Doris Betts’ 79-year love affair with North Carolina

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Editor’s note: This North Carolinian of Note profile was produced by students in Dean Emeritus Richard Cole’s feature writing class in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The profiles were distributed by the North Carolina Press Foundation. For reprint information, contact sandynie@email.unc.edu.

By Heejoo Park
UNC-Chapel Hill
Doris Betts once told the chairman of the English Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that after she retires, 50 people would stand outside her office in Greenlaw Hall with tears in their eyes.
They’ll be there to ask for her parking space.
Betts’ wit and humor contributed to her status as an acclaimed North Carolina and national writer. She was an inspiring teacher and beloved friend, wife and mother. She died on April 21, 2012, after a yearlong battle with lung cancer.
A small-town girl
Born in Statesville on June 4, 1932, the only child of millworkers, Mary Ellen and William Waugh, Doris June Waugh grew up in a small Southern town.
With her family, Doris attended a small Calvinist Church where she listened to Bible stories. Later, she wrote about the simple, rural characters she knew as a child and the faith and doubt she heard stories about in church.
“Oh, Bible stories,” Betts said, “they make you feel that the ordinary is not ordinary.”
Allan Gurganus, a well-known North Carolina writer, said, “If Betts’ fictional characters ever looked simple at first glance, that was before she settled into their hidden twists and meritorious complications.”
Critics often labeled Betts’ works as Southern or Christian. She explained the broad appeal of her writing and the questions her characters raised about human pain and suffering.
“I always am interested in whether or not you can deal with what I think of as the big questions at the level of ordinary working people,” Betts said in an interview in 1994. “It seems to me that that’s essential in fiction in America. If you really want to ask the questions that Job asked, why shouldn’t you ask them of a highway patrolman, a beautician, a shoe salesman at Belk’s…?”

A promising writer and a wife
Betts learned to love UNC-CH from her father who visited the university, observed male students and brought back to his daughter a souvenir box of postcards featuring university buildings.
He spread the cards on the kitchen table and, until Doris knew them by heart, he quizzed her about the buildings—Old East, Manning Hall, Spencer Dorm and Playmakers Theatre. The Bell Tower was one year older than she. Betts dreamed of attending the university her father had taught her to love, but UNC-CH did not accept women until 1963.
Betts committed to writing before attending college. In high school, she worked as a part-time reporter for the Statesville Daily Record.
In 1950, she entered the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) where she was became known early for her writing.
“[Doris] was a legend by her sophomore year,” Sally Buckner, a fellow student, and later, a noted writer and university professor, said. “When I heard a typewriter rattling away at machine-gun speed next door, it was clear that Doris had returned to her room.”
In her junior year, Doris married Lowry M. Betts, a lawyer.
“He was the smartest boy I’d ever met,” Betts said in a 2007 interview. “I thought, ‘I’ll keep this one.’”
The young Mrs. Betts left college and, during her first year of marriage, won the first of many prizes, the 1953 Mademoiselle magazine’s college fiction contest for her short story, “Mr. Shawn and Father Scott.”
The contest recognized several budding American women writers, including Sylvia Plath (1952) and Joyce Carol Oates (1959).
As a mother of two sons, Erskine and David, and a daughter, Lewellyn, Betts continued to write for newspapers, publish short story collections and novels: “The Gentleman Insurrection” (1954), “Tall Houses in Winter” (1957) and “The Scarlet Thread” (1965).

Return to school
She never finished her bachelor’s degree, but Betts had published three books when she became a lecturer at UNC in 1966.
“After coming to UNC, at the insistence of Max Steele, head of creative writing, Betts became a legend, not only for publishing novels and short fiction at a steady rate but also for her teaching,” Buckner said.
The job was her dream come true and, in her 32 years of teaching at UNC, Betts critiqued the first stories of hundreds of writers. Randall Kenan, creative writing professor at UNC, was one writer Betts inspired by her penetrating wit.
“She was deliciously articulate with that beautiful voice of hers,” Kenan said. “She was so incisive. She was one of the best readers (editors) I’ve ever had.”
Kenan said Betts wrote detailed, two-page and single-spaced comments on his 10-page story. He had written that one character ignored another. In the margin, Betts wrote, “What does ignore look like? Go to the mirror now and portray the action ‘ignored.’”
Betts characterized herself as tough, a “dragonlady,” but students and colleagues never agreed.
“An enchantress, I would say,” Kenan said.
“She was as a literary artist the same way as she was as a woman--direct, penetrating, surprising and wise,” said Bland Simpson, a creative writing professor at UNC and a member of The Red Clay Ramblers, a Tony Award-winning string band.
Betts told Marjorie Hudson, then a starting copyeditor, that preparing a story for publication in a magazine required effort.
“What you really need is time,” Betts said.
“I needed time,” Hudson said, “but also courage. I kept thinking if I could borrow some of her courage, I’d be able to pull off being a writer.”
Betts loved fountain pens. Her hands were always stained with ink. Open to everyone, she edited stories written by her students and also those written by her neighbor, postman and a woman from her church.
Many outsiders audited her creative-writing classes.
Betts continued with teaching, but she also used her sharp pens to produce stories. In 1981, Shelley Levinson directed Violet, a short film based on Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” and won an Oscar in the 54th Academy Awards. While Betts was on the faculty at UNC, Violet was screened at the Student Union every year. She became a university celebrity.

Fight against illnesses
In her later years, Betts demonstrated care and devotion. Her husband, Judge Betts suffered and died from Parkinson’s disease. The long illness drained Betts, too, but she never gave up.
Writer Gurganus remembered Judge Betts could not stand to see old horses sent to the glue factory. He took in 30 horses. After he died, Betts continued their twice-daily feeding and watering. The horses were too old to ride. They were too old to do most anything but eat. So she fed them.
“If one person could really help another get through sad, tough, trying times,” Simpson said, “[Doris] was that one.”
Betts died in 2012 at her Pittsboro home. She received news about her cancer as she was coping with the imminent death of her daughter, also from cancer.
She requested a simple funeral. In October, after her death, friends, colleagues and former students had a memorial service for her in Greenlaw Hall.
“Producing stories and poems may not be a good way to make a living,” Betts wrote in her autobiography, “My Love Affair with North Carolina,” “but it’s a wonderful way to make a life.”
Betts’ legacy lives on at UNC.