Fairmont on my trail

April 14, Treasure Island, Fla. – Just stumbled in from a quick bath in the aquamarine pool known as the Gulf of Mexico to scribble down an update in case anyone’s following along at home and wondering what’s become of us.
For weeks we’ve been talking about finding a place to hole up for a few days so I might catch up on some of the stories that have fallen on me like a spring blizzard. Sorry. That’s a crap analogy. Note to self: Avoid analogies whenever possible.
We’re here in the lap of relative luxury, a one-bedroom apartment hard by the gulf. Walk out the door and turn 45 degrees to the right, and there it is. At least the breeze is. It’s blowing hard now, like it’s fixing to storm. The palm fronds are bending in the breeze. From here, it’s a block to the beach, if that far.
Of course it’s charming here, especially outside of hurricane season. But that’s not really why we’re here. At least that’s my story.
A few poorly composed notes:
I’m a horrible naturalist. I squandered 20 minutes trying to figure out the exact species and genus of the sandpiper-like birds I recently engaged in a staring contest with. Fairly typical wading birds. Stilts for legs. Rapier beaks. Mottled underbellies with white markings on the wings. Could be sandpipers, Could be curlews. Not turnstones. Probably not phalaropes.
Well, maybe they were phalaropes. They are quite approachable, and I just read where phalaropes are somewhat sociable. See, now I’ve wasted another five minutes not producing any sort of identification.
Aside from the wading birds I can’t identify, the rest is typical beach fodder. The water is soothing and warm despite the overcast skies. Waves are gentle. Floating on your back, you can catch a nice view of the disagreeable development which overruns this coast. The pastel- and sandstone-colored condos and apartments in the foreground are preferable to the high-rise alabaster space dwellings that rise from the earth 16 miles up the coast in Clearwater Beach.
I’d always been intrigued by Clearwater due to my battle with the chronic illness that is otherwise known as being a Phillies fan.
The Phillies have trained in Clearwater, just a few miles across the Clearwater Memorial Causeway from the gulf beaches, every spring since 1948. That was the year Richie Ashburn was a rookie. It was the year my dad turned 20. The year Dewey defeated Truman while Strom Thurmond pitched spitballs on the sideline. In other words, the Phillies’ association with Clearwater goes back a ways.
Before this trip started, I had thoughts of making it to Clearwater to catch the tail-end of spring training. We drove through Clearwater Beach yesterday. I saw enough. I suppose the high-rise domiciles are good from a land-use point of view, but they strike they eye as a stinging blight. You can see them from here while floating on your back in the gulf.
Other than that, not many people were about. Just the occasional lovers walking on the beach hand-in-hand, waiting for the sun to set and the arguments to erupt.

As for this project, well, here we are.
We are here, though it seems maybe we should be in Fairmont, N.C. Because Fairmont keeps nipping at my heels. One or two of you might recall the name Willie Broox Webster. Mr. Webster was the courtly, 87-year-old ambassador who volunteered to show us around Fairmont in November of 2003. Having only just made our acquaintance, he invited us into his car and then his home. We could’ve been anybody. And then we didn’t even have the dimpled charmer to give us cover.
So, Willie Broox Webster left an impression on us. I asked after him when we were there a couple weeks ago, and was told both Willie and his wife, Lillian, had passed away in an assisted-living facility in Fayetteville, 50 miles north of Fairmont.
This is only partially true. Willie died Nov. 21, 2007, at 91, but the report I made of Lillian’s death was greatly exaggerated. She is 95 and very much alive. This news comes from her granddaughter, Julia, whom I contacted after she left a nice comment on the blog. I only get nice comments here. I sometimes daydream about what it would be like if I had a large enough readership to elicit nasty commentary from the discerning and the deranged. Alas, I’m pretty sure all my readers feel sorry for me and adhere to the old adage about saying nothing at all if they can find nothing nice to say. Thank you, readers.
In the past few days, I’ve had an engaging email correspondence with Julia. I’ve also heard from her Uncle Will, aka Willie Broox Webster Jr. And as serendipity would have it, and serendipity’s been hard at work lately, Will lives a few miles south in St. Pete Beach.
Prominent among the startling details Julia’s shared with me is that Willie Broox Webster Sr. went to New York to test for the part of Rhett Butler. You know, Rhett Butler of “Gone With the Wind” fame. You know, Clark Gable.
I am a nice guy, but I can be a bit of a skeptic. Great story, I thought. Too great to be any kind of true. I was pretty sure the Willie-as-Rhett legend was a sketchy anecdote that long ago gained mythical status in Webster lore, mythical being the operative word.
No sooner had I expressed my skepticism (politely, I hope) than another email from Julia appeared in my inbox. Included in her message were smart-phone photographs of news nuggets chronicling her grandfather’s trip to New York as published in The Robesonian on July 19 and July 26 of 1937.
Take a look:


Willie Broox Webster Jr. says his dad had a contract signed by Darryl F. Zanuck.
I hope I get to meet Willie Jr. sometime in the next few days. Perhaps I will learn his dad once turned down a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, or that he played drums with Benny Goodman’s band for a short spell in 1940 when Gene Krupa went to Hollywood to do a cameo appearance behind Barbara Stanwyck in “Ball of Fire.”
I can only hope so. I’m ready to believe anything at this point.
Speaking of which …

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6 Responses to Fairmont on my trail

  1. Willie Broox Webster, Jr. says:

    Well, you almost got your wish. It seems daddy, Willie Broox Sr, dropped out of Wake Forrest University one year to return to the Border Belt League to play semi-pro baseball. He was a switch hitter, threw with his right arm but batted left handed most of the time. He said he finally figured out that he wasn’t going to make any money playing baseball. He had worked behind the soda fountain at a few drug stores so he went down to the University of South Carolina in Columbia and just enrolled in pharmacy school. Didn’t need entrance test back then, just high school diploma. (maybe there was an interview).

    Back to the baseball…seems daddy was a “right fair” baseball player in high school and one of the cousins came up from Lake City SC to see his famous cousin play. The young cousin and his uncle, my grandfather, were sitting directly behind home plate when daddy came up to bat. Not a good day in Mudville and after the 3rd strike, silence fell upon the home crowd and as daddy told it, a plaintive voice rose up above the quite and carried loud and clear for everyone to hear, “Uncle Charlie, did he hit a home run?”

    • rubewaddell says:

      Beautiful. I am not surprised. So your dad attended the University of South Carolina, Wake Forest and the University of North Carolina? Thanks for the update. You may not be fond of Fairmont, but I am fond of its wealth of hidden stories. I look forward to hearing more.Thanks again … John

  2. Willie Broox Webster, Jr. says:

    There was an error in the obituary, daddy never attended the university of NORTH Carolina, only a short stint at Wake Forest and then 4 years at USC. However, mother did attend and graduate from UNC.

    Think it is a sadness for the fate, rather than a lack of affection for Fairmont.

    • rubewaddell says:

      That is well understood. I had a few minutes to kill between my conversations with the Mitchell cousins and took a little walking tour of downtown Fairmont. Hard to miss the sadness which envelops it. Yet it has been my good fortune to have not one but two great visits. It’s also not too difficult to imagine what it once might have been. Thanks for the comments, Will. I don’t get too many.

  3. David Webster says:

    Willie Broox Sr was my grandfather, and I have many great memories of him and miss him greatly. Thank you for the fantastic story and memories. The man was some character, and I can only hope to have as full a life as he did.

    David Webster
    Gainesville Florida

  4. Lee Brady says:

    Mr. Willie Broox Webster, Sr.(and his family) was my next door neighbor growing up. I was blessed to have such great neighbors! Mr. Willie was a leader for the town when it flourished greatly! Oh the fond memories I have. Thanks for your story.

    Lee Brady
    Burgaw, NC

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