I found a note my grandfather typed 50 years ago. He scribbled ‘not in character’ on it. My dad kept it.

BY BILL HORNER III, Publisher
Posted 5/22/20

We’re preparing for a move, and in doing some closet-cleaning over the weekend I came across a 50-year-old note tucked away in a small box of family memorabilia.

Typewritten on the inside of a …

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I found a note my grandfather typed 50 years ago. He scribbled ‘not in character’ on it. My dad kept it.

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Posted

We’re preparing for a move, and in doing some closet-cleaning over the weekend I came across a 50-year-old note tucked away in a small box of family memorabilia.

Typewritten on the inside of a small plain “thank you” card — like me, my grandfather had notoriously poor handwriting, so he’d resort to his typewriter when he could — it’s dated Aug. 19, 1970. The note opens with thanks from my grandfather to my dad for reminding him (referencing the hospitalization of a mutual friend) “that maybe my problems are not as great as some.”

“How true you are, as I told you,” my grandfather, Bill Horner Sr., who founded The Sanford Herald, in 1930, continued. “Every day I am reminded again of what Jim Hoyle” — he was a Lee County attorney and state senator — “told me a decade ago when he said, ‘Mr. Horner, despite the honors you have had, the best thing you have done in this world is raise three very fine children.’”

He then names some of his childhood playmates from Roxboro Street in Durham and what happened to them: one was convicted of murder, another became managing editor of the Winston-Salem Journal (the newspaper which today prints the News + Record). Others, he says, “have done about average, as have I.”

My grandfather was incredibly driven; he was anything but average. He ultimately made and then donated a good portion of his wealth to hospitals and universities, and was a confidant of a long list of N.C. governors. At any rate, in the note, he then reflects about his own parents, and his children.

“While they were living, I was never able to present Mama and Papa some outstanding accomplishment; on the other hand, nothing really detrimental. Matter of fact, this is the way it is: Mama and Papa did better than their parents, I did somewhat better (in worldly possessions and place), and I know that you and my other two children will do better than I. That’s the American dream and tradition. Every generation betters the preceding. (Until somebody slips, which isn’t happening now, and I pray will not, ever).”

“Pa,” as we grandchildren called him — he was 69 years old when he wrote the note — concludes: “I thank my Maker every day for my children, including you. My love always.”

He hand-signed the note “Daddy.”

My grandfather wasn’t known for sentiment. He started what became an immensely successful business during the Great Depression. Gumption, endless devotion to a task and tight-fistedness were just some of his trademarks. He also knew heartache: his younger sister was killed in Durham’s first traffic accident, struck by a passing car while crossing the street after my grandfather called to her to come in the house for supper. He knew struggle. He demanded a lot from everyone around him, particularly his children — my late dad and his two older sisters, my Aunt Louise, who lives in Greensboro, and my Aunt Nancy, who passed away six years ago, each of whom have their own long lists of accomplishments. Few could meet Pa’s exacting standards. Many around him were targets of his quick-rising (and equally quickly-falling) temper. He could be a hard man and sometimes hard to get along with, but he had a tender and compassionate side that, like his temper, could be revealed in sudden and surprisingly discernible ways.

The vulnerability he showed in this note obviously made an impact on my father. It was among a very few pieces of correspondence dad kept. (Another notable keepsake was a scathing two-page letter Pa wrote in 1958 after making a trip to Chapel Hill one weekend to see dad while he was a student at UNC; dad wasn’t on campus — he’d gone to Charlotte for a weekend of drinking and carousing with some of his fraternity brothers.)

Pa could be very self-effacing. After he typed this “thank you” note to my dad, he drew a bracket around the portion of it beginning with “and I know that you and my other two children will do better than I” and scribbled in the margin, in parentheses: “not in character.

As I read and re-read the note over the weekend, I wondered what prompted that “not in character” aside. Pa could be reflective and self-aware; my guess is that the comment was in recognition of his sometimes turbulent relationships with his children. Or it could be an attempt to distance himself from the peculiar emotions that accompany sentiment.

Or something else entirely.

I’d love to ask him, or my dad, about it. Pa died in 1994, and my own dad passed away after a battle with cancer in 2005, so that’s impossible now.

But as my dad did, I’ll continue to hold on to the note. It’s a tangible reminder of the importance of family, of keeping perspective about problems, and about the legacy we each build and then ultimately leave behind.

And about the bottom line, evident in this short note: gratitude and undying love.

Important in 1970, and even more so today.

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