Carol Wills was born on a mountain top in Tennessee–or pretty close to one anyway–and maybe that’s what puts me in mind of Davy Crockett when I consider Carol’s virtues. No, she doesn’t wear a coonskin cap to work, but she does have a natural inclination towards tall tales and off-the-cuff speechifying that reminds me of Davy. She’s got a hunger for a life of gallantry and romance, of high ideals and plenty of glory to go around. She talks, writes and lives the homespun cadence of the mountain South.
Yes, I can see Carol at the Alamo giving her life for freedom–except she would have fought on the side of the righteous Mexicans, refused to fire a gun and thrown a party for the losing side. To borrow a riff from Davy: She can care more, blush redder, glare sterner, delve deeper, cry harder and come out smiling bigger than anybody in Tennessee or North Carolina, either.
Carol came to The Independent in 1984 after spending two decades working as a bookkeeper and secretary and raising the fabulous Amy and Sara. She spotted a flier on a bulletin board at the Ninth St. Bakery asking for a volunteer to edit The Independent ‘s calendar. She got the “job,” and for the next 18 months she worked without pay, driving 90 minutes from her home in Wendell to our Durham office and back again. She soon began writing freelance pieces for us, and in 1989 she became our office manager. Carol kept various editorial titles, too, over the years: contributing writer, contributing editor and assistant editor; and she split her time at work between the editorial and business staffs. I bet she’s answered a million phone calls in the last 10 years; assuaged 10 thousand angry readers; and cast that everlovin’ smile over every freelancer, advertiser, salesperson and drunken beggar who’s come through our doors.
At the same time, she’s written and edited hundreds of stories. For years it was Carol who single-handedly carried our coverage of North Carolina writers. She edited our “Notes from the Single Life,” the “Back Talk” section, our home-and-garden coverage and the “Front Porch.” She helped create our annual poetry contest and kept it growing in submissions and stature every year.
Now Carol is leaving The Independent for adventures unknown. Carol is on the board of directors of the Carolina Justice Policy Center where my wife, Lao Rubert, is the executive director. Lao says that in losing Carol the paper is losing its “aura,” that she’s always thought of Carol as the paper’s “emotional center.” She’s right.
There is so much to Carol. Daughter Amy calls her a “fierce knitter, a serious pie-maker and a voracious reader. But she’s a wild woman, too, in her cute domestic way.” It’s the cute domestic wild woman and passionate death penalty opponent you can find shivering outside Central Prison deep into the night, there to protest the 2 a.m. executions our state is now conducting almost every week. It’s the knitter and pie-maker who years ago took up the cause of Eddie Hatcher and justice in Robeson County, and has never set it down.
Independent columnist Melinda Ruley points out that Carol’s commitment to Hatcher goes way beyond advocacy. Hatcher, you see, relentlessly badgers reporters to cover the story of his unjust imprisonment. “It’s always been Carol,” says Melinda, “who had a willingness to communicate with Hatcher when everybody else was fed up. For Hatcher, the paper was a refuge, and Carol would talk to him or write him a postcard to let him know we’re still a lifeline. She has an unceasing ability to do that. Carol is the heart of the paper’s compassion.”
But then there’s another Carol, the one who played Lorena Bobbit in her one-woman skit at the staff retreat. She was Lorena sitting at a wooden table brandishing a huge meat cleaver and a series of elongated vegetables which she violently hacked into tiny bits while she offered commentary on the veggies’ size, shape and staying power.
At another retreat she wrote a skit called “Minnie Pearl Runs a Personal Ad,” and again she was the star. Classified manager Robby Robbins played the ad-taker asking Minnie questions about her personal ad, and Robby remembers acting out Carol’s script like it was yesterday. “Ever been bed-ridden?” the ad-taker asks Minnie.
“Many times,” Minnie replies. “And once in a Camaro.”
“Do you smoke after sex?” the ad-taker asks.
“I don’t know,” answers Minnie. “I’ve never looked.”
The woman who wrote this script got married a few years ago, and I am powerfully honored to say that I walked her down the aisle. She married Don Wills, whom she met through the Indy Personals–her “real romantic love-match,” says daughter Amy. All that Minnie Pearl bravado was gone that evening after Carol finished dressing for her wedding and stood at the top of the stairs ready to descend and walk on my arm to Don, the preacher, and scores of friends waiting in the sanctuary. Amy and Sara, daughters and bridesmaids, came down the stairs ahead of her, and Carol seemed ready to faint dead away. It was Amy, finally, who loosened her up. “Mama,” she said, “You look just like Dolly Parton.” She did, too.
Whatever Carol felt that night is recorded in her journal in her meticulous and beautiful longhand, the kind of cursive your third grade teacher could never get you to write. Carol fills her journal with photographs, too, and newspaper clippings and the flotsam and jetsam of a life fully lived and fully appreciated.
So many others appreciate her, too. Earlier this fall, two wonderful books by writers intimately connected to The Independent came out at nearly the same time. The collected writing of the late “food philosopher” H. Hudson Whiting and the collection of columns by Hal Crowther had one important thing in common: Carol got a big thank-you for the hand she had in creating both books.
Now Hal remembers the year he first came to work at The Independent: “The first story by Carol that I read was about some poor crazy woman who liked rough men to tie her up and whip her. She was presented sympathetically, as I recall, and I thought, ‘God, this writer’s one of those dizzy radicals I’ve heard they have at The Independent, the ones who are going to make me feel like Bob Dole.’ I was dead wrong. Carol believed, and believes, that everyone has his story and his pain and deserves a hearing. Her liberal principles come from the right place, from compassion, not from ideology or rhetoric. Carol always looked after me, and went out of her way to help me, so many times I can never repay her. They called her ‘the heart of The Independent,’ and that’s exactly true–and a publication with a lot of attitude can lose its way without a big heart behind it. She’s irreplaceable.”
Carol and I had a cup of coffee together when she told me she was leaving the paper. She knew she’d be able to get a good job: “I’ll have some good letters of recommendation.” She’s not too worried about the money and never has been. A few years ago, I asked her to reminisce about the early years of The Independent for a column I wrote about the paper’s 15th anniversary. She told me she loved “the wonderful feeling of being involved together in a project that’s bigger than any of us. Even back in the early years,” she said, “this was the lifestyle I preferred. We ate a lot of beans and we wore a lot of jeans. I was glad we didn’t take cigarette ads. I never wanted us to take their money.” She continued, “Whatever money we did make was good, honest money, and I always felt like it would be enough.”
Now, she says, “The young people at the paper are making their own history, and that’s good. But didn’t we have fun, Steve? Wasn’t it glorious?”