Wandering Billy

Rites of Passage

Remembering old friends and places, and
welcoming a new life to the Gate City

 

By Billy Eye

“I know he’s a gentleman because I saw him come out of a room that said so.” — Dean Martin

How is it Iíd never been to College Place Methodist on Spring Garden until recently? I must pass it several times a day. It’s a charming place with some of the most impressive stained glass windows found anywhere. The chapel was constructed at the turn of the last century with a spectacular Gothic Revival-styled addition facing Tate Street that will celebrate its centennial in just a few months.

I was there for what will surely be the first of many funerals for former classmates. Ever been to a memorial service where it’s obvious the pastor didn’t know the person they were eulogizing? That certainly was not the case for Russell Teague Copeland’s sendoff. Rev. Robert Smith, now in his 80s, had known Russell since he was a child in the church pageants and, along with Rev. Jason Harvey, delivered one of the most touching memorial services I’ve attended.

I really looked up to Russell and his twin brother, Ruffin. And not just because they were taller than I was. It just seemed that they shared some mystic knowledge between themselves that I was never going to be privy to. I was somewhat intimidated — they were smarter than I was, more athletic, better looking. Russ and I were cutups in chorus (boy, that teacher hated me), he had a full-on bushy ’stache in high school. When I sported a mustache in the 12th grade musical, it had to be spirit-gummed to my face. Bigger, better, badder. That was the Copeland boys to this gawky teenager. If Russ and I were in a room together, there would always be laughter, each trying to top the other, or he’d be ridiculing me for some doofus move on my part. 

Just three years ago, at a Page High reunion, I got to see the Copeland brothers again and it was a genuine thrill. I mean, we weren’t great friends; we didn’t hang out much as I recall. In reality, I hardly knew Russell Copeland. Didn’t know he pursued his life’s dream to become a captain for Delta Air Lines, that he raised four children in Gainesville, Florida, with his devoted wife of 32 years, Lisa, or that, three months before he died, doctor’s discovered he had stage 4 cancer. Online, fellow pilot Tom O’Neill testified to his commanding presence: “Russ had the best PA voice ever. Sam Elliott was jealous of Russ’s voice.” He was one of the good guys at a time when we need all the good guys we can get.

I confess to being in a somewhat embarrassing situation just before the service. Without thinking I accidentally walked into the family room where I met Russell’s mother, who was as lovely and charming as I would have imagined. How dumb I felt! I was headed to the chapel, this obviously wasn’t the chapel, so why did I mindlessly wander into a place I had no business being? And this sweet lady, in a moment of unimaginable grief, being so kind and as diplomatic as possible to someone blundering into this most private of moments. I have no ready explanation to this lapse in judgment, I only know Russ would have pointed out my misfortune and laughed his ass off.

*

Completely out of the blue, I stumbled into discovering who the perpetrators of the Eastern Guilford High School fire were back in 2006. That’s a story for another venue but it reminds me of another fire that led to a somewhat devastating consequence. The O.Henry Hotel opened in the summer of 1919 as one of the finest resorts in the South, an eight-storied wonder that curved around North Elm onto Bellemeade. Our Fabergé Egg, a self-contained universe with 300 rooms augmented by a world-class barber shop, hair salon, shoe shine parlor, pharmacy, cigar stand, newsstand, coffee shop, elegant dining room, second floor ballroom, speakeasy poolhall, and the area’s No. 1 radio station broadcasting from a glass booth in the sub-lobby. The main lobby was incredibly impressive, with delicately tiled floors and soaring marble, oak and white plaster columns rounding as they merged into a two-story high ceiling. The effect was that of a Romanesque palace by way of the antebellum South. In Greensboro, this is where the ’20s roared. Where the ’50s got nifty.

Competition from motels and the high-rise Hilton on West Market (where Elvis slept) attracted most of the business travelers in the ’60s. In the spring of 1975, the Alsonett hotel chain closed the O.Henry after 56 years of service. Among the reasons given were the astronomical utility bills. A few months later, on lease from Alsonett, the O.Henry reopened as a residency hotel and became the go-to spot for recently separated husbands and old folks. Assisted living, 1970s-style.

It was a short-lived experiment. In the early morning hours of January 15, 1976, an elderly tenant, smoking in bed, ignited a corner of the fifth floor and was killed. Fifty-seven people escaped to spend the rest of the night in the lobby, bundled under blankets. Although three rooms and a hallway were gutted (these were pre-sprinkler days), fire inspectors would have allowed the hotel to remain open, but broken water pipes discovered in the investigation is what ultimately shut the place down.

That grandiose building was demolished in 1979 for a parking structure. The very similar Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel in our state capital was converted into apartments in the 1970s. It’s a real shame the O.Henry couldn’t have been rehabilitated in the same way. It was a beautiful place.

*

Capitalizing on the fact that the bottom two floors of the Kress building are vacant, Wrangler has installed a nifty graphic timeline of their famous jeans in the former retailer’s dual showcase picture windows. It depicts 70 years of innovation and clever promotions like sponsoring bronc-busting legend Jim Shoulders, a 59-year partnership, and country western stars including a young George Strait. Did you know Gilligan cavorted around that sandy atoll he was shipwrecked on in a pair of Wranglers? What I want to know is — how can I get one of their new retro Peter Max denim jackets?

*

And finally, here’s Emery Isabella Stringer because who doesn’t like photos of adorable newborns?  OH

Billy Eye is finishing his new book, Greensboro Babylon, wherein he will reveal all the dirty little secrets of this town. If you’d like to be left out of it, please mail a cashier’s check for $1,500 c/o the O.Henry offices.

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