Thursday, April 17, 2008

Perspective: Remembering ‘Miss Fay’

When we volunteers come to the old county courthouse building in Shelby to help inventory and document the historical artifacts stored there, our main workroom has been the area set aside for a local Hall of Fame. Its walls are ringed with portraits of Cleveland County’s great, and its display cases are filled with souvenirs of their service.

We imagine sometimes their eyes are upon us. And we feel very accountable for good stewardship of the legacy left us by these leaders and our other forebears here in the foothills of North Carolina.

Sometimes we talk about them. In this presidential campaign year, particularly, we’ve chatted about the “Shelby Dynasty” and its mark on politics. I’m partial to stories about Mrs. O. Max Gardner (the former Fay Webb), whose luminous portrait hangs beside that of her husband, former governor of North Carolina and subsequent Washington presence.
As the Webbley site describes her: “She had the uncanny ability to be at ease and at home in the White House, the Governor's Mansion, or at the home of a friend in Shelby. These characteristics were publicly recognized … when she was honored in 1958 by the Women's National Democratic Club in Washington. During these ceremonies, she was described by former President and Mrs. Harry S. Truman as ‘North Carolina's all-time gracious citizen. A wonderful woman, and the wife of one of the great men of our time.’ During these same ceremonies, Eleanor Roosevelt stated that Miss Fay was ‘always the same - cordial, enthusiastic, human, understanding and delightful.’ Margaret Truman added that as long as she could remember ‘Miss Fay had been an ornament to political and social life in North Carolina and Washington’.”

I remember how she loved politics, staying active after her husband’s death and integrally involved in Democratic affairs. I believe she would be delighted that North Carolina once again has relevance in a presidential campaign, just as she was in 1960 when John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency.

She campaigned hard in her gracious way that year, and I had the privilege of seeing her in action. I was a young, inexperienced reporter for the Shelby Daily Star, and she kindly invited me to a luncheon in Charlotte during one of Candidate Kennedy’s campaign stops. The event was at Ivey’s Tulip Terrace, where ladies went for lunch then, and I wore a hat. The other three guests were Lady Bird Johnson, whose husband Lyndon was running for vice president, Rose Kennedy, the candidate’s mother, and Jeanelle Moore, wife of N. C. Governor Dan Moore.

I wish I could say I came away with deep insights from these remarkable women, but at the time I had no hint of history to come, was too young to appreciate the portent, and was, in fact, a little frustrated at being confined to what I thought was the women’s beat and not the main Kennedy rally going on elsewhere in the city.

But over time I came to understand that Miss Fay didn’t see her broad role in politics as a limited woman’s beat. In fact she was a pioneer in demonstrating the value of women’s contributions to politics, and having Miss Fay out there before us made it easier to step out and take part.

Another courthouse volunteer, Barry Hambright, has a sparkling story illustrating that. He recalls as a youngster watching folks gather for a rally at the local Democratic headquarters in downtown Shelby, during that same Kennedy campaign. On the sidewalk outside was an elegantly garbed Miss Fay, vigorously shaking a tambourine, smiling and beckoning the people in.

Contributor: Pat Poston

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