Helen Sharpe’s list of accomplishments is long. Among others, it includes: high school valedictorian, master’s degree, award-winning writer, state Woman of the Year nomination, member of the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, community college teacher, world traveler and a driving force in preserving and restoring the Carolina Theater as a civic center.
But perhaps none will leave a more enduring legacy than the establishment of the Robeson County Museum and 15 years of capturing the essence of people, businesses and topics in more than 200 Robeson Remembers articles. She conceived, launched and nurtured both, and is primarily responsible for their success.
That’s why it’s fitting that Helen Seawell Sharpe be the topic of this final Robeson Remembers article, which comes 15 years to the month after the first one in September 1999.
Helen Seawell, born Jan. 11, 1927, was the older of two daughters of Merton and Eva Allen Seawell. She is six years older than her sister, Joyce. She grew up on Second Street in St. Pauls.
Helen spent much of her childhood visiting her grandparents on both sides of the family, especially the large frame home of Mama and Grandfather Seawell on Broad Street a few blocks away, but also at her Allen grandparents in Tar Heel. Sometimes she rode the train alone to Tar Heel and walked from the depot to her grandparents’ home.
“Many of my greatest memories are at my grandparents’ house on Broad Street,” she says. “I recall sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch and swinging. You could tell much of the news of St. Pauls just by sitting on that porch and watching the world go by.” She recalls that her grandmother had an area plowed for her to work a small garden of her own.
Her father had operated a large lumber mill near St. Pauls. During the Depression he lost that mill, including a small train and a team of mules. Refusing to stay down, he walked from St. Pauls to Lumberton to purchase a small house facing Second Street in St. Pauls.
On land behind the home he established a small sawmill. The family survived the Depression with the sawmill, chickens and by growing vegetables and peach trees. They also had goats and a cow for milk. In addition to using milk for drinking and cooking, her father sold milk from time to time and paid for his daughters’ music lessons with milk.
He also accumulated other properties bit by bit. Eventually he bought the Broad Street family home at auction when his mother’s estate was being settled.
The most flamboyant member of Helen’s family was her Uncle Halle, her father’s brother. Until Helen’s late 20s Halle spent most of his life in India and neighboring countries as a high-ranking official of Sharpe & Dohme drug company. During the Depression, after about four years in the Orient, he would sail to New York, purchase a Cadillac touring convertible and drive to St. Pauls and surrounding areas, collecting attention as he drove around with the top down. Although he was engaged, he never married because his fiance would not go abroad with him.
Early adult life
When Helen graduated from high school in 1944 as valedictorian of her St. Pauls class of 24, the family finances were extremely scarce, but her parents never left any doubt that she would attend college. Although Helen made the first payment of each of her college years with money she earned from summer jobs, she still doesn’t know how her parents managed to pay for the rest of her college education..
Beginning in seventh grade, teacher Minwal Butler became a special mentor to Helen, a relationship that continued for many years. She and several other St. Pauls friends took a special interest in Helen’s education. Inspired by Dr. Richard Bardolph and other professors, Helen majored in history and in 1948 graduated magna cum laude from Woman’s College of University of North Carolina in Greensboro, now UNC-Greensboro. Joyce graduated in music at Mars Hill College and graduated from Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky. In retirement, she lives in Chapel Hill.
When Helen graduated from college, she already knew she wanted to be a newspaper reporter, and she knew the paper for which she would write: The News and Observer in Raleigh, the newspaper she was familiar with during her childhood years.
She interviewed with Sam Ragan, the editor, who told her he would have a job waiting for her after she gained experience. He gave her a letter of introduction to the editor of The Robesonian newspaper in Lumberton, Jack Sharpe. That’s where her life changed course.
Armed with that letter and a paper she had written for class in college, she rode the bus from St. Pauls to Lumberton and was hired as county reporter, a newly created position, in the summer of 1948. So she learned to drive, which led to her wrecking two company cars in the ensuing months.
Helen loved her job writing news and feature articles. “As I drove along the countryside I often thought how wonderful it was to be paid for something I so enjoyed,” she wrote in her memoirs. She began work at a salary of $35 a week but soon was raised to $40.
Sharpe praised his new, young reporter for her diligence, saying she produced more articles than any Robesonian reporter since Hal Oliver, whom he described as the best reporter The Robesonian ever had. He edited all of her stories and told her not to worry about the marks he made on the articles, saying the more marks a story had the more likely it was to turn out well.
Actually, it was evident early on that the boss’ only interest wasn’t to ensure that his new hire’s stories were accurate, fair, balanced and well written. Although Helen usually agreed with the corrections he made, sometimes she strongly objected. But instead of being bothered by her behavior, he said she was beautiful when she was angry.
The same day he hired her, he invited her to accompany him to White Lake, at a lakefront cottage he and his friend Junius P. ”Red” Lennon had built in 1940 as a “bachelor” pad for them and their friends. By 1948 Lennon and most of the friends were married. Still, many of them attended with their wives and children.
“It was like a gathering place for their friends,” Helen said. “He asked me to spend the night, but I was intimidated by all those people, and I said, ‘No.’“ She says he took her to the lake often.
“He told his siblings that I had few social skills but he didn’t care, he was going to try to marry me anyway,” she said of the man whom his friends considered a confirmed bachelor married to the newspaper. In fact, she said, although she was 14 years younger, he later told her that after her first job interview he thought he would marry her.
Mr. and Mrs. Sharpe
The two wed on Jan. 1, 1950, about a year and a half after she began work at The Robesonian. The date was selected because that was the slowest time at the newspaper. After a two-week driving honeymoon, Helen joined Jack and his brother, Albert, in the family home on North Chestnut Street. Albert, the newspaper’s business manager, and Jack had been living together in the home.
“Incredibly, there had been no discussion between Jack and me about the home we would establish once we were married,” she wrote in her memoirs. “The thing about living in the Sharpe home was that it was so undefined. Of the three occupants, I as the only female was naturally expected to manage the household. Jack, Albert and I never sat down to divide up responsibilities, but there were sometimes hints that I was not properly managing the bathroom linens, for example. Courtney, the sister of Jack and Albert, visited at will and sometimes lived with us.”
When Helen returned to her job things had changed. She didn’t have the same rapport with her news sources, and some even questioned why the wife of the editor and part owner of the newspaper was still running around the county gathering news.
She had trained to be a teacher in case journalism didn’t work out and had done practice teaching. She sought a job in the Lumberton school system but was not offered a position.
At the time, teachers were making a concerted effort to improve their status. Helen supported their efforts but Jack didn’t, therefore the newspaper didn’t. Helen later learned that local educators thought Jack didn’t support their efforts because Helen didn’t get a teaching job.
Helen became a newspaper columnist, which offered her the opportunity to write about some of her experiences and opinions. She publicly supported Frank Graham, the former president of the University of North Carolina, in a national Senate race, and Jack supported his opponent, Willis Smith. Smith won, “and I was very upset,” she said. “Jack later told me that he believed his father would have supported Graham.”
Helen undertook a monumental endeavor in 1950 when Jack assigned her to single-handedly compile a historical edition of Robeson County in celebration of the newspaper’s 75th anniversary. She found the work tiresome but exciting.
“I was able to put together a large collection on the early history of the county, written by history buffs who had done research which they shared with the community via the newspaper,” she wrote in her memoirs. “My endeavor often led to conversations at social gatherings, and I seemed to have more rapport with the community in this role.
“I found columns people wrote telling about their experiences during the Civil War, and articles about the Indian people, about the schools, the local government and the churches. I was able to create whole sections on the county and the towns, on the social life and on education. It was up to me to decide on the material to be used and the location of each article in the sections and pages. I wrote only a few of the articles. Most stories were reprints, which I edited and credited from publications through the years. I was expected to do things for which I was never trained, like designing pages and writing headlines. I worked for months.”
The special section was published in February 1951. “It was well received locally, and even recognized by some state historians, the first time so much history of our area had been assembled,” she wrote.
She says all of the changes in her life were taking a toll by the time the section was finished. “I was beginning to have rashes and swelling all over my body. They itched, and I looked ugly.” she wrote. She wound up in Duke Hospital, “where I had sitz baths and lots of Benedryl. My main instructions were to stop giving a damn. Jack said that was immoral. I said it sure was fun.”
The first of three sons, John A. Sharpe III, arrived on Helen’s birthday, Jan. 11, 1953. Cliff was born on Dec. 11, 1955 and Hal on May 27, 1957.
John, who graduated from Duke, lives in Hillsborough with his wife, Ann. He has three grown children and is sales and parts manager for a boat dealership. Cliff earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina, master’s from Brown University and graduated from The Naval War College, where he later taught. He recently retired from the U.S. Navy after rising to the rank of admiral. He and his wife, Brenda, live in Southern Pines. They have three grown children. Hal has a bachelor’s degree from East Carolina University and a master’s from Georgetown University. He studied in Cambridge, England, where he met his wife, Olga, who is a native of Ukraine. They live in Quebec City, Canada and have two young children. Hal publishes a phone directory in Littleton, N.C.
Jack and Helen rented a home on Blount Street near the Lumber River in 1956 and in 1959 built a home on West 26th Street.
In the early ’60s, Helen decided to pursue a master’s degree and learned that the closest she could take graduate courses was the Triangle area of North Carolina. She informed state Sen. Hector MacLean of Lumberton and Rep. R.D. McMillian of Red Springs, who was speaker of the House, that southeastern North Carolina needed access to graduate courses. Soon after, thanks to the state legislature, all 16 colleges in the state system, including then Pembroke State University, had graduate courses.
Helen took graduate courses at the University of North Carolina. Each semester she found a course that met three hours a week and sometimes stayed overnight with friends in Chapel Hill. She earned her master’s in 1969.
Since that time, she says, she has been interested in federalism, which she describes as each level of government having jurisdiction over what it can do best: For example, local government would provide police and fire protection, utilities, parks, recreation and zoning. State government would handle state parks, universities and schools, environmental regulation, licensing and maintenance of state roads, and protection of waterways. The federal government would provide defense and international relations, and maintain currency and commercial regulation.
Helen taught part time at Southeastern Community College at Whiteville and later at Bladen Community College at Elizabethtown and Robeson Community College in Lumberton, while facing the usual difficulties incumbent with raising three sons.
The lake house got a workout during the ‘60s and ‘70s, with Helen and the boys, dogs and friends staying days at a time during the summer, swimming, boating and sailing. Jack was with them often.
In the early ‘70s, the family built a riverfront house on Riverside Boulevard. All members of the family wanted their room facing the river, so Cliff made a rough drawing that depicted all rooms in the house facing the river except one small study. That drawing became reality. The house has a street level, an upper level and a lower level at the rear, where the lot falls off toward the river.
Helen’s father died at home in St. Pauls in 1975 at the age of 78. Her mother, who lived to be 90, died in Wesley Pines retirement home in Lumberton in 1990.
With the family more settled, Helen traveled. She visited England, Scotland, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Greece, Switzerland, China, Taiwan, Japan, Peru and Canada, as well as much of the U.S. She went with groups until Jack began to travel with her. In later life she traveled with her son Hal. Helen says she enjoyed sharing her travel experiences with readers in her “Ramblings” columns and “travelogues” that were published in The Robesonian.
In 1982 The Robesonian, which had been owned by the Sharpe family since 1912 and had a Sharpe as editor since 1907, was sold. News that it was for sale came as a shock to Jack and Helen. Jack voted against the sale to Park Newspapers but was outvoted by his siblings, Albert and Courtney Sharpe Ward. Jack and Helen were devastated.
Cliff, who was working in the paper’s business and news departments, left immediately and soon joined the Navy. Jack, who was 69 and had been editor and publisher for 35 years since his father’s death, stayed for a few months to help with the transition.
Jack and Helen soon began restoring a historic building at 101 S. Main St. intended for a newspaper and filed a lawsuit to obtain the right to start a weekly newspaper that would compete against The Robesonian. They did not win the lawsuit. The sales agreement provided monthly payments over 10 years, and if they violated the agreement they would not be paid.
“I have often thought the Lord was looking after us,” Helen wrote in her memoirs. “We were much too old to start a new newspaper in such a competitive and changing industry.”
Still, they pursued newspaper ownership, buying The Nashville Graphic in Nashville, N.C. and the nearby Littleton Observer in Littleton, near Lake Gaston, for their son Hal to operate. But the endeavor proved more difficult than expected, and Jack and Helen found themselves going up there to help. Helen calls the purchase naive, saying they didn’t know enough about the business end of newspapers. Although they eventually sold the papers, she says they lost good retirement years.
“I had foreseen that the sale of The Robesonian, to which he had been so dedicated all his life, might kill Jack,” Helen wrote in her memoirs. “I could hardly bear the sad look in his eyes. I had underestimated his resilience. After about six months he was all caught up in his new freedom and having time to enjoy golf. … When I asked if we might consider moving to the Southern Pines-Pinehurst area, he said he could never leave Lumberton and his friends.” She said that later, after he had outlived all of his friends, he said they could move. But Helen had lost her motivation and felt committed to the county where she had lived all her life.
“We had purchased a tent and a van,” she wrote. “We planned to drive completely around our nation, taking our time and camping in our beautiful state and national parks. We planned to stay in appealing hotels and motels at intervals when we needed rest from camping. We never got to do this. …”
In 1987, as Robesonians prepared to celebrate the county’s 200th birthday, there was talk that a county museum was needed. By then Jack and Helen had abandoned their plans of starting a newspaper, so they offered half of their newly restored Southern Express building to house a museum at their expense. The Robeson County Museum was born and is now a community project occupying the entire building.
In the late 1990s museum supporters were talking about the museum sponsoring a written history of the county. During discussion about how to find funding and hire a historian to document the county’s history, Helen came up with the idea of local people writing articles about the county that could be published in The Robesonian. Donnie Douglas, editor of The Robesonian, agreed to publish the articles. Jackie Oliver Utz, a retired editor, had moved back home to Lumberton and agreed to help Helen edit the articles. The first Robeson Remembers article was published in September 1999. This final story completes exactly 15 years of articles to the month.
Perhaps, as Jack earlier said, the young, green small-town reporter had few social skills. But she learned and became a gracious but firm lady who successfully navigated the society circles of Lumberton. Jack passed on May 17, 2009 at age 96.
Helen considers the civic center, museum and Robeson Remembers to be her greatest causes. The museum, now in its 27th year, continues to reflect the history of Robeson County under the tutelage of capable volunteers, the civic center continues to operate successfully and many Robeson Remembers articles have been published for posterity in two bound volumes. All are a tribute to Helen Seawell Sharpe.