Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (8/19) — Chapter Eight, Wreath (2/3)

BEDECKED IN ORCHIDS FROM ADMIRERS, ‘Miss Morganton’ boards the train for Washington, D.C., at the South Sterling Street Depot in September 1948.


MORGANTON, N.C. (Dec. 14, 2019) – I don’t want to sound catty, but another woman almost came between Timberley and me this past week—two women, actually, one single, the other separated from her husband. The older, never-married seductress has been around for what seems like forever. I finally let her get to me on Wednesday and spent almost the entire day with her, then Thursday with her young friend and associate.

Full disclosure, Timberley has known the older of my two new flames—by reputation, anyway—since the early 1960s because Beatrice, that’s her name, has always been a larger-than-life character, almost a force of nature, in our hometown. The other gal, Corinne, is younger than Beatrice by 14 years and prettier but less romantic, I think—and she’s from Texas. Her ex, like me, was a school teacher—a yearbook advisor, even—and an old newspaperman, poor guy.

ATOP THE R.C.A. BUILDING in New York City, Corinne Cook (left) and Beatrice Cobb prepare to leave on an around-the-world trip as war correspondents in the late summer and fall of 1948. Miss Cobb later published a book about their world tour.

In all seriousness, Miss Beatrice Cobb (1888-1959) of Morganton and Mrs. Corinne Cook (1902-1987) of Mesquite, Texas, are legendary newspaperwomen in their respective hometowns. After two full days of research, Timberley and I assume that the pair first met either through the National Editorial Association or the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee, of which both Miss Cobb and Mrs. Cook’s even more celebrated aunt, Miss Margie Neal (1875-1971), also a newspaper publisher, were members. Miss Cobb and Miss Neal—and presumably Mrs. Cook—also attended the 1928 Democratic National Convention in Houston, where Miss Cobb was a full delegate; Miss Neal, an alternate delegate-at-large.

As their polite titles indicate, neither Miss Cobb nor Miss Neal ever married, but I wouldn’t dare call them spinsters, a pejorative term that would imply they had spent their time sitting around their houses doing little of consequence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Miss Cobb’s accomplishments are documented in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography and, while Miss Neal has her own, fairly lengthy Wikipedia article.

I still don’t know exactly what happened with Mrs. Cook’s hubby, A.J. Cook (1898-1974), who taught school, published The Texas Mesquiter for a few years, then moved to Oklahoma and returned to teaching. He’s buried in Dallas County; Corinne, in Panola County, Texas. Not that it matters, but I’m kinda curious about little historical hiccups like that.

I was totally unaware of the three Texans until this week. Like Timberley, I’ve heard about Miss Cobb all my life. For readers unfamiliar with Morganton and Burke County history, Miss Cobb was owner, editor and publisher of The News Herald from 1916-1959, and founder of The Valdese News in 1938. She was active in local, state and national politics, and was a member of Morganton’s First Methodist Church, where Timberley and I go now.

Since her death in 1959, her estate has reportedly paid out more than $11 million to numerous local churches and nonprofit organizations. Her home church, also ours, uses that financial support to fund its biennial Beatrice Cobb Preaching Mission. Also, U.S. 181 in Burke County from Jonas Ridge to Morganton is the Beatrice Cobb Memorial Highway. Beatrice Cobb was Morganton born and bred, and Tar Heel born and bred.

Despite her support of the University of North Carolina School of Journalism at Chapel Hill, she died on Sept. 11, 1959, at Duke Hospital in Durham—though, technically anyway, she was still “Tar Heel dead,” as the old UNC fight song goes. Timberley’s father, Nat Gilliam, was working as an advertising salesman and photographer at The News Herald and The Valdese News through Miss Cobb’s last years, and he thought the world of her.

MY FATHER-IN-LAW, the late Nat Gilliam, traveled to Japan for an extended stay on Uncle Sam’s dime during the Korean War in the early 1950s before moving to Morganton to start a 25-year career at Miss Cobb’s paper.

My first full-time newspaper job was as a staff writer and photographer at The Valdese News in 1981, after having worked a couple of part-time jobs at The News Herald. Timberley also worked there part-time. So Miss Cobb has always been the closest thing to a patron saint we’ve known—emphasis on patron.

Beatrice Cobb was also Miss Morganton—not as a beauty queen or as anyone’s romantic ideal, but as this small Southern town’s greatest advocate. Still, for whatever reason, she loved to get out of town for extended periods and see the world outside Burke County. In fact, that’s how I met Corinne Cook this past week—through Miss Cobb’s 1949 book, On a Clipper Trip Around the World, a collection of the newspaper columns that she mailed home from September to December in 1948 to describe her world tour on Pan American World Airways with Mrs. Cook.

As I lay awake Thursday night and cruised the World Wide Web on my smart phone, I found that Mrs. Cook had also mailed travel stories home to her paper, The Texas Mesquiter, and I read enough “Circling Around With Corinne Neal Cook” columns to get a feel for her particular voice. By the way, Mister Cook had disappeared as publisher by January 1944, at least according to the mastheads of the papers available online.

To facilitate their world travel, Miss Cobb and Mrs. Cook obtained credentials as war correspondents, with their 12-week airliner tour landing in European cities still rebuilding from World War II, in “Asiatic” and Middle Eastern cities in turmoil over political change affecting Palestine, in Indian cities after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, in Chinese cities during the Communist Revolution, and in Japan while war-crimes trials were underway. The two women attended two sessions of the United Nations Assembly in Brussels, Belgium, and endured a blackout and air raid in Cairo, Egypt.

Among other sights, they visited London’s Westminster Abbey, Adolph Hitler’s Eagle Nest resort in the Bavarian Alps, the Pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt, and the Taj Mahal in India—that last spot being the highlight of the trip for Miss Cobb, though not for Mrs. Cook, based on my readings of their respective columns, which are oddly similar but still distinctive.

As I spent all of one whole day reading Miss Cobb’s 115-page book aloud to Timberley—yes, my wife wanted to meet Beatrice herself after she caught us together over coffee early Wednesday morning—I grew to like Miss Cobb’s storytelling, with its postwar formality and dry humor. Her voice clearly communicates her feelings—good, bad or in between—about the foreign people, places and things she describes for readers back home in Morganton. I wish Timberley and I could have met her. I like smart women.

Now, 70 years after her book’s publication, I wonder how many other Morganton folks care anything about Miss Cobb—I mean, beyond what they can do with the money they get from her trust every year. After all, we live in a cynical time when most of us worship The Almighty Dollar and half of us pledge our fealty to lies, greed and corruption with the motto, In _____ We Trust. You can insert the name of any other billionaire, plutocrat or oligarch buying American elections, if Trump doesn’t work for you. Remember, it’s the economy, stupid—or is it?

With the impeachment hearings going on these past few weeks and the Articles of Impeachment passed yesterday by the House Judiciary Committee, I was interested to see if Miss Cobb’s travel writings held any words of wisdom for me today—well, even though she was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and a practicing, if not self-professed, feminist who would have had absolutely no use for Donald Trump and his cronies. She had more integrity in the discarded crescent of a single fingernail clipping than he has in both of his tiny, trash-tweeting thumbs.

(Speaking of wearing the pants in a relationship, Miss Cobb reveals in her book that she wore men’s trousers—or any trousers, since women were expected to wear skirts—for the first time in her life when she and Mrs. Cook flew into partitioned West Berlin on a military transport plane carrying food and other humanitarian aid. An army officer had recommended the attire and then had donated two pairs of his own uniform pants for the ladies to wear on what was called a “vittles run” through Russian anti-aircraft artillery “practice.”)

The wisdom I found, though, turned out to be more relevant than maybe I wished for. On October 3, 1948, Miss Cobb and Mrs. Cook visited Prague, Czechoslovakia, for one day. “It is our first, and will be our only visit behind ‘The Iron Curtain,’” Miss Cobb writes. She describes talking to a Czech businessman who “is very pessimistic about the [country’s] outlook, expressing the opinion that Russia intends to provoke war in an effort to gain control of all Europe.” This was during Josef Stalin’s Soviet reign of terror.

Miss Cobb then spoke to a young woman who espoused revolution to fix Czechoslovakia’s problems. “I remarked on the horrors of war,” Miss Cobb writes, “and pointed out that her country is supposed to be a republic in which the people elect their own rulers. ‘But,’ she countered, ‘our elections are not free—they “fix” them to suit themselves.’ She related the division in the Communist party itself, and I asked if that were not a hopeful state. Again she replied that the few in power did not allow free elections.”

If you need me to plot the points on the map for you—to connect the dots—think about Russian social media and other cyberwarfare campaigns since 2016, political gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts, hush-money payments to porn stars, illegal campaign contributions, and just the all-out assault on truth of which we’ve become victims in our high-tech Misinformation Age.

It’s appropriate that Miss Cobb later selected Sam J. Ervin, Jr., of Morganton, to be one of three trustees of her estate—yes, Senator Sam, who helped investigate corrupt Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s and then corrupt President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. When I interviewed Sen. Ervin in 1984 on the 10th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, the retired senator said of the Watergate scandal: “This is the only time in the history of the United States that a conspiracy was formed to rob the American people of their right to have a free election for the nomination and election of a president.” Integrity meant much to Senator Sam, too.

Now, with the ongoing Trump-Russia, Trump-Ukraine, and, cover your ears, “Pussygate” scandals, we hear that conspiracies to “fix” our elections have happened again, at least two of these latest cases with international, not just domestic, involvement. But does anybody in America really care now, or do we care only about making more money? Do we care to uphold our Constitution and preserve our Republic? Do we care about free elections as much as that Czech woman in Miss Cobb’s book did?

Today is National Wreaths Across America Day, with wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as at national cemeteries and other burial grounds in all 50 states. The sponsoring organization explains why the holiday season is a good time for these tributes: “In many homes, there is an empty seat for one who is serving or one who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.”

Timberley and I often walk through Morganton’s Forest Hill Cemetery, where some of the veterans in her family—Nat and her grandpa, to name two—as well as both Senator Sam, a hero in World War I, and Miss Cobb are buried. She was just a war correspondent, but I think she should get a memorial wreath, too. It may be late in the day by the time we get over there, maybe even close to sunset. But by then we’ll be able to see if anyone else has been there before us, or if we might be the only ones who still care, really care, about her.