Character Study

The Voice of America’s Horse Shows

How Peter Doubleday took the mic

By Jenna Biter

An inviting red leather armchair in the library of Little Squire Farm seems to say: sit, read. The 8-foot-tall bookshelves are neatly crowded, as buttoned down as the man himself. There are vinyl albums and CDs, books about foxhunting, and shelves and shelves of others covering all the trappings and intricacies of the equestrian world. Photos of personal import from a career — an almost accidental career — that has lasted nearly half a century occupy nooks and crannies and the rare empty space on a wall. Among it all is a treasured copy of The Horseman’s Encyclopedia that had once belonged to Peter Doubleday’s father, Robert, the man whose riding path he followed.

Peter Doubleday was born and raised in Syracuse, New York, about an hour south of Lake Ontario and a 90-minute drive from Cooperstown, home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was his great uncle Abner (to some unknown degree of greats) who allegedly invented America’s game in Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture in 1839, later laying out a diamond when he was a cadet at West Point. Abner Doubleday went on to become a decorated Union soldier, rising to the rank of general, and was the officer who ordered the North’s first shots of the Civil War in defense of Fort Sumter.

Peter squabbles with the imaginary nonbelievers: “People say, ‘Well, he didn’t invent baseball,’ and I say, ‘Well, yes he did.’” He laughs and settles onto a chaise longue with his Jack Russell terrier, Sophie, who follows him as if there was an imaginary lifeline permanently linking the pair. “The best dog on Earth,” Doubleday says.

Peter’s dad, Robert “Deacon” Doubleday, was a radio show and television personality with NBC’s Syracuse affiliate WSYR. He hosted Wired Woodshed, a popular agricultural program that got rural farmers through their early morning chores. Because Deacon used his voice to make his living, he was asked to announce some horse shows, first on vacations and holidays, but eventually becoming the voice of some of America’s biggest shows.

“So, they would drag me around as a kid to these horse shows all over the Northeast,” Peter says. He enjoyed the show environment — he was a high school kid and there were girls and horses, what’s not to like? — but he didn’t pay much attention to his dad’s role. And he certainly didn’t expect to inherit the mic. But, just as Joe Buck followed his father, Jack, as Major League baseball announcers, Peter Doubleday would follow Deacon. Some careers, particularly the kind that require the God-given talent of voice, are partly chosen, but partly preordained.

After high school, Doubleday traded the chill of upstate New York for the sunshine of South Florida, attending the University of Miami to pursue an education degree. “I kind of wanted to be a teacher,” he says.

After his junior year, his dad fell ill and couldn’t fulfill his commitment to announce the horse show at the 1971 New York State Fair. Deacon told the staff, “Why don’t you try my son?”

The fair was a huge spectator event, but the son nervously rose to the occasion. Though he returned to Miami, Peter pitched relief in a few other shows before his father passed away in January of ’72.

“I wanted to work with horse shows now that I had gotten the bug,” he says. Longtime friends Hannah and Joel Potter owned Rocky Fork Headley Hunt, a foxhunting club and 30-horse stable not unlike the Moore County Hounds, located in suburban Columbus, Ohio. Doubleday moved there to work at the stables mucking stalls, grooming horses, riding and teaching lessons.

“You know how everybody talks about a break? A big break?” Doubleday asks. That’s where he got his. Two of the horses he cared for belonged to Bruce Sundlin. Though the name didn’t mean much to him at the time, Sundlin (who would serve as governor of Rhode Island in the ’90s) was the president of the Washington International Horse Show, a world-renowned, week-long competition in D.C. that draws thousands of spectators each October. Sundlin learned Doubleday had announcing experience and asked him to voice the show. Reluctant at first, it turned out the bug was bigger than the balk. He did it, and he’s had a microphone in his hands ever since.

Doubleday began traveling for shows, returning to Columbus less and less frequently. By 1975, at the age of 25, his announcing career had become full time. He began producing the shows, leading the front end, announcing results, entertaining fans, educating the audience about breeds and classes, and selecting and playing music, including anthems when competitions were international. He also led the back end, communicating with the stables to ensure horses and riders were ready for their events.

“Driving classes, like the Budweiser hitch, it takes a long time for them to get organized,” Doubleday says.

Not long after, he relocated his home base to Southern Pines, though he spent more time in hotel rooms than in any house. “I got involved with the right people, the right horse shows, and boom, I was on the road 40 weeks of the year,” he says, “Sometimes more.”

Success and longevity, however, aren’t matters of getting a break here or there. Doubleday’s adolescence spent at horse shows had familiarized him with quarter horses, Arabians, Morgans and more, allowing him to voice all types of breed shows. Though hunters and jumpers are his specialty, he’s familiar with the gamut of disciplines from driving to dressage, and can announce those, too. “If you really want to do a good job, there’s a lot of work involved,” he says, nodding toward the library.

An effective announcer does more than regurgitate horsey jargon in a caramelized tone. He repackages complex information into digestible morsels, so that even a relatively uninformed audience can enjoy the show. “I drink tea in the morning, and there used to be a little phrase on the back of the tag on Salada bags,” Doubleday says. “One said, ‘Nothing is obvious to the uninformed.’ I always carried that thought.”

Doubleday has announced the major North American horse shows, including the Hampton Classic in New York, the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida, and the Royal Horse Show in Toronto. He was the voice of two Pan American Games and the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. “I’ll never forget my first morning of jumping,” Doubleday says, thinking of Atlanta and the 33,000 spectators in the stands. After delivering a few housekeeping announcements, the arena quieted and the Olympic theme music filled the air. “I said, ‘Welcome to the 26th Olympiad in Atlanta . . . and the place just went craaazy,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget that.”

Doubleday has had success managing shows, too. “The manager is the secretary for the horse show,” he says. “You do the computer work for all the entries; hire a jump crew to put up the jumps; hire people to take care of the footing and the water, make sure the stabling is up — the whole nine yards.”

Once the show starts, he’s hands on. “I’m a worker bee. I can’t sit still.” In an idle moment you’ll find him mucking stalls and picking up trash. “It’s like a hotel, you know, with the horses in and out. I’ll just pitch right in. ‘Let’s get it done.’”

At the height of his managing career, Doubleday oversaw eight or nine horse shows per year. He still manages three major shows: the Royal Horse Show, the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair, and the Devon Fall Classic in Pennsylvania, where he got his managing start in 1987.

COVID, of course, has impacted the workload. At one point, because he can’t sit still, he worked part time at Lowe’s Home Improvement.

Little Squire Farm, where he and his wife, Chrissie — a prize-winning equestrian herself — live, sits on a verdant tract of 10 acres. The cast and crew consist of the couple’s two barn cats; two horses, Woody and Walk My Drive, a retired racehorse who answers to Guac; a donkey named Burrito; and, of course, “the best dog on Earth.”

After nearly five decades behind the mic, Peter Doubleday isn’t quite ready to go silent. The workload in 2021 was nearly back to normal. “After getting in another nice year-and-a-half or so,” he says, glancing around the property, “then I could see myself riding off into the sunset.”  PS

Jenna Biter is a fashion designer, entrepreneur and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at jennabiter@protonmail.com.

Character Study

Tuned In to the Generations

Gary Brown’s musical legacy

By Jenna Biter

Mount the steps to The Carolina Hotel, walk the lobby to the dining room, and sit down to a fine breakfast under crystal chandeliers. Five mornings out of seven, Gary Brown Jr. will be in the corner tinkling the keys of the shiny baby grand just like his grandfather Robert L. Murphy did for 30 years before him.

Veterans of the hotel staff, and even some guests, watched Brown grow up playing music. At first it was strictly after school. He debuted alongside his grandfather and uncle, Rev. Dr. Paul Murphy, when he was only 14 years old. “My grandfather or uncle would be on the piano. Sometimes my uncle would be on the upright bass or the saxophone, and I would be on the drums,” says Brown. “That makes me the third generation.” He flashes a smile.

Eventually he shared his grandfather’s breakfast gig, penciled into the schedule more and more often, especially after he graduated from Pinecrest High School in 2007. Grandfather was preparing grandson to continue the family’s legacy. “I wanted to,” Brown says. “It was never forced on me.”

In 2022 he’ll have been at it for 19 years. It’s a legacy that spans more than music. Gary’s father, Gary Brown Sr., has been working as a chef at the resort for 42 years, cooking now at Fairwoods on 7.

From a rocking chair on the wide, wraparound porch outside the hotel’s dining room, Brown motions to the grounds. “To be in this atmosphere, you definitely have to make sure you are professional,” he says. When he was a teenager, Brown remembers being nervous that patrons would approach him to chat while he played. “I asked my grandfather, ‘What if somebody comes up to me?’” His grandfather explained it was a part of the job, part of being an entertainer, not just background noise.

Nearly two decades later, Brown’s fingers scale the black and white keys on autopilot while he small-talks with guests. He raises his eyebrows and affectionately impersonates their wide-eyed awe, “‘Woooo, you’re not even looking at your hands!’”

For Brown, playing the piano is like blinking — he can focus on the action but doesn’t have to. “I’ve literally been so tired that I could rest and play the piano,” he says. “One time, I almost fell off.” He drops his head, slumps to one side in imitation. “You know, how your body drops off? I nodded off, but it’s weird because my fingers kept playing.” He folds into laughter, remembering the waitstaff’s amusement at his expense.

Brown can read sheet music but usually plays without it. “I gauge the crowd, see who’s there, see who’s into it,” he says. He’ll sprinkle in pop songs for younger guests. “I love music. I like hymns. I like jazz. I like regular music that people hear on the radio. Either way I put my own touch to it.”

He’s been playing — well, trying to play — the piano since before he can remember. As a toddler, he would crawl to the piano and pull himself onto the bench to hammer at the keys. Then, in the second grade, he entered an art contest with the assignment to draw what you want to be when you grow up. His picture depicted the adult Gary seated at a baby grand. “I didn’t know how to draw hair, so I just drew a mohawk,” he says, running a hand over his tightly cropped haircut.

Even without the mohawk, his elementary artwork was prescient. “I not only play piano, I tune pianos,” he says. “And my grandfather tuned pianos, and my uncle tunes pianos.”

His Uncle Paul also plays at the resort at least once a week, as he has for the past 37 years. And his mother, the daughter of Robert and Paul’s sister, Cathy Murphy, is a piano technician, able to regulate and repair pianos.

The family’s musical legacy began when Robert opened Murphy’s Music Center, a piano store, in Aberdeen in 1972, at the time one of the few Blacks to own a Sandhills business. He shuttered the store in 1980 because of the recession, but his misfortune had an upside.

During the economic downturn, Murphy couldn’t afford to pay tuners to maintain the pianos he had in stock, so he learned to tune the instruments himself. That led to a new business, Murphy’s Music Service. When he started playing at the resort in 1982, the combination launched the family’s musical arc.

“My grandfather taught me how to tune by ear first,” Brown says. “Then, after I learned to tune by ear, he allowed me to use a device as an aid. If the device is broken, you still need to be able to tune the piano.”

He dives into a masterclass on the process. “For most of the keys on the piano, there are three strings,” he says. “I use the felt to mute the left and right string, so then it only exposes the middle string.” Brown describes the tedious process with hand motions as if a piano were in front of him. With only the middle string exposed, he sets the note before individually tuning the right and left strings until all three are in tune.

“That’s pretty much what I do all the way down the whole piano, and the piano has over 260 knobs and tuning pins I have to turn,” he says. “A lot of times, I go through it twice.”

Patience was the first skill Brown learned from his grandfather. “I used to look at him and say, ‘What is he doing?’ I’m like, ‘He’ll never get done doing that.’”

But wisdom comes from experience. “You just focus on one string at a time,” he says. He points to a decorative retaining wall on the grounds, “It’s like somebody building that brick wall right there
. . . one brick at a time.”

At first, Brown learned the tuning trade in his grandfather’s shop. When his grandfather decided he was ready, Brown accompanied him to tune in customers’ homes. Then he graduated to tuning pianos solo with only pickup and drop-off by Grandpa.

When his grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, Brown stepped up. “He was tuning the piano, and I was right beside him. But he didn’t have enough strength to do it. So, I said, ‘I got it, Grandpa, I got it,’” Brown says. “Then he’d hand me the tuning hammer, and I’d tune the piano.” When Murphy’s condition worsened and he had home hospice, Brown would service pianos and bring checks back to his grandfather until he passed away in 2012.

Nearly a decade later, Brown still shows up for his grandfather’s clientele. He helps to support Murphy’s Music Service, run by his grandmother, Thomasina, but also has his own tuning business, Murphy and Brown’s Moving Music. “Call either or, and I’ll still show up,” Brown says and cracks a smile.

After Robert Murphy died, Brown was upset he didn’t play the piano for his grandfather while he was in hospice care, so he added a third, compassionate, leg to his business. “It just opened my eyes to the opportunity. You know, since you didn’t do it for your grandfather, you can do it for other people.

“I’m the last person they hear before they pass away,” he says with sober gratitude. “A lot of family members are mourning, don’t know what to say, don’t know what to do. Then when I come with the music, the music fills the gaps.”

Sometimes Brown brings his sons, Gary Brown III and Jayce, just shy of their ninth and fifth birthdays respectively, with him when he plays for hospice patients, so they can witness the gift that music can be.

Like their dad, the boys gravitated toward the piano as toddlers. “I would see them going to the piano and doing the same exact thing I did,” he says. But like Murphy didn’t force the piano on his grandson, Brown doesn’t force it on yet another generation. “A lot of people that come up to me, they say they used to take lessons when they were young, but they don’t play anymore. Maybe they had a strict teacher, or they just didn’t practice when they were supposed to,” he says. “But when they hear me play, they say they wish they would have kept playing.” Brown knows the next generation will get there on its own, if that’s where it wants to go.

“My grandpa always told me, ‘If you find something you love to do, you never work a day in your life.’ That’s why I learned how to play and I learned how to tune,” he says. “I love it.”  PS

Jenna Biter is a writer, entrepreneur, and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at jennabiter@protonmail.com. Contact Brown for any of his piano services by calling him at (910) 315-1362 or emailing him at garybrown1362@gmail.com.

Character Study

Of Palettes and Perps

From landscapes to wanted posters

By Jenna Biter

Walk up a narrow flight of stairs and hang a left into the corner studio above Eye Candy Gallery & Framing in downtown Southern Pines and you’ll find Pat McBride. Wearing a crisp white shirt that — if you know any artist — has obviously not yet seen the business end of a paint brush, she waves and introduces herself with an upbeat hello. She’s surrounded by a dozen paintings, ranging in size from a few inches to a few feet.

“I always liked art, but I hadn’t really thought of being an ‘artist-artist,’” she says. That was until she refused to take no for an answer in a class at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“I took art as one of my electives and, on the first day of class, the professor said, ‘OK, if there’s anybody in here with any other majors, this is a class for art majors. You just need to let me know and get out now.’”

She backtracks. “Well . . . first, he said to put up your hand. Of course, I, being ornery, did not, but everybody else did and politely marched out . . . you’re not kicking me out of this class.” She relives the memory, shrugs her shoulders, smiles. “Anyway, I took the class and ended up becoming an art major.” She got her undergraduate degree in fine art and has been at it ever since.

McBride points at her large painting of the Carolina Hotel. “Right now, I’m working in oils.” She used to work mostly in acrylics and pencils, detailing people. But a class in oil painting inspired her to take up the medium, and the historical architecture and unique sporting events of the Sandhills have captured her imagination. “Everything is kind of fun because everything is kind of . . . new,” she says, though she and her husband, Larry, moved to the area over three years ago. “When we moved here, our house needed so much work that we didn’t really get to do a lot.”

Before coming to the Sandhills, McBride and her family lived in Greensboro for 15 years and, before that, they lived in a half-dozen other places, including Buffalo, New York, and Annapolis, Maryland. Larry worked as a special agent for the FBI, so the family was packed up and moving every two years. At least, that’s how it was at the beginning.

McBride kept up with her art regardless of where they lived. “I was working in frame shops so that I could be around art and afford to get my stuff framed.” She showed her artwork in galleries and continues to do that in Eye Candy just below her studio and It’s Art for Art Sake in Pinehurst.

In the spring of 1984, however, McBride’s most prolific work hung not in a gallery but in post offices and malls across the United States. It was the wanted poster of Christopher Bernard Wilder, better known by the epithet the Beauty Queen Killer.

It was McBride’s husband who, in the early 1980s, recommended she apply for an opening as an illustrator in the special projects division of the FBI. She geared her portfolio toward the job and got the position. “There were craftsmen who were woodworkers; there were photographers; there were graphic artists,” she says. “The craftsmen would create, like, a golf club that had a microphone in it. Of course, the photographers were photographing different things and crime scenes — stuff for courtroom presentations. And the graphic artists were for in-house publications.

“I did illustration,” she continues, “and they also trained me to do photo retouching.” In the pre-Photoshop days, McBride retouched photos by hand with what looks like a single- or double-haired paint brush, opaque watercolors (gouache) and her imagination. She reworked photos of at-large criminals, imagining potential changes in their appearance for wanted posters.

“It was just what I thought they might look like,” she says. “There wasn’t really a lot of science to it.

“When they brought this one to me, it was going to be a standard poster . . . dah, dah, dah. But then, they’re bringing in photos of all these beautiful young girls. And every day they’re bringing them in, and they’re preparing for a press conference. They’d go marching past my desk with these giant photos.”

The Australian-born serial killer lived in Florida and had a dark past rife with sexual assault and rape allegations. But he was also a successful real estate investor who drove race cars and lived fast. Wilder would lure away unsuspecting teenage girls and young women by hanging around malls, pretending to be a photographer looking for young models. “For whatever reason, probably because he was successful, probably because he didn’t look the part of a monster, he got away with it,” she says.

In the spring of 1984 Wilder went on a cross-country killing spree and murdered at least eight women. He catapulted to the top of America’s most wanted list and, ultimately, shot and killed himself on April 13 when two police officers approached him at a gas station just miles from the Canadian border in New Hampshire.

“Apparently, he usually had a beard and a mustache,” McBride remembers, “but he was on this crazy spree, and they heard word he might have shaved — nobody had a photo of what he looked like prior to a beard.”

It was her task to overpaint the serial killer’s photo and reimagine him without a beard. “At the time, I thought, ‘Man, if I never do anything again, this was probably the most important thing I ever did,’” she says. “He actually was clean-shaven when he died, but I never saw pictures. I asked the agents afterward how close I came, but there’s no way I could really know.”

McBride Googled Wilder nearly 40 years post mortem and discovered an Australian TV special that flashed previously unseen photos of the killer clean-shaven. “I went ekkkkk!” she said, in a mixture of accomplishment and disgust, “because it came out looking correct.”  PS

Jenna Biter is a writer, entrepreneur and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at jenna.biter@gmail.com.

Character Study

Joe Being Joe

The intersection of golf and politics

By Jim Moriarty

Politics has been brushing up against golf since William Howard Taft, our first overweight, presidential, high handicapper, left office the same year Francis Ouimet beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at The Country Club. Barack Obama and Donald Trump are as far apart as Jupiter and Mars but feel the gravitational pull of the game equally. I’ve never met Joe Biden, who also plays, but I do know one thing about him, and I wouldn’t know it if it hadn’t been for golf.

It begins with Ben Wright.

With the impish grin of a pixie and a CV that included writing for the London Sunday Times, Wright was the British voice imported by CBS at the very time the magnificent Henry Longhurst’s was waning. “Mr. Longhurst excoriated me on my first day at the Masters,” Wright told me. “He said this immortal phrase: ‘We’re nothing but caption writers in a picture business, and if you can’t improve the quality of the picture, keep your f***ing mouth shut.’”

Wright was a quick study. “To this day,” the late Frank Chirkinian, the Hall of Fame CBS director, told me, “the 1975 Masters was the greatest Masters of all time — as a telecast. The dialogue between Ben Wright and Henry Longhurst was priceless. Wieskopf and Jack Nicklaus are tied for the lead. Nicklaus is standing on the 16th green waiting for Tom Watson to go back and re-tee because he put his ball in the water. Weiskopf is on the 15th green, and he makes a birdie putt to go into the lead by one. The crowd erupts. Take a close-up of Jack Nicklaus for a reaction shot. Over the roar of the crowd Ben Wright says, ‘Ah, evil music for Mr. Nicklaus’ ears.’ Weiskopf goes to the tee just in time to watch Jack make that historic 40-foot putt. For the first time the stoic Jack Nicklaus rushes off the green with a putter raised over his head and Henry, over the crowd, says, ‘My, my, my, never before have I seen such a thing.’ Cut back to Weiskopf on the tee to get his reaction. And Henry says, ‘And now Weiskopf must take it as he dished it out.’ Now, is that any good?”

Ben no doubt wishes he’d been as succinct in 1995 at the LPGA’s McDonald’s Championship in Wilmington, Delaware. It was there that he gave an interview to a feature reporter for the News Journal, Valerie Helmbreck. It’s impossible to go into all the details here. Let’s just say Wright said some things about breasts, in one context, and lesbians in another. Helmbreck, who preferred not to use a tape recorder in her work but took notes as scrupulously as a monk writing in the Book of Kells, did follow-up interviews. CBS got wind of the story and tried to convince her not to write it. She wrote it anyway.

Furor ensued. Wright was summoned to New York. There, either Wright or the suits hatched a plan to deny he had said what he said. Helmbreck was pilloried as having published lies spiced with innuendo. It wasn’t Wright’s or CBS’s finest hour. All manner of insidious motives were attributed to Helmbreck, who knew so little about golf that when Chirkinian called to try to convince her not to write the story, she had to ask him how to spell his name and what his job was. He called her “honey,” and she hung up on him.

Months after the firestorm was lit, Sports Illustrated’s Michael Bamberger found someone who had overheard the interview. Helmbreck’s version was confirmed. But that’s not the end of it.

Wright was thrown out of golf. Period. There was to be no forgiveness, no absolution, no pardon, no redemption. He became a “pariah” — that’s his word. Had Ben, who was 63 at the time, simply told the truth, he’d have had his wrist slapped and been in the booth, brilliantly no doubt, for another decade at least. Instead, he eventually did time in the Betty Ford Clinic; and Helmbreck, disenchanted with the way she was treated by friends and foes alike, quit the newspaper 18 months later.

Helmbreck and Wright spoke again in 1998. It was on her daughter’s birthday. “He and I talked on the phone for an hour. It was kind of like two people who had been in a train wreck together sort of comparing notes,” she told me in ’05.

But, I promised you Joe Biden, didn’t I? When Helmbreck agreed to meet me at a restaurant in Wilmington, she was walking with a cane. She apologized even before we began to talk, saying she tired easily. In January of that year, standing in her kitchen washing out a coffee cup, she experienced a sudden, crushing headache. An artery in her brain stem had burst. Her husband, Al Mascitti, an editor at the News Journal, had left the house 15 minutes earlier to attend the governor’s inauguration. A friend got her to a nearby hospital, and she was helicoptered to the Thomas Jefferson University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. She had less than a 20 percent chance of survival. When I saw her, she still had a stent in her head, draining blood. “It’s made by Rolex,” she said.

“The one person in Delaware who had what I had and called my husband was Joe Biden,” she said. Biden was a U.S. senator then. It was no big deal, she tried to explain, “It’s a small state. Everybody knows everybody else.”

Biden filled her husband in on what the stages of her recovery would look and feel like. “Honestly, the stuff that he told my husband was the most helpful because you’re never sure if what you’re feeling is normal,” she said. The last I knew, Helmbreck was living in France and writing again.

It’s peculiar, this game of golf. Sometimes it reveals character without ever hitting a shot.  PS

Jim Moriarty is the editor of PineStraw and can be reached at jjmpinestraw@gmail.com.

Character Study

Knives Out

The artisan of Aberdeen

By Jenna Biter

“I’m more of a Japanese maple freak than a bonsai freak, but I can show you,” Joe Marotta says matter-of-factly but somehow merrily, too. He walks through the kitchen and opens the door to the backyard. Trees, 20 or 30, and plants line a bricked walkway, each in a pot of specific size and color, and some with accompanying stands.

“Do you make these?” I motion at the wooden stands.

“Yup,” he says with a grin. Japanese maples of assorted cultivars fill a majority of the pots, and beyond they fill the backyard. Bihou has yellow bark; Shirazz has salmon pink leaves; Radiant has iridescent bark and, when it matures, it will have iridescent leaves, too. “I have about 55 Japanese maples on the property,” he says. Hanna Matoi, a weeping cultivar, is his favorite.

The bonsai are the first stop and, ultimately, the last one on our circular tour of the backyard. A pergola covered in greenery, a wooden swing and raised garden beds planted with tomatoes, onions and eggplant absorb the space between the trees. With his back toward me, he fiddles with a bonsai before heading toward the garage.

“You could just take a small tree or plant and put it in a pot and then it’s a tree in a pot,” he says. “But, if you start trimming them and trying to shape them — that’s the art of bonsai.” He turns, catches my eye and laughs a round laugh. “I’m new to that, too.”

Too. He’s alluding to his other craft, knife making, a skill he’s been honing about as long as he’s been pruning bonsai. In his garage, Joe stands over 26 knives-to-be. It’s where our conversation started nearly an hour ago.

“I was born and raised on a horse farm in Michigan, and we had racehorses,” he says, standing at a worktable in this garage-turned-workshop. With a state-of-the-art table saw, planer, anvil and the works living comfortably in the spaces meant for Fords and Chevys, it probably hasn’t been a garage for some time.

“The other family business, it was a construction business,” he says. “I went the racehorse route, and I became a horseshoer.” For 35 years, two in the Sandhills, he shod horses, before trying his hand at construction, trimming houses for his cousin.

“And, there was a piece of molding or something I put up, and I said, ‘This just doesn’t look good to me; it doesn’t look right.’” His cousin told him to do whatever he needed to do to make it look right. It’s the mantra he’s carried through to the art of bonsai, blacksmithing, woodworking and the nexus of the latter two, knife-making. The warmth of his voice advertises the delight that comes from the discipline of mastery, the joy of knowledge.

“Do you want to hear the rest of the story?” he asks. “In 2017, I was diagnosed with lymphoma, and, halfway through my treatments, they discovered I had kidney cancer.” He pauses. “In January of the next year, after I got my chemo treatments for lymphoma, and I had a good prognosis, they took my right kidney out. Then, after that, they said, ‘As of right now, you’re cancer-free,’ and so far I have been.”

Joe shrugs. “Well, in the meantime, I didn’t have any business, and I wasn’t feeling good enough to do anything, so I decided I would start making knives from horseshoe rasps.”

He holds up a large, metal file. “This is called a big foot,” he says, waving the farrier rasp. “Normally, they’re about 14- to-16 inches. ’Bout halfway through my shoeing career, I switched to these because you get more leverage. Less stress. You don’t work as hard.”

He imitates the filing of a horseshoe in midair. “What I do is I’ll lay them out like this,” he says, setting down the repurposed rasp before grabbing a template to demonstrate how he cuts out the knives. “Because this is so coarse and sharp,” Joe says as he lightly runs his fingers over the nubs on the file, “I knock down the rasp bed.”

Then comes the shaping of the knife on a homemade grinder. Not only does he make the knives, he makes the machinery to make the knives. He flicks on a switch. “You sit there and grind and grind and grind,” he booms over the mechanical humming. Chhhhh, chhhhh, chhhhh . . . the metal and the grinder’s belt meet in a spray of sparks. “Dunk it in water in case it gets hot,” he says and plunges the knife into a bucket.

“The trickiest part is getting the bevel right. When you look down at the knife, you want the taper to be symmetrical,” he says. “After you grind about a hundred knives you get pretty good at it.” He adds modestly, “I’m still not great at it.”

The process courses ahead in almost perpetual motion. Handles-in-progress lay out in a variety of colorful, unfamiliar woods. “I try to use all exotic hardwoods. This is bocote, this is wenge. This is also bocote, but it’s long grain . . . redheart . . . leopardwood,” he lists off the names as he points.

Even the garage-turned-workshop doesn’t have the space for a production line that includes making leather or wooden sheaths — the latter called sayas — to accompany his cutlery, so the process spills into the house. His wife, Cheryl, says, “He wants my sewing room, but he’s not getting it.”

Joe pretends to ignore her but can’t contain a smirk as he explains how he makes the sheaths. “I cut a template out. Stain it and stamp it,” he says, cruising through the process. “Sew this, then put a welt in there, and, now, I just got to sew that together, stain it, finish it and then that’s the sheath.” He walks over to his homemade saddle pony to demonstrate saddle stitching.

Knife-making, machining, leather-making. “How do you have time for all these hobbies?” I ask.

“Ever since I got sick, and I had cancer, all I got is time,” Joe says. For the discipline of mastery, for the joy of knowledge.

“He also does bonsai,” someone chirps from the corner of the room.

“I’m more of a Japanese maple freak than a bonsai freak, but I can show you,” he says matter-of-factly, but somehow merrily, too.  PS

Jenna Biter is a fashion designer, entrepreneur and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at jenna.biter@gmail.com. Marotta Custom Knives are available online at www.marottaknives.com.

Character Study

Songs of the Season

With faith of his father, Dixie Chapman made the journey from the course to the choir

By Jenna Biter

Dixie Chapman walks me through the open floor plan of his home to the sitting area: a plush-looking sofa across from twin armchairs. Paintings of a sun-drenched farm scene and a portrait of a bearded man I feel I know hang on the walls. The room itself is a warm conversation, if a room can be such a thing. I pick the plush-looking sofa, and he takes a chair opposite. I wonder if it’s his favorite and look him over: silver hair combed to the side, dark-rimmed glasses, a gray turtleneck, quarter-zip pullover, stone khaki pants, polka dot socks peeking out beneath pant legs, golf sneakers.

He wears the ensemble comfortably, like a faithful uniform. And, in a way, it is his uniform. He’s a golfer and has been his entire life. With famed amateur golfer Dick Chapman as his father, he almost has to be. But Dick Chapman is a story for another day.

Richard Davol Chapman Jr., better known as Dixie, is a golf lover like his dad. He plays four times a week, weather permitting, and resides with his wife, Pidgie, on the grounds of the Country Club of North Carolina in an elegant, easy home tucked away under trees on the bend of a road with a garden oasis for a backyard. “We’re very happy,” Chapman says. “It’s a great house as far as flow is concerned. You go here and there, and it’s not complicated at all.” Uncomplicated — that’s how he seems to live his life, rooted in his marriage and balanced by golf, his career as an investment manager and his expression of faith: hymn writing. “I’ve got a nice little triangle there,” he says.

Chapman was born into music almost as much as he was born into golf. “I’ve always liked to sing. We went to The Village Chapel when I was growing up. My father actually became the choirmaster, and he had a very good voice. I kind of grew up with music.”

He pauses. “I tried to learn the piano but that never worked; my fingers are too short.” Holding up his hands in a piano spread, he laughs. “They never flew . . . no, no, no.” Chapman shakes his head and smiles. “But we had an organ in the house, a small organ; my father played. And we had a piano; my mother played show tunes.”

Chapman studied English in college and has written poems throughout his life. A couple of decades ago, Johnny Bradburn, the music director of the church he was attending, read his poetry and liked what he read. He asked Chapman if he thought he could write a hymn.

“Well, I don’t know. I never tried to do that,” Chapman responded. “Lo and behold, the first one I wrote, the choir sang. And I was out of town.”

He and the music director began collaborating on hymns. “He had the unique ability to write,” says Chapman. “I would sing to him, and we would go over lines and over lines, and he’d get the melody, and write it down. Put it into musical notation. So then, when I sang a solo, he would play the music.

“I’ve written, I don’t know, 140 or so hymns since then,” he says. Adding with a laugh, “I’m not on the same level as Charles Wesley, who wrote 6,000.” While Chapman admires Wesley, an 18th century leader of the Methodist church, he doesn’t aspire to be as prolific. “I don’t want to write one every day.”

I ask if he finds writing hymns relaxing. He hesitates and says, “Well, it takes attention, and it’s exciting. I enjoy it thoroughly.” Then he tacks on, “It’s relaxing when I finish it.”

Sensing that he doesn’t want to turn his worship into a chore, recuperation between hymns seems necessary, even if it’s only a pause to enjoy a completed song. “Some take me longer to write than others, and I’m always revising. It’s never going to be right the first time you do it. You have to keep revising and improving the metrics, improving the words that you want to use,” he says. “It’s an interesting process. I’m just waiting to hear the next one.”

Chapman usually writes when he feels a nudge. “A line will stick with me. Sometimes it just comes out of the blue, and I hear something in my head, and the spirit guides me.” Sometimes Pidgie is the nudge. She often prints out familiar songs for her husband to mark up and transform. “I like to take a melody from a well-known song and incorporate it into a religious song,” Chapman says.

He’s got a hymn for Lent. It’s called “Vigilant.” He pauses, clears his throat and begins to sing. “Vi-gil-ant. Be viiiii-gilant,” he trills up and then down, holding onto the words. “The day of the Lord will soon begin,” he sings and then shifts back into speech to explain the accompaniment for this particular hymn. “It was all brass of course. And that song went so well with that.” Then he picks up where he left off. “Vig-il-ant. Bah, bah, bah, bah . . . ” He imitates blaring brass and trumpeting trumpets. “Ta, ta, ta, ta . . . you know?” He’s a musician lost in the song.

We run through a list of seasonal hymns. Chapman hums low, testing out melodies before belting into song. “No,” he mutters and adjusts his tone. He taps his foot for time, polka dot socks coming in and out of view. He sings through four or five songs. “Do you still have someone to write music for you now? Are they still performed?” I ask.

“No, I wish I did, but I don’t. It’s frustrating.” Chapman frowns. After leaving the church with the talented music director for a new spiritual home, he hasn’t had many opportunities to share his songs publicly. One day, though, he hopes to combine 10 or 20 of his favorites into a booklet and publish them.

“Vi-gil-ant. Be viiiii-gilant.”  PS

Jenna Biter is a fashion designer, entrepreneur and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at jenna.biter@gmail.com.

Character Study

Underground Artist

James Alford plies his classic trade

By Will Harris   •   Photography by Tim Sayer

In the basement of the Cabin Branch Tack Shop, down a set of creaky wooden steps, the musky smell of leather mixes with the lingering odor of sweet cigar smoke where James Alford practices his leatherworking craft. A radio plays rhythm and blues as he repairs horse tack and saddlery using tools and methods that haven’t changed in generations.

Speaking through a Swisher Sweet cigar that has long since gone out, Alford recalls the relationship that led to his 50-plus-year career keeping the indispensible gear of an equestrian stronghold in good working order. “I got lucky because a gentleman I knew in town was a taxi driver, and I used to do a little work for him,” he says. “You know, the kind of guy who knows a lot of people. And he liked what I did so he looked out for me for a job. That’s how I got in and met Mr. Schmelzer.”

E.J. Schmelzer hired 14-year-old James as an apprentice at the Schmelzer family leather shop serving the Pinehurst Harness Track. “Just starting out it was a part-time job after school and on weekends. I got away from the tobacco field. You remember those days.” He could have gone to the Stanley Furniture plant, where his father worked for 38 years, but “that wasn’t my thing,” he says. “I got to the tack shop, and that was it. I thought: ‘Oh, this is where I need to be.’”

After 12 years at the Schmelzers’, it was time to move on. Alford began working at the tack shop in Southern Pines in 1980 when the business was part-owned by Sam Bozick. “I knew they needed help and I came straight over and started working. No changes or nothing. I worked for Sam for over 25 years.”

Bozick, known for his affability and generosity, would sometimes fix tack for people even when they didn’t have the money to pay him. He knew they would settle up when they could. “A handshake meant a lot back then. It was just like signing a contract, when you buy a property or a car,” Alford says. “He would let them have it and gave them time to pay for it and wouldn’t push them about it. And kept going with a smile.”

Alford and Bozick spent time traveling up and down the East Coast. “Sam would go all over the country and pick up tack work or buy leather. I used to ride with him a lot of the time, and we’d turn in somewhere way back in the woods, old big farms. People he didn’t know. He’d pull into the farm and get to talking to them. And that’s the way he built business.”

Bozick passed away in 2010, but Alford continues the legacy with the comfortable confidence of an expert who has seen it all. Surrounded by mounds of unfinished boots and harnesses stacked on his workbench, he exudes an infectious calm. “Take your time, have patience, and it will all fall right into place. I say all the time, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have taken this job here.’ And then I’ll sit there and think to myself, ‘What I’m going to do?’ and I can picture in my mind how I want it to look when I get done.”

The day is punctuated by regular visits from his customers, announced by the banging of the half-door that still bears Bozick’s name at the top of the stairs and the thump of riding boots descending to the workshop. He particularly enjoys the challenge of an unorthodox job. “I like everything about it. Sometimes I’ll get here and I’ll groan to myself: ‘Oh, this bunch of junk.’ And then I look at it and think, ‘I know how I can fix this.’ But you’ve got to do it right, because they’re gonna use it.”

Some customers pick up finished bags, boots and bridles. Others just need a quick fix that Alford does while they wait and watch. He can put his hands on a customer’s repaired item within seconds, even if it looks more like a pile of random stuff to the casual visitor.

On a busy afternoon, the door slams and a rider walks down the stairs, boots turned sideways to avoid snagging her spurs on the carpeted steps. She’s picking up a saddle Alford has altered to keep it from digging into her horse’s back. “You know when the saddles are old and the horses grow, their back changes and everything. A lot of times you can correct the problem. Stuff it with padding and so forth. But that’s the way it goes.”

She asks how much she owes, but Alford sends her off without paying. He expects the saddle may be back for further tweaks until it is perfect for the horse and rider.

Later in the day another rider comes in. The hackamore bridle her horse is fond of using has a problem — when she pulls the reins, it slips in front of the horse’s eyes. She has attached two pieces of bailing twine as makeshift straps to keep the bridle centered on the horse’s face, what Alford calls a “backwoods” fix.

She plans to compete with the horse at the end of the month, and while the bailing twine works, it may detract from the pair’s performance. Relishing the opportunity to make something from scratch, Alford intends to copy the customer’s design in leather, adding buckles so the straps can be adjusted. “I’m looking forward to this, because I’ve got to make it,” he says.

Alford’s favorite project is rebuilding saddles. An older gentleman from Laurinburg brought in a Western-style saddle from his childhood that he wanted Alford to rebuild just so he could display it in his home. He said the saddle would never be used again, but Alford knew better.

“I have done some saddles like that; they say they’re going to put them up as a showpiece, and they will end up riding them,” he says. “So, I fix them the same, just in case. I put everything just like they were roping steers and on the trail riding for months at a time.

“You do it right, because you never know. Who knows, someday his granddaughter might grab that saddle. Now, they can just throw it on a horse and take off and ride,” he says, with a smile.  PS

Will Harris is serving an internship at PineStraw to complete his business journalism undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He works locally as a carpenter, enjoys playing tennis, sailing and spending time with his dog Bear.

Character Study

A Chin Scratcher

Stuck in the era of the presidential close shave

By Scott Sheffield

Whither hast thou gone, presidential whiskers? No American president has sported facial hair of any kind since Howard Taft left office in 1913, except for the mustache and goatee cultivated for a short time by Harry Truman after the 1948 election. Before Taft, no American president had gone without it since James Buchanan ceded the office to Abraham Lincoln in 1861, except Abe’s successor, Andrew Johnson, and William McKinley. During that era, the diversity of presidential facial growth ran the gamut of possibilities. Long sideburns, mustaches, mustaches with muttonchops, full beards with mustaches and without.

John Quincy Adams (1825–1829) was the first president to opt for a hairier facial appearance. This new look consisted of something between very long sideburns and muttonchops. He may have been emulating his father’s [John Adams (1789–1803)] sideburns, which were shorter but just as bushy as his. Martin Van Buren (1837–1841) was next to show some facial flair, sporting long bushy sideburns, followed by Zachary Taylor (1849–1850), who wore shorter, less ostentatious but still bushy sideburns as well.

In 1861, the first beard appeared on the face of a president. The beard, sans mustache, appeared on the face of Abraham Lincoln. In October of the previous year, Lincoln had received a letter from a young girl advising him that he should grow some whiskers in order to enhance his appearance, as well as his chances of winning the election the following month. Although Lincoln expressed concern in his reply to the little girl that people might consider doing so “a silly affectation,” he started growing a beard shortly thereafter. On his inaugural trip to Washington, D.C., the following February, his train stopped in Westville, New York, the hometown of the little girl, Grace Bedell. He called her from the crowd and proudly showed her his full-grown beard, saying, “Gracie, look at my whiskers. I’ve been growing them for you.”

In 1865, Andrew Johnson, who became President after Lincoln’s assassination, was the last clean-shaven president until William McKinley took office in 1897.

During those intervening years, the choices varied considerably. Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877) wore a closely cropped, but full, beard and mustache. My favorite, by the way. (Maybe because it looks like mine.) Rutherford B. Hayes (1877–1881) likewise wore a full beard and mustache but most definitely not a closely cropped affair like Grant’s. His beard cascaded well over his celluloid collar, just as his mustache flowed over his mouth, almost concealing it completely.

James A. Garfield (1881–1881) was only in office six months when he became the second president to be assassinated in less than 20 years. While in office, though, he perpetuated the style of his predecessor with a free-flowing mane of his own, beard and mustache alike. At least you could make out his mouth.

Chester A. Arthur (1881–1885) distinguished himself as the only president to adorn his countenance with the combination of muttonchops and mustache. Unfortunately, the hair on his face grew sparsely so he really wasn’t able to rock the style statement.

Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms (1885–1889 and 1893–1897), wore only a full mustache. It was a bushy one, one that seemed to eschew trimming, but not on the scale of those belonging to Hayes and Garfield.

Then there was Benjamin Harrison’s (1893-1897) beard. Similar to Grant’s in shape and length and well groomed, it also earns style points for color. Although he was only 56 years of age when he took office, his beard was totally white. I still like Grant’s the best. (Did I mention that his looked like mine?) As a result of yet another assassination, Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901. William McKinley (1897-1901) had opted against any type of facial hair at all, but his successor wore a full mustache similar in size and shape to Cleveland’s. In today’s parlance, both Teddy’s and Grover’s mustaches would be likened to those of bull walruses, and come to think of it, probably were in their day as well.

The last president to adorn himself with facial hair was William Howard Taft (1909-1913). His choice was a full-blown handlebar mustache.

So why have the presidents’ faces gone hairless for over a hundred years? Around the turn of the 20th century, public health officials determined that tuberculosis, a scourge of the era, was an infectious rather than a hereditary disease. In this period of uncertainty about the disease, the theory arose that men’s beards could be repositories of tuberculosis germs. That pronouncement eventually led to the adoption of the clean-shaven look as the more healthful and therefore more desirable for presidential candidates, as well as men in general. Even after it was determined that beards posed no greater risk of contracting or transmitting tuberculosis than shaven skin, the damage was done. Facial hair didn’t return to men’s faces until the 1960s and never again (or at least not yet) to the faces of presidents.

In the presidential races of 1944 and 1948, Thomas Dewey, the last candidate for the office to wear facial hair, was defeated on both occasions. It was said at the time that the public’s disapproval of his mustache may have contributed to his losses.

So, is that it? Has presidential facial hair been relegated to the dustbin of history? I don’t think so. If Julian Edelman, the MVP of Super Bowl LIII, can wear a beard and have it shaved live on TV by Ellen DeGeneres, can the most powerful chief executive in the world be far behind?

Maybe, if it’s a woman.  PS

Scott Sheffield moved to the Sandhills from Northern Virginia in 2004. He feels like a native but understands he can never be one.

Character Study

Catalog of Memories

No room at the inn for the Wish Book

By Tom Allen

Say it ain’t so. Not at the most wonderful time of the year.

Recently, Sears announced they were closing 142 stores before the end of this year. At its height, America’s largest retailer boasted over 4,000 stores. Decades of lagging sales and plummeting revenues reduced the number to less than 1,000. Fingers point at everything from out of touch CEOs to blasé brands. I beg to differ. The reason? They messed with the Wish Book.

In 1993, Sears stopped publishing beloved big-book catalogs and reduced the size of the Christmas Wish Book, a holiday tradition since 1933. My generation circled Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Chatty Cathys and Electric Football games with vibrating, metal fields. We showed our parents pictures of Milton Bradley games like Barrel of Monkeys, Mousetrap and Twister. Remember Operation and “Cavity Sam,” with his red light bulb nose? Sam’s “Adam’s Apple” was easy to remove. Likewise his “Wrenched Ankle.” Going for the “Bread Basket,” worth $1,000 in play money, was the real test of hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Touch that metal with those tweezers — the buzzer sounded and Sam’s nose lit up. Doggone it! But we loved it. “Batteries Not Included” meant our stockings held an 8-pack of double-A Evereadys. Years later, we’d slip the same 8-pack, along with bubble gum and a pair of socks, into our kid’s stockings, just like our parents did. Thanks to the Wish Book, boys might pull out Hot Wheels; girls, Easy Bake Oven accessories.

Eventually, we ditched the Wish Book. Thought we’d outgrown it. Clothes, no longer frowned on, became acceptable under the tree. Who needed a Wish Book, we thought, when slick mail order offerings hollered at us from October until early December. As young adults we circled item numbers from Lands’ End catalogs, underlining sizes and colors to make sure whoever filled out the order form or called toll-free would get it right. We had to be at least as preppy as our best friends. We dog-eared pages from L.L. Bean’s collection of duck boots and flannel shirts, ’cause if you didn’t go for poplin and prep, try rugged and woodsy. For some, toll-free ordering from folksy towns like Dodgeville, Wisconsin, or Rockport, Maine, added to the mystique of the purchase. Am I really talking to someone who lives in Dodgeville? How cool was that?

Then along came the internet. Who needs toll-free numbers and mail order forms when you can shop online? Quick and convenient. Yes, I saved that credit card number, but they always ask for the security code. “Honey, will you hand me my wallet?” Need more choices? Hello Amazon Prime. For 120 bucks a year, get everything from toilet paper to toffee in two business days. But with convenience came overwhelming choices. Clothes shopping? Scroll through page after page of stonewashed denim or polo shirts and you still can’t find what you want. Narrow that search. Surely a middle-aged man, with a receding hairline and slight belly bulge, can find an alternative to skinny jeans. All I want is a short-sleeved navy polo — no pockets, hemmed sleeves or, Lord forbid, a monogram. Just a few colors, please. I’m fine not receiving a sweater on Christmas morning in “light beetroot red.”

In 1886, Richard Sears, a railroad worker, started selling watches through fliers and mail order catalogs. The business morphed into Sears Roebuck, selling everything from shoes to furniture to musical instruments. You could even buy a house from Sears. Exclusive brands like Kenmore, Craftsman and Diehard proliferated in American kitchens, tool sheds and cars. The Sears Tower, built in 1973 in Chicago, was once the tallest building in the world as well as the retailer’s headquarters.

By the 1980s low-price competitors like Walmart, Kmart and Target were opening big box stores. Sears tried to snag the dot-com market, acquired Lands’ End to beef up their apparel, and merged with Kmart. Nevertheless, decline continued. Sell-offs increased. The company became a shadow of itself during the ’70s and ’80s.

Last year, after listening to customers recount Christmas Wish Book memories, Sears brought the catalog back. But the print version, as well as online and mobile editions, failed to attract baby boomers who remember waiting for the iconic Christmas catalog to arrive by mail, months before Santa slid down the chimney.

Everything has its season. Sadly, perhaps Sears has had theirs. Still, memories of finding everything on my Wish Book list under the tree are priceless. Or, at least they beat the necktie with three Wise Men riding camels. I know. It’s the thought that counts.

Good luck, Sears. At Christmas, miracles still happen.  PS

Tom Allen is minister of education at First Baptist Church, Southern Pines.

Long Journey Home

Life lessons of the “baby home” in Tanzania

By Samara Wright

When I arrived in the small village of Mwanza in the summer of 2017, I walked slowly through the tiny market, my eyes taking in each small shop made out of dirt and clay. I watched girls my own age baking “chapati” and “mandazi,” similar to our tortillas and doughnuts. Some sold fruits and vegetables, including the largest avocados and mangos I’d ever seen. The village, and the people who would become my friends, quickly felt like home to me.

For six of my eight weeks there, I worked in a baby home, an orphanage, called Forever Angels. Neshibu, one of the mamas, or care workers, invited me to her house for lunch, the first meal of her day. We walked the twisted path between dirt walls that she walked every day. Her home, one of the nicest in the village, was one room, with a tiny bed. It was beautifully cluttered with things she had collected, clippings from local magazines, pink tinsel saved from baby home parties, a large wooden cross. I was welcomed by her two young children, who immediately introduced me to their neighbor friends. After Neshibu cooked rice and beans on the tiny stove she shared with her neighbors, we sat around her bed and ate together, showed each other our favorite photos, laughed and sang songs.

On Tuesdays of every week as many as 150 families came to the baby home, some traveling as much as five hours to get there. We would teach them about nutrition and what to do if their child had a fever.  For most of them baby formula represented an entire week’s wages and was impossible to afford. We gave them formula and peanut butter and, usually, that was enough to keep them from abandoning their children, to keep their children from being the ones we cradled in the baby home each day. I played photographer and took family photos which we printed out and gave to each family as a gift. A picture they could hold in their hands meant more to them than I would have ever imagined.

But mostly I remember the babies. I held them each and every day, giving them baths and hearing their giggles. And I remember the music. The baby home had very few CDs but one of them was the soundtrack of the musical Mamma Mia. I laughed until I cried watching 30 or 40 African toddlers gyrating wildly to the song “Dancing Queen.” They sang “Happy Birthday” at the top of their lungs to every single insect we found because they loved singing one of the few songs they knew in English. I read stories to them, both in English and Swahili, and they begged for more. I walked down to Lake Victoria with a baby strapped to my back. And when it was time to eat, I watched them sit around the dinner table together, like real family.

Every night when I put them to bed, straight out of the bath, all cozy and clean in their pajamas, they lined up so I could kiss each one on the head and say “kulala” or “goodnight.”

I learned their stories. One had been left in a graveyard, one on the outskirts of the baby home, some in hospitals. Many had starved, some with both parents dead, some whose mothers died and whose fathers couldn’t take care of them. I cried nearly every day, of gratitude and heartbreak. I felt like I was walking exactly where I was supposed to be, a feeling like I had never felt before.

I left Mwanza wanting to know what was in the best interest, not just of the orphans I’d held each day, but also for the 8 million additional orphans in care institutions. I connected with professionals in the international adoption field, something that keeps me close to the place that feels like home, even when I’m not there. I’d seen the joy of international adoption but also became aware of the corruption that plagues it. Today 80 percent of children in care institutions around the world aren’t orphans, but have been either taken or bought from their families to meet the demand First World countries have for orphaned children. Not all orphanages and adoption processes look like the baby home in Mwanza.

Though much of what I have learned was shocking and scary, I am encouraged because I saw it done right at Forever Angels. I’m certain of one thing — the importance of being culturally diverse as individuals, families and communities. In all of my conversations with both advocates and opponents of international adoption, there has been one common denominator: We must respect and promote cultural awareness and sensitivity. We must champion it.

The babies I held in my arms every day are the voiceless. They have nothing, not even a mother or a father. Regardless of whether they grow up in Tanzania, East Africa, or Southern Pines, North Carolina, they need a community that is inclusive, that sees the beauty of diversity and the value of every life.

I am thankful for all those who made it possible for me to walk where I have always dreamed of walking, thankful to this community that taught me, the community that I am proud to call home. I’m thankful to Young Life Africa and Forever Angels. I hope we can continue to dream together and know that what is cultivated in our community does, in fact, have the power to change the world.

Samara Wright is a 2016 graduate of Pinecrest High School and a sophomore at Appalachian State University, majoring in communication studies. An intern for Young Life Africa, she plans on returning to Tanzania after graduation.