The Times of His Life

The Times of His Life

With echoes of O. Henry and Mark Twain, Bob Warwick’s stories recall the city he loves and helped shape

By Barbara J. Sullivan   

Photograph by Andrew Sherman

You might be having a casual conversation over dinner with longtime Wilmington resident Bob Warwick, and he’ll begin to tell you about the baby black bear with a white star on its neck he found while hunting with his dad and his uncle when he was about 8 years old — around 1944 or so. It was down an unpaved, sandy road off Topsail Sound, a road you sometimes had to cross over a stream to get to, back in the day. “He was hung up in a thicket of briars,” Warwick says, “and he was hollering ‘Mama’ just like a child. My uncle said, ‘We’re not messing with him. His mama’s around here somewhere and she won’t like it.’” But when they came back to check the next day after church, the bear was still there. “We caught him and put him in the trunk of the car and he hollered ‘Mama’ all the way home, and when we opened the trunk he ran up a tree in the backyard and I had to go climb the tree and get him.”

After a while the bear agreed to take milk from a bottle and settle in to live peacefully alongside the other backyard inhabitants of the Princess Street home: rabbits, chickens and ducks — just down the street from the neighbors’ geese and the mule, of course, who helped plow everyone’s gardens. During the war, everyone grew his own vegetables; the market produce was reserved for the military.

Listening to this story about a small boy and a bear cub, an entire era begins to work itself into your mind. You can weave in the sounds of neighborhood geese cackling as they recognize their owner’s car engine, the smells of clean sheets on laundry day and wet hunting dogs in the fall; you begin to imagine the vast undeveloped stretches of countryside outside Wilmington proper before cars proliferated, when the town boundary was Burnt Mill Creek. You can even imagine the feel of rough tree bark on a boy’s skin as he climbed up to retrieve a bear or just to get a view over the neighbors’ rooftops. If you listen closely to Bob Warwick you can almost see through the palimpsest that is Wilmington and the old South — to the layers and layers of history that came before.

Few Wilmingtonians today can trace their family roots, on both sides, to the days of the 18th-century colonial South; to a time when statehood for the two Carolinas was less than a decade old and geographical details of the territory were still being mapped, the flora and fauna cataloged, farmsteads being carved out for the first time. Listening to Bob Warwick, you realize that underneath the banality of modern strip malls and interstate highways, the straight lines and well-lit cul-de-sacs of recent subdivisions, lie traces of a completely different way of life, tantalizingly close, asking us to uncover them.

Imagine the first Warwicks leaving the rolling hills of Warwickshire, England, in 1734, to cross the Atlantic and settle in the newly formed colony of North Carolina; setting out on horseback or carriage to survey all the territory from the Lumber River to the ocean — the extensive stretch of land granted to them by King George II. This would have been at a time when Carolina parakeets and red fox were still plentiful, and the woods and pine savannahs looked much as they had for millennia. Around that same time, Warwick’s maternal ancestors, the Cayces, were putting down roots in South Carolina, building a homestead on such an excellent hilltop vantage point that it became an important site in the two most epic wars fought on Southern soil. In the Revolutionary War, General Cornwallis’s troops blew a cannon hole through the upstairs bedroom wall, after which the general himself chose to claim the house for his headquarters. Less than 100 years later, during the last year of the Civil War, another formidable general, William Tecumseh Sherman, followed suit. In 1865, he set up a command center there, giving him a site close to Columbia, South Carolina, which was ultimately decimated. The Cayces and their neighbors may well have watched as flames burned through that city; they may have seen Sherman’s troops ransacking it. Certainly they would have witnessed the rubble and the carnage of war firsthand. At least 46 members of the Cayce, Broughton, Wishert and Warwick families — Warwick’s maternal and paternal ancestors — fought on the side of the Confederacy, a fact which in itself, regardless of history’s ultimate judgment on the winners and losers, tells us that there is a strain of duty, endurance and perseverance in the family DNA.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the story of Warwick’s father, James Warwick. Born in 1903, one of eight children, he lost his father at age 10. Because this was before the safety net of federal Social Security benefits for widows and children, the family had to cope as best they could. They sent James off each day at the inky, and often cold, hour of 4 a.m. to work at a local dairy. “He worked from 4 in the morning until he went to school,” says Warwick, “and then after school until after dark, from age 10 to 13.” We can imagine that the child would have been greeted those early mornings by the smells of warm milk, fresh hay and rotting cow manure, the sounds of clanking milk pails and lowing animals; and he would have watched the sky lighten each day before setting off for a full day of school and more work each evening. After spending three years at this routine, and having completed seventh grade, he set off for the shipyards at Newport News, Virginia, to try his hand at welding. There, amid the blasting heat and crackling staccato of welding machinery, he learned a new trade and rose to the position of gang foreman by the age of 14. Let’s pause here to take all this in: a 13-year-old boy working a man’s job, building ships the length of two football fields, in a fast-moving, rough, noisy and often unsafe environment — and rising to crew foreman a year later.

What his father did next shaped the young Bob Warwick’s life in several ways. First, James Warwick earned a GED and used his extraordinary mathematical skills (he could add an entire page of figures in his head) to become an auditor with the biggest company in Wilmington at the time, the Atlantic Coast Railroad (ACL). And then on the side, decades ahead of his time, he opened his own paper-recycling business.

“Once you graduated, if your father worked for the railroad, you could get a job there,” Warwick says. “They paid good wages for a student, so the summer after high school I worked at the railroad.” Later that summer, he worked at his father’s recycling business. “I drove a truck down Front Street picking up paper, and then I worked in the warehouse bailing.” What’s most striking about both of these early jobs is the Dickensian mountain of paper he contended with. His work for the recycling business meant driving to pick up truckloads of cardboard, newspapers, IBM punch cards and mixed papers, as well as pressing, wrapping and shifting the paper bales — weighing 1,000 pounds or more apiece — in the un-air-conditioned plant. “It was hot as blue blazes,” he says with a smile.

At the ACL, he worked as a match clerk, pairing invoices and receipts, not as clerks do today with filing systems or computer programs, but by wandering through corridors, labyrinths of paper, stacked from floor to ceiling, battalions of paper taking up an entire four-story building and another warehouse a city block long — all packed with the records of the 19th- and 20th-century railroad business. The printed documents, handwritten notes and jottings dated as far back as the Civil War. Where these masses of paper lurked for decades in brick buildings near the Cape Fear River, CFCC college students now study — and at times do so virtually paperless.

Warwick played an important role as a businessman and civic leader as the Port City grew and evolved during the last half of the 20th century and continues to do so into the new millennium. While managing a successful accounting practice, counseling some of Wilmington’s wealthiest and most influential families over three generations, he has often worked behind the scenes to support nonprofits in town by connecting them with those who can help financially. He served as president of the chamber of commerce, two terms as chair of the UNCW Board of Trustees, eight years on the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, and was past president and a longtime board member of the YMCA, among many other volunteer activities. In 1972, he cofounded the local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. And crucially for the development of the city’s economy, he worked with prominent businessman Dan Cameron and others to attract new business, including at least three Fortune 500 companies — GE, DuPont and Corning — under the aegis of The Committee of 100, of which he was co-founder and chairman. The group, renamed Wilmington Business Development, continues to bring new business to the city.

In 1968, Warwick witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by the riots following the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. “My father’s business was burned down during the riots,” he says. “He was 65 and didn’t rebuild it.” Three years later, in 1971, when riots broke out again, Warwick took a leading role in calming the waters, calling on his old friend, Meadowlark Lemon, of Harlem Globetrotters fame. The basketball superstar came to town and spoke to students in schools across the city, urging dialogue and nonviolence. “Meadowlark Lemon and I worked one summer together at the paper house,” says Warwick. “He was a couple of years ahead in school. His dad, Peanut Lemon, was a really good employee for my dad. I knew Meadowlark, and I called him. He did more to calm down the young people than anyone else.”

There are stories from Bob Warwick’s life with echoes of Mark Twain or O. Henry, offering us the glimpse of a time that’s just slipped out of sight around the corner. “When I was in fifth grade I caught a baby squirrel down in the National Cemetery, brought him home and raised him,” Warwick says. “He was a passive squirrel. I could take him to school in my coat pocket. He would sleep unless I took him out. He would sit on my shoulder. His name was Jumpy. We had a latticed back porch. He would get out into the pecan tree and then come back. One day I came home and found him dead in the yard. He’d gotten rat poison or something. That was a bad day.”

Which leads us to the story of the corpses Warwick found in the backyard early one morning: a slew of dead chickens, ducks and rabbits, their blood sucked clean out by a weasel. He tells of riding alone as a young child on train cars full of uniformed soldiers heading off to fight the war, of riding his bike to visit the German POWs down at Eighth and Ann Streets and trading nickels and dimes for reichsmarks. Or the time two POWs escaped and stripped off their uniforms on his grandmother’s latticed back porch. “She threw them a couple of pairs of pants out the back door and called the police.” Then there was riding the trolley to Wrightsville Beach to see the oil tankers burning offshore — torpedoed by German U-boats. “They were close enough you could see them . . . The Germans also put out spies. They found a number of rubber rafts in Wrightsville Beach and what’s now called Landfall, where German spies and U-Boats would put them out and they would paddle in and come ashore.”

The good news is that Warwick is writing all this down for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There’s so much to know about what we’ve lost, how very different life was in years gone by, and what has made Wilmington the prosperous, complex city it is today.  b

Barbara Sullivan is the author of Garden Perennials for the Coastal South.

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