

The marketing director walked me to the door, and on the way we talked about the future of tobacco.

“Tom,” he said, “since the government has done away with the allotment program that guaranteed tobacco prices, there’s nothing a small farmer can grow that will replace that income. You remember all those small tobacco farms you passed on the way up here? In five years they’ll all be gone.”

Linda came out on the porch. “Time for lunch.” she said. “What have you been doing out here in the hot?”

“Thinking about farming.” I replied, “and small farmers and wondering what they’re doing now.”  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.



July Books


The Displacements, by Bruce Holsinger

To all appearances, the Larsen-Hall family has everything: healthy children, a stable marriage, a lucrative career for Brantley, and the means for Daphne to pursue her art full time. Their deluxe new Miami life has just clicked into place when Luna — the world’s first Category 6 hurricane — upends everything they have taken for granted. When the storm makes landfall, it triggers a descent of another sort. Their home destroyed, two of its members missing and finances abruptly cut off, the family finds everything they assumed about their lives now up for grabs. Swept into a mass rush of evacuees from across the South, they are transported hundreds of miles to a FEMA megashelter where their new community includes an insurance-agent-turned-drug dealer, a group of vulnerable children, and a dedicated relief worker trying to keep the peace. Will “normal” ever return?

The Exhibitionist, by Charlotte Mendelson

Meet the Hanrahan family, gathering for a momentous weekend as famous artist and notorious egoist Ray Hanrahan prepares for a new exhibition of his art — the first in many decades — and one he is sure will burnish his reputation forever. His three children will be there: eldest daughter Leah, always her father’s biggest champion; son Patrick, who has finally decided to strike out on his own; and daughter Jess, the youngest, who has her own momentous decision to make. And what of Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife? She is an artist too, but has always had to put her roles as wife and mother first. What will happen if she decides to change? Lucia is hiding secrets of her own. As the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must finally make a choice about which desires to follow. A furiously funny novel, The Exhibitionist is a dazzling exploration of art, sacrifice, toxic family politics, desire and personal freedom.

Café Unfiltered, by Jean-Philippe Blondel

At a classic café in the French provinces, anonymity, chance encounters and traumatic pasts collide against the muted background of global instability. Blondel, author of the bestselling The 6:41 to Paris, presents a moving fresco of intertwined destinies. In the span of 24 hours, a medley of characters retrace the fading patterns of their lives after a long disruption from COVID. A mother and son realize their vast differences, a man takes tea with a childhood friend he had once covertly fallen for, and a woman crosses paths with the ex who abandoned her in Australia. Amid it all, the café swirls like a kaleidoscope, bringing together customers, waiters and owners past and present. Within its walls and on its terrace, they examine the threads of their existence, laying bare their inner selves, their failed dreams, and their hopes for the uncertain future that awaits us all.


Beguiled by the Frailties of Those Who Precede Us, by Stephen E. Smith

It’s best to let former North Carolina poet laureate Shelby Stephenson describe Smith’s latest volume of poetry, his eighth. “Stephen E. Smith’s poems in Beguiled by the Frailties of Those Who Precede Us exude truths so real they haunt our memories . . . Father, mother, family, past, present, future swoop and dive into the imagination the way a whale searches for deep water.”


The Digger and the Butterfly, by Joseph Kuefler

Sometimes it takes a new friend to remind you to slow down, listen to the river, feel the wind, appreciate the sun. This is what happens when Digger befriends a butterfly and waits patiently to see what will happen next. When the butterfly finally emerges, it’s clear that Digger and his friends have also been changed forever. A lovely story with fun science facts on the life cycle of the butterfly, it’s a perfect summer read. (Ages 2-7.)

Sunshine: A Graphic Novel, by Jarrett Krosoczka

When Jarrett Krosoczka was in high school, he was part of a program that sent students to be counselors at a camp for seriously ill kids and their families. At Camp Sunshine he engaged in some of the usual rituals that come with being a camp counselor (wilderness challenges, spooky campfire stories, an extremely stinky mascot costume), but he also got a chance to meet some extraordinary kids facing extraordinary circumstances. This gem from the author of Hey, Kiddo will have you laughing out loud and crying in public. (Ages 12 and up.)

The Jules Verne Prophecy, by Larry Schwarz and Iva-Marie Palmer

When Owen finds himself stuck in Paris for the summer with his mom, he is sure the whole vacation will be a boring flop until a mysterious skateboarder, a rare Jules Verne book and a few new friends turn things around. This wild ride of an adventure journeys through the most amazing sites in Paris, including the Eiffel Tower, the catacombs and a secret skate park. (Ages 9-13.)  PS

Compiled by Kimberly Daniels Taws and Angie Tally.

The Omnivorous Reader

The Omnivorous Reader

Discovering a Dutch Master

A life story ringed with mystery

By Stephen E. Smith

Convincing a friend that a work of art you love is worthy of his or her attention can be disheartening.

You: “See the inner darkness and the outer brightness of the painting, how the sense of circumambient air drifts evenly through the scene?”

Friend: “How much is that thing worth anyway?”

Our unabashed enthusiasm is too often dashed by indifference. Or, worse yet, by that Antiques Roadshow inclination to ignore anything other than a painting’s monetary value.

Given our confusion as to exactly what art is and what it means, it’s little wonder we tend to reject uninvited suggestions as to what we should like or dislike. That’s the challenge facing art critic Laura Cumming in Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life & Sudden Death. Since childhood, she has been enamored of A View of Delft, With a Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall, by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius (1622-1654). Now she wants us to love it, too.

Cumming has been the art critic for The Observer and was a senior editor of the New Statesman magazine, both British publications. Her book The Vanishing Velazques was a New York Times bestseller. In her latest offering, she writes with keen insight and obvious affection for the Dutch masters — Rembrandt, Vermeer, Avercamp, Ruisdael, De Hooch, etc. — but the focus of her memoir is on the less celebrated Fabritius, known for having painted The Goldfinch, The Sentry, as well as A View of Delft. Fabritius is considered a minor Dutch master, primarily because so little of his work survives, but Cumming maintains that he’s no less accomplished than Vermeer and Rembrandt, and that he’s deserving of greater recognition. Unfortunately, precious little is known about Fabritius’ life, and it’s assumed that most of his paintings have not survived. We do, however, know about his death.

The “Thunderclap” in Cumming’s title alludes to an explosion near a convent in the city of Delft, where 80,000 pounds of stored gunpowder exploded on Monday, October 12, 1654. The detonation injured a thousand, destroyed hundreds of wooden homes and left a hundred people dead, including Fabritius, his apprentice and the subject of the portrait he was painting at the time. Fortunately, his best-known painting, The Goldfinch, was rescued from the rubble.

Although Fabritius was a student of Rembrandt, he’s seldom mentioned by his contemporaries, and documentation concerning his personal life is sparse. His wife and child died early, and, like most Dutch painters, Fabritius was deeply in debt. His isolation is reflected in The Goldfinch, his lesser-known The Sentry and two brooding self-portraits, which are little enough upon which to base a lengthy aesthetic exposition. “I go round and round this tiny tale,” Cumming writes, “this life circling out from the village of Middenbeemster, ringed with mystery. It is a man’s whole life. Yet I can get no more of him, except perhaps through his art. He is like a suicide who takes his secrets away with him.”

The “memoir” element of Thunderclap focuses on Cumming’s father, James Cumming (1922-1991), a painter of “semi-figurative art.” Cumming admired her father’s artistic dedication, but his inclusion in the narrative seems mildly intrusive when explicating the likes of the Dutch masters. Certainly, his influence is felt in the love Cumming has for art, but the connection to her narrative is tenuous at best.

But Cumming recalls with pleasure the art she discovered growing up in Scotland, and the magnificence of the paintings she observed on a childhood visit to the Netherlands. The bulk of her beautifully written text is devoted to explicating the art produced by those Dutch masters, and the book offers colorful images of the paintings she explicates.

Americans, for all our lack of aesthetic depth, are nonetheless capable of appreciating how art relates to our everyday lives. Grant Wood’s American Gothic, for example, is an immensely popular masterpiece that illustrates through the subtle use of symbolism most of our aspirations and contradictions — the individual vs. collective wisdom, religion, the American Dream, the virtues of hard work, the relationship between the sexes, upward social mobility, etc. — and the subtle social criticism in Childe Hassam’s Washington Arch in Spring is apparent to any careful observer. Ethnocentric tendencies aside, it’s possible to discern much about the cultural history of a foreign country by studying its art. This is where Cumming’s insights are essential.

Her description of De Hooch’s The Courtyard of a House in Delft is representative of her work: “. . . the brickwork lying in its separate courses, the paint exactly imitating mortar; the dusty blue of the weeds and ivy, the clear light of the street; then the wonderful set of rhyming shapes — the scarlet shutter on one side, its wooden counterpart on the other; the oval window in the stonework and its glass twin in the hallway, the recession of arch inside arch inside arch that takes the eye right through the corridor and out in the street of Delft.”

Reading Cumming’s meticulous descriptions opens the reader’s perception of the accompanying paintings. Her precise prose takes readers on an excursion through the Rijksmuseum and the Golden Age of Dutch Art. It’s a tour worth every ounce of effort.   

No book, especially a book on art, is for everyone. But Thunderclap comes close. Keep an open mind. And if you’re not interested in art, you can take solace in the fact that the masterpieces Cumming presents are priceless, deserving of a jubilant Antiques Roadshow “Wow!” with the turn of every page.

Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life & Sudden Death will be in bookstores in mid-July. If you find it enthralling, you might also enjoy Donna Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch.   PS

Stephen E. Smith’s latest book, Beguiled by the Frailties of Those Who Precede Us, is available from Kelsay Books, Amazon and The Country Bookshop.

Creators of N.C.

Creators of N.C.

The Art of Life

Perseverance with paint and canvas

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

In 2013, painter Tom Ward went to the beach to die. He and his wife, Mary, both natives of Long Island, New York, had been living in Durham for 11 years when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS, a disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Over time, people with ALS lose control of their muscles, including the muscles used to eat, speak and breathe. Most die of respiratory failure within three to five years.

“I didn’t know how long I was going to live,” Tom says one afternoon in late May while we are sitting in his living room in Wilmington, several of the gorgeous paintings he’s completed over the years hanging on the walls around us. He smiles a wry smile. “And I kept thinking, It’ll be too bad if I croak in Durham.”

“We’re beach people,” he says. “We love the beach. When we were young and dating, even after we were married, we spent a lot of time on the Long Island beaches on the South Shore and the North Shore. So when I got the diagnosis we came out to Wilmington and looked around. And that’s how we got here.”

Only 10 percent of those diagnosed with ALS live beyond a decade, and Tom can be counted among those few. His disease is mercifully slow moving, and some days he feels well enough to take a trip to the beach with Mary’s assistance to paint en plein air; Fort Fisher is a favorite spot. Other days, when his body does not feel like his own, he works from home, taking his motorized wheelchair into his studio, where he moves onto a padded chair positioned in front of his easel. Throughout his battle with ALS, and its attendant and unpredictable ups and downs, painting has been a constant in Tom’s life. So has Mary’s support and advocacy.

In 2016 Mary was named a fellow by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, whose mission it is to empower and support the military caregivers who care for America’s ill, wounded or injured veterans. A former Marine (Is there really such a thing as a former Marine?), Tom, like other veterans, is two times more likely than a civilian to develop ALS. Mary has spent years advocating for caregivers like herself and for veterans like Tom, even authoring three books on issues from navigating veterans benefits to service dogs to her own’s family’s experiences with war after the couple’s son served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it’s not in her national efforts that Mary’s support for Tom is most apparent. It is more evident in the small moments of their day-to-day lives: her leaving the conversation to get him a glass of water; her gently correcting his memory or assisting him as he parses the details of one of my questions. And Tom is just as devoted to Mary as she is to him, supporting her through two graduate degrees and careers as diverse as a public school teacher and a hospital administrator. It was the latter position that caused the couple to move from New York to Durham after she accepted a job at Duke Hospital.

But as much as their relationship is based on intangible evidence of love and support, the larger moments still loom in their shared past, perhaps none larger than the moment in 1993, after 13 years of marriage, when Tom contracted encephalitis and, after a lengthy treatment, showed signs of cognitive impairment that affected his executive functions. Suddenly, a man who’d served in the Marines and forged a career in risk management for an insurance company in Manhattan was having trouble parsing step-by-step instructions and remembering simple tasks like picking up their 9-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son from school. Tom’s symptoms forced him to retire from a busy job, and he suddenly found himself seemingly without purpose for the first time in his life.


“When our kids were growing up, I had to appear to them to be industrious in some way,” he says. “That was just my personal rule. I couldn’t sit on the couch and give into the thing and let that thing rule me, let the fatigue rule me.”

A year or so into Tom’s battle with the long-term symptoms of encephalitis, he and Mary found themselves in an art gallery not far from their home in upstate New York. Tom had always appreciated art, but he’ll be the first to admit that he didn’t know much about it.

“I thought all painting was called impressionism,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t know there was something called classical realism or other styles of painting. I thought impressionism meant painting like someone would think all cars are Chevys without knowing about Buicks or Pontiacs or Peugeots.”

Even though Tom didn’t know much about painting, that day in the gallery he couldn’t help but be struck by the work of an artist who signed their paintings “V. Walsh.” Tom approached the gallery owner and learned that V. Walsh was a woman named Virginia. On impulse, Tom expressed an interest in studying under Walsh, and he left his phone number with the gallery owner. Within a few weeks he and Virginia Walsh were setting up their easels side by side, a master and an apprentice with zero experience.

I ask Tom what drew him to Walsh’s work, what it was about her paintings that day in the gallery that caused him to make a decision that would change his life.

“She turned a form,” he says, referring to a painter’s ability to give the illusion of depth on a flat surface. “It was a painting of a plum that had a quarter sliced out, and the slice was laying as a half-moon shape on a tabletop. It was the light striking the flesh of the plum and the color that she put there. And then you could see the interior of the plum where the slice had been removed. Her use of color was just so perfect. It just grabs the eye. That’s what made me say, ‘Wow, that’s it. I want to do that.’”

Walsh agreed to work with Tom, but their time together got off to a rocky start. It was Walsh’s practice to educate by example, and she and Tom would regularly set up their easels and paint en plein air together for hours at a time. She was particular in the way she wanted his paints and materials organized, but to her frustration, Tom seemed unwilling to comply. Walsh ended up calling Mary in frustration to break the news that she couldn’t work with Tom because of his obstinate disposition. When Mary discovered that Tom hadn’t shared his struggles with executive function with his new mentor, she told the teacher that her pupil wasn’t being obstinate; he simply didn’t have the ability to comply without explicit, patient direction. Things went more smoothly after that, and Walsh and Tom continued to work together, painting outdoors through a number of seasons to exhibit for Tom the exquisite yet too often unnoticed changes the natural world undergoes when one truly pays attention.

Both his attention to detail and his deeply felt portrayals of the natural world are evident in Tom’s work almost 30 years after his lessons with Virginia Walsh, though sometimes his ALS makes it difficult for him to render detail as easily as he once could. Take the use of his palette knife when he works with it, rather than a brush, to apply a smooth layer of paint to the canvas.

“I’m just not getting the cut of the knife in a way that portrays what I’m seeing in my mind,” he says. “That’s ALS. The thought in my brain that tells my hand what to do either gets lost completely or is received in a garbled fashion. So my hand’s not really doing what I’m asking it to do.”

But, just as he has throughout his life, whether as a Marine or a businessman or a new painter struggling with organizing his paints and materials, Tom finds a way to adapt. And, as usual, Mary is by his side. No matter what comes next, it will happen to them together. And it will happen by the sea.  PS

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

Up, Up and Away

Up, Up and Away

Chasing dreams across the sky

By Jenna Biter

There’s a staccato chhh, followed by a smell almost like sulfur. Both emanate from a wicker basket sitting on a driveway in suburban Vass. Inside the odd, oversized vessel crouches a man fiddling with the knob of a propane tank. Positioned just so, his polo shirt embroidered with the kaleidoscopic logo Balloons Over America, his shock of pepper-gray hair barely visible over the basket’s rim, it looks as if the man is the elusive first course of a giant’s picnic lunch. As it turns out, Mark Meyer isn’t the protagonist of Jack and the Beanstalk, though he, too, makes trips into the sky. No, Mark is an aeronaut, preparing to demonstrate just how he hornswoggles gravity so that his hot air balloon can fly.

“The reason that the baskets are still made out of wicker is, if you have a propane leak, it sinks to the bottom of the basket and wicks right out,” Mark says, running a hand over the caning, as gaps of light leak between the reeds. “If the basket was plastic, and there was ever a propane leak, it would all sit right here, and then the ignition source . . . it would go boom. Makes for a bad day.”

Lucky for Mark, not even his worst ballooning days have included explosions. Though incidents are rare, the man of the sky has been gored by a cactus; narrowly and simultaneously missed both a barbed wire fence and a nearby interstate; and scuffled with a mulberry tree while a good friend, Jon Hartway, was along for the flight.


“I look at Jon and say, ‘This ain’t going to be pretty,’” Mark tells the story with feigned sobriety. “So we gift-wrap this mulberry tree, and we’re stuck up against the trunk. Then the balloon comes down, and there are all these purple mulberries just falling all over us.

“Meanwhile, John is laying in the bottom of the basket about to piss himself, he’s laughing so hard. I ask, ‘What is so funny?’ He says, ‘Mark, we got 1,000 hours of combat. We’ve been shot up, aircraft tore up, and never once have you said, ‘This ain’t going to be pretty.’”

Mark belly laughs and catches his wife, Missy’s, eye as she joins in. Missy has been along for the ride since her aeronaut first took flight, either flying beside Mark in the basket or serving as crew chief in the ground-bound chase vehicle.

The fruit salvo from the mulberry tree left fuchsia welts on the balloon, but the story was worth a few stains. In 2014, Hartway died in an Apache helicopter crash while flying a training mission with the Idaho National Guard, making the memory of the mulberry incident all the more precious. The story — and all the others that the Meyers have collected on their adventures in the sky — have colored the couple’s life with the rosy hue of fond memories, nearly three decades’ worth. Mark first piloted a hot air balloon in the mid-’90s, when his daughters, now grown, were still in the house.


“We wanted to buy an aircraft of some sort, but with three daughters, we couldn’t afford a six-seater plane, like a Cherokee Six or something like that,” Mark says matter-of-factly. For nearly 40 years, he served as an Army aviator by day, piloting helicopters — Hueys and Black Hawks — and then fixed-wing turboprops later in his career. Why not share his passion for flight with his family?

“The first balloon, the girls got to pick the color,” Mark says of his daughters Amanda, Morgan and Madison. The Meyers bought their first used setup before their only son, Max, was born. “Never ask three little girls what color balloon they want — because it’s hot pink.”

“When we would go to festivals, little girls would scream, ‘It’s the Barbie balloon!’” Missy says, smiling. In much the same way a new mother insists her baby boy will only be called James but by middle school he’s inevitably Jimmy, the balloon’s official name was Pink Passion, but it was never called anything other than The Barbie Balloon. Though Barbie deflated long ago — for the time being On the Fly is the Meyers’ go-to passenger balloon — the hot pink original flies on in the family house, immortalized in album pages and picture frames on the walls.


At first glance, the Meyer house is a shrine to ballooning. In one side room sits a retired basket rimmed with a bar top and wrapped in twinkle lights. In the same room, a second basket, an antique from 1984, serves as top-shelf liquor storage. Together, the baskets make up something of a fantastical pedal pub that tourists might crowd around, exchanging small talk as they cycle through the clouds. Back in the foyer is a painting of Missy with the reflection of a purple balloon in her sunglasses. A game of “I Spy” the hot air balloon could entertain guests for hours, but the stories behind every photo, keepsake and figurine could occupy them for weeks, the odds and ends representing the memories that come with a full life.

Back outside — and still standing in the middle of his basket — Mark reaches for the double metal burner perched overhead. Click. Then he makes another motion. Vooooosh. A hungry flame climbs into the air, rising higher than the roofline. A passing van bucks to a stop. The driver, like most passersby on a regular Wednesday night, is startled by the biblical pillar of fire. Had the balloon been attached, the burner would have warmed the air and inflated the fabric sack until it stood upright. In the next instant, as quickly as the flame appeared, it disappears — perhaps the first genie to go willingly back into its bottle.

Though the fire has gone out, its warmth hasn’t. After an evening of picking through memories, the Meyers seem to be floating up among the clouds, though they hadn’t left the ground.  PS

You can book a hot air balloon ride with Mark and Missy Meyer at

Jenna Biter is a writer and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at

A Bookshop Mystery

A Bookshop Mystery

The collected letters of an American hero

By Bill Case



Right Photo: Lt. Alexandre Stillman, bottom row middle

Last July an unidentified patron entered Pinehurst’s Given Tufts Bookshop, went to the rear of the building and placed a bound volume at the shop’s drop-off table for donated books. Tightly bound with a black, white and red-trimmed cover, the volume’s outward appearance didn’t raise any eyebrows. Curiously, though, its title, Thumbs Up, was not accompanied by any identification of the author.

Before donated materials can reach the shelves for resale, shop manager Jessica Flynn inspects them. When she looked at Thumbs Up, she was both intrigued and puzzled. Far from a traditional book, the volume comprised typed letters in chronological order on 167 pages of onionskin paper, dated from 1940 to 1945. The letters had been written by a World War II Navy pilot detailing the entire sweep of his wartime service, culminating in piloting a B-24 Liberator bomber in the Aleutian Islands and then in unidentified locations in the Pacific theater as he flew missions off the coast of Japan.

Who this pilot was, however, was not altogether clear. None of the letters in Thumbs Up are signed, suggesting the onionskins are carbon copies of originals. One letter, roughly halfway through the book, left a space for a signature and underneath it the words “Lt. A. Stillman — officer in charge, Air Operations.” In another letter sent to the author’s mother, he expresses satisfaction that a newborn relative had been named after him: “Jean Joseph Alexandre.” Could the “A” in “A. Stillman” stand for Alexander?

The volume also contained several pasted-in pen and ink drawings and photographs, including one of the pilot and his crew. It was clear that Thumbs Up was a one-of-a-kind historical document worthy of preservation. Perhaps a family member — if one could be found — would treasure this collection from the front lines of the air battle in the Pacific. But first a positive ID had to be nailed down.

Initial inquiries on U.S. Navy websites turned up nothing pertaining to an A. Stillman, pilot of a B-24 Liberator in the Aleutians and the Pacific. Though dubious that a mere Google search of “Alexander Stillman” would produce any useful information, I went through the motions anyway. On the “Find a Grave” website, I discovered a studio portrait of someone named Alexander Stillman in fully decorated military uniform. The confident-looking, mustachioed officer in the picture bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Ernest Hemingway. The website said this Alexander Stillman was born in 1911 and died in 1984. He would have been 29 to 34 years of age during the period when the Thumbs Up letters were written, a good fit. But was the man in the online photograph and the author of the letters one and the same?

In the pilot’s squadron photo on the first page of Thumbs Up, the man kneeling in the middle of the first row was a smiling mustachioed officer. It was undoubtedly the same man.

Alexander Stillman, it seemed, was the author-pilot, and furthermore, I now had two pictures of him. But, aside from birth and death dates, I knew little else about the man. It was time to chase Alexander Stillman to the end of the internet. Googling on, I located the website of the Stillman Nature Center in South Barrington, Illinois, outside Chicago. The SNC is described as “a private, nonprofit center for environmental education, located on 80 acres of woods, lake, and prairie.” Many birds of prey, including grey owls, populate the preserve. Alexander Stillman, who lived on Penny Road in South Barrington, had donated the land.

The fact that Stillman had the kind of money that would allow him to donate a large tract of valuable acreage to charity suggests a man of independent and rather significant means. And he was. His father, James A. Stillman, it turns out, was the chairman of National City Bank of New York, and the holder of a vast family fortune. In 1901, James married Anne “Fifi” Urquhart Potter. The couple had four children: Anne, Bud, Alexander and Guy (who, like Alexander, was a wartime lieutenant in the Navy). In 1921, James and Fifi became embroiled in a divorce fit for the salacious Page Six of the New York Post — if such a thing existed then — involving charges and countercharges of infidelity. News of the contentious court filings was reported nationwide.

The couple reconciled for a time but the marriage finally ended in 1931. After her divorce was finalized, Fifi again became the subject of national gossip when she married Fowler McCormick, a man 20 years her junior, who was heir to the International Harvester fortune. Fowler had previously been Fifi’s son Bud’s roommate at Princeton University.

A short biography of Stillman on the nature center’s website, researched and written by a one-time student intern named Helen Reinold, praised Stillman’s advocacy for environmental causes, in honor of which he received a Certificate of Life Membership from the National Audubon Society. Though Reinold didn’t, it would seem, have any knowledge of Stillman’s World War II correspondence, she does mention a letter he wrote to his sister-in-law, Guy’s wife, about his grandmother, a famous stage actress named Cora Brown Potter. In the letter Stillman writes of his grandmother that “she had abandoned her only child in order to flee her very dull marriage to Grandfather, going to London to pursue her career as an actress . . . the Toast of London, being so it was inevitable that she should meet the Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, had very little to do except change his clothes four times a day, overeat and drink, of which he died of, and court the most beautiful women of his day. Inevitably Grandmother became his mistress of a long line, but she was one of the last three and to whom he was longest faithful.”


Reinold goes on to detail Stillman’s penchant for international travel. The countries stamped into his passports included France, Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Denmark and the Bahamas. And, of course, she highlights his heroic military service. “Over the course of three attacks in May and June of 1945,” she writes, “Stillman is credited with the sinking of four enemy Merchant Vessels, two large fishing boats, and a Whale Killer. In addition, he tracked an enemy cruiser and warded off attacks by an enemy plane.” She notes that he received a number of medals and commendations, at least one of which Stillman, himself, describes in Thumbs Up.

VPB 102

1 August 1945

Ma, Bow, Meme and Lou

The night before I broke out a clean khaki shirt, a pair of pants, a cap cover. My shoes were mildewed, twisted and sorry. I put a crease in the pants, wiped the dust off my hat and went to town on the shoes.

Coming down at 9.30 a bit rocky (the boys had broken several bottles over my head the night before and they were still rumbling inside) to the Squadron, I find all the PCCs out of their sack, and the pilots, and the men. My men look beautiful in clean work clothes and bran [sic] white hats. God knows where they got them.

The Skipper says “well, come on” and we stream out and straggle up the blazing sunshine between the tens of planes lined up on the white white coral.

We line up. Under the prop of a plane, and the rest wheel, and face us. A Commander comes out and tells us we can smoke a cigarette. Three of us start and then throw them away. It’s very hot.

The Admiral drives up and walks in front of us.

I stand at attention in front of him; I listen to the citation, look at his stars and my gaze wanders over his head and down between the rows of silent planes resting on the coral “and while attacked by a twin-engine fighter’s” tired planes with holes, controls shot out “sinking a third ship”, engines to be changed but we have no engines, fix and fly “and for extraordinary heroism.”


If Alexander Stillman enjoyed a certain level of comfort after the war, during it he endured the same deprivations as every other soldier, sailor or Marine. In Thumbs Up, which begins with a letter to his mother written on August 1, 1940, and finishes with a letter dated 13 July 1945 from “somewhere in the Pacific” written on an aircraft carrier headed home, Stillman doesn’t exactly complain about the grueling hours, horrible conditions and continual dangers, but he doesn’t sugarcoat them either. In his July 19, 1945 letter to stepfather Fowler McCormick, he writes: 

“One day I fly 13, 14, 15 hours. Next day I work on the planes. And the next we fly. . . . Have you ever done anything where you sang all the time? This is death, destruction, and hell. We have poor food, no heat, no fresh water. We live 30 people to 40 ft; we have air raids, and we average 5 hours sleep a night. Yet, I do.”

In August of 1944, when Stillman was in Kansas training on his Liberator, he writes to a woman who has professed her affection for him, fatalistically cautioning her:

“You have falled [sic] in love with a flyer and it is perhaps not a good thing. We don’t live in the past and now in our third year of war soon to go out again, we are on borrowed time. Do you realize?”

In addition to the photographs and numerous pen and ink drawings, the book includes the occasional bit of verse. To make his point that the flying conditions in the Aleutians are invariably poor and risky, in June of 1943 he cites “an Alaskan nursery jingle”:

There are bold Alaskan pilots

And there are old Alaskan pilots

But there are no old bold Alaskan pilots.

After 69 missions over Japan, flown from Tinian and Iwo Jima, and numerous others in the Aleutians, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an end to the war with Japan. On an aircraft carrier bound for home Stillman wrote:

All today over the roaring radio we have listened to crowds in New York, Atlanta, Hollywood, Cleveland going wild. It seems to make us more quiet in the wardroom. Perhaps we remember but don’t want to, the rows of white crosses, the burials we had, the useless searches in acres of ocean, the lousy chow, the brass, the impossible flights, coming in on 40 gals. of gas and will. One lieutenant for the second time on good record, all fair, said “Don’t you feel let down?” I agreed.

And he finishes:

Tonight a carrier takes us home, Eve 91, over the blue and bloody waters, eastward, to the dawn of tomorrow.

I spoke to two of Alexander’s nieces, Alexandra (“Alex”) Stillman, of Alcata, California, and Sharee Brookhart, of Phoenix, Arizona. They remembered their uncle, whom they called Aleck, as a tall, lanky, handsome man who never married or fathered children. They recalled that their father, Aleck’s brother Guy, once confided that Alexander had flown so many missions during the war that many in his squadron feared going up in the air with him, worried Stillman’s “number” had to be coming up soon.

The two sisters thought that perhaps their uncle’s wartime service in the Pacific may well have been the high point of his interesting life. He chose a military funeral in Honolulu at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. His interment was accompanied by a 21-gun salute.

Whether it’s serendipity or destiny, two of Alexandra’s granddaughters attended Chapman University in Orange, California. Chapman is the home of the Center for American War Letters Archive, something that grew out of the “Legacy Project” begun by Andrew Carroll.

“Just about every aspect of World War II has been written about,” says Andrew Harman, the collection’s archivist. “What we’re trying to dive into now is the mundane, the individual aspects, the experiences that people were writing about in the first person at the time. Our mission is to preserve but, being a part of Chapman University and an academic library, we’re very big on access and research. It’s a room full of white pages if no one is looking at them.”

The Given Tufts bookstore has donated Stillman’s collection to the Center for American War Letters.

The mystery of the identity of the author of Thumbs Up has been solved, and Stillman’s letters now reside in an appropriate home. But who had delivered this fascinating volume to a used bookstore in Pinehurst and why? That, we may never know, but we’re glad they did.  PS

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



Teach a Man to Fish

Or just get in line at Hoskins

By Bill Fields

In a modest fishing career that produced nothing for the wall and little for the table, I wish I’d caught one flounder, because I sure ate plenty of them.

Other than whatever mystery-from-the-sea comprised the fish sticks in the freezer that would be supper if my working mom had a particularly long, tough day, flounder was the fish of my childhood. It would have made my beach vacation to land a summer flounder, but Paralichthys dentatus was as elusive as winning a large stuffed animal at Skee-Ball in the Ocean Drive arcade.

On a good outing, Dad and I, equipped with the gear we usually took to Moore County ponds in pursuit of bream or bass, would catch our share of tiny spot, croaker and whiting from the Tilghman Pier, trinkets from the surf. But even if I could convince him to splurge on “flounder rigs” that kept the hooks baited with shrimp floating just above the bottom where the species supposedly liked to dine, instead of flush on the ocean floor where the less desirable fish scavenged, we’d come up as empty as the shark-fishing men with heavy-duty tackle at the far end of the pier.

There was no chance of Curt Gowdy reaching out to us to appear on The American Sportsman.

The futility of fishing for flounder went away, though, if our family was going to Hoskins Restaurant that evening. The Ocean Drive eatery had lost a needed apostrophe in its sign sometime between when it opened in 1948 and when we were patronizing the place a couple of decades later but maintained a mastery of fried seafood — particularly flounder.

Hoskins was one of the first things we’d sight when driving into Ocean Drive headed for the rental cottage or motel where we were staying. It wasn’t a matter of if we were going to go there during our stay, but how many times.

No one got out of sorts if there was a wait to get in. We knew the air conditioning would be cranking — at a time when AC still wasn’t commonplace — and we could count on the quality of the food. I went through a fried shrimp phase but always went back to the flounder.

The filets of the mild-tasting flatfish were sizable and the outside golden brown and never heavy. Paired with the can’t-eat-just-one hushpuppies, there was nothing better. Even a midday sno-cone and corn dog from a strand vendor couldn’t compete with a Hoskins’ flounder plate.

Fortunately, we had fried flounder options the other 51 weeks of the year.

Russell’s Fish House on Highway 22 on the outskirts of Southern Pines opened in the mid-1960s offering all-you-can eat fish for $1.50. We went many a Friday or Saturday night, and I eventually worked there, first as a busboy, then in the kitchen. I cooked the hushpuppies for a time and some of the other teenagers working for owners Larry and Mary Russell handled the fries and manned the grill.

The flounder, though, was the purview of an older man named Herbert, who masterfully tended his bubbling fryer of peanut oil and didn’t want the youngsters messing with his fish. We could be a loose bunch, no strangers to horseplay while cleaning up at the end of a long night, but we obeyed Herbert.

Given the volume of fish that was served, the quality of the flounder was consistently good even if some of the fillets weren’t as plump as those we ate on vacation. My appetite for flounder would wane occasionally because I was around it so much for several years, including filling lots of takeout boxes, but there were still times when I savored a plate for my meal at the end of a busy shift.

Our third option for flounder in those years was at my brother-in-law Bill’s restaurant in High Point. Everything was good on the broad menu at Brinwood — fried chicken, country-style steak, spaghetti, meatloaf — but his fried flounder was especially tasty.

After enjoying my brother-in-law’s light, never-greasy fish for several meals, I was convinced the only thing Hoskins had on Brinwood was the beach down the street.   PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.

Golftown Journal

Golftown Journal

Ticking the Ross Boxes

When a passion becomes a book

By Lee Pace

It was an inauspicious beginning to a golf career, this young investment banker with a background in surfing and tennis being recruited by his boss to fill out a foursome on Pinehurst No. 2 one day in 1973. Brad Becken’s job at Goldman Sachs was managing the firm’s business in the Southeast, so he regularly attended the North Carolina Banking Association annual meeting at Pinehurst.

“Usually, I played tennis with the wives,” he says. “The second year, my boss needed a fourth for golf. I said, ‘I don’t play golf.’ He said, ‘Well, you are today.’

“I was in sneakers with rental clubs and picked up nearly every hole so as not to ruin it for the others. I thought that was it for my golf career. But the next year, he asked me to play again. I thought, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding.’ It was the same result.

“He mercifully never asked me again. My first taste of golf and Pinehurst was memorable, though not necessarily in a good way.”

Becken did, in fact, get serious about golf when he moved to Los Angeles with the firm in the mid-1980s and later joined Los Angeles Country Club. Over the next three decades, business travel and client relationships were perfect for fueling an evolving love for the game. He retired in 2005, and he and wife, Ann, decided to return to the East, settling in Chapel Hill.

He joined Chapel Hill Country Club and, in 2010, took a friend visiting from Los Angeles to play golf. Afterward club pro Rick Brannon suggested they play Hope Valley, a 1926 Donald Ross design just a few miles away in Durham. Brannon made a phone call to set up a game, and Becken was enthralled with the old-world charm of the neighborhood and the way the holes were laid on the hilly ground by Ross, working without heavy machinery and his design perspective spawned from his roots in Dornoch and St. Andrews, Scotland.

“I immediately figured out I’d joined the wrong club,” Becken says. “I liked the variety at Hope Valley and the fact that the design never felt forced. And like most Ross courses, you didn’t feel overwhelmed if you weren’t a great golfer. You don’t have to be a great golfer to enjoy a Donald Ross course. For a higher handicapper like I am, there is a way to play his courses. You can plot your way around and enjoy it.

“I told Rick how much I liked it and he said, ‘Well, there are a lot of Ross courses in North Carolina.’”

Becken soon joined Hope Valley and set off to quench this newfound thirst for Ross golf courses. He joined The Donald Ross Society in 2012, was elected to the board in 2016, and in 2023 was serving the last of a five-year run as president. He realized around 2015 that he had played some 225 Ross courses.

“Up until then, I had never really contemplated trying to play them all,” he says. “I was having fun and the more I saw, the more I liked it. So I kept at it. I was averaging 120 courses a year.”

By the end of 2017, Becken had played 359 Ross courses, give or take a few that have closed since the quest began, and thought he had played every Ross course that was still open. Then he came across Chris Buie’s book, The Life & Times of Donald Ross, and learned there were about half a dozen more courses he’d not played. He knocked them out so his total stands at 365 courses.

“As this was going along, people said, ‘You ought to write a book,’” Becken says. “I said, ‘I’m a banker, not a writer.’ As president of the Ross Society, we were always getting questions. We would sort of answer them, and I said, ‘We can do better than this.’ I started analyzing what I had learned. By then I had copies of every hole and green drawing I could find. I might have had 1,500, plus all the photos I had taken and collected. Finally, I started to think about a book but didn’t know where to get started.”

In 2020, he was invited by Golf Club Atlas editor and co-founder Ran Morrissett to answer a litany of questions for the site’s “feature interview.” Morrissett provided the questions and Becken sat down to write his answers.

“That was January 2020,” says Becken, 75. “That got me started. I just expanded from there. That finally got me going.”

The result is a book published in the fall of 2022 by The Classics of Golf. The Golf Architecture of Donald Ross is as mammoth as Ross’s body of work from 1900 through his death in 1948 and Becken’s quest to play them all. It’s 9×12 inches, 352 pages, an inch-and-a-half thick, weighing three pounds. The tome includes gorgeous spread photos of Ross courses, hole diagrams, telegrams and correspondence. Becken draws heavily on his ever-present camera as he played the courses and his insatiable appetite for detail. He created a spreadsheet matrix covering more than 30 data points and observations for each hole and uses that research to analyze the parts that result in the whole of Ross’s design inventory.

“As the title suggests, this is a comprehensive look at Ross’ architecture from routings to bunker schemes to greens to breakdowns of his best one-, two- and three-shotters,” Morrissett says. “If you are an architecture geek, you will get lost in the book for days.”

Of local interest he notes there are no drawings for three of Ross’ Sandhills-area masterpieces — Pinehurst No. 2, Pine Needles and Mid Pines.

“Since he spent half of each year in Pinehurst, where he could supervise the work, there was no real need for drawings,” he says.

Further, Becken uses his inventory of Ross drawings and his experiences having putted across more than 6,500 Ross greens to draw an opinion on the nature of No. 2’s ubiquitous inverted-sauce putting greens. 

“Many Ross fans associate the turtleback greens on Pinehurst No. 2 as emblematic of his work, but that is not the case,” Becken asserts. “In fact, looking at the body of available drawings, such greens appear to be more of an exception, leading some to attribute the shape to years of top dressing and other maintenance practices rather than what was originally envisioned by Ross.”

An important tenet to the book is Becken paying tribute to The Donald Ross Society, which was formed in 1989 and since has grown to some 500 Ross aficionados. Proceeds from sales of the book are being divided equally between The Donald Ross Society Foundation and The Tufts Archives in Pinehurst. He estimates the Ross Society has given $150,000 to the Tufts Archives over the years, and the group recently gave $30,000 to Asheville Municipal Golf Course for a master plan to serve as the cornerstone to a $3.5 million renovation of the 1927 Ross course that had fallen on hard times.

“We believe Donald Ross was superior to any golf course architect practicing today, and his courses are works of art that should be treated as such,” Becken says.  PS

Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has written histories of five clubs featuring Ross courses — Pinehurst, Pine Needles, Mid Pines, Forsyth Country Club and Biltmore Forest Country Club.  Reach him at and follow him on Twitter @LeePaceTweet.