Reflecting on smiles and laughter

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 10, 2004

The passing of Helene Knight and Arthur Lee Wiggins leaves a void in the Roanoke-Chowan area and in the hearts of those of us who knew them.

Cal Bryant did a wonderful eulogy for these two friends in Tuesday’s paper, so I won’t repeat his fine remembrances, but I did want to mention a few things that made both of them special to me.

I worked with Helene for more than 10 years. For the first five years, she as editor of the Gates County Index and I as editor of the Northampton News, we met only occasionally when our paths would cross at the News-Herald office in Ahoskie. Both of us had usually had little sleep and were in throes of irritation about something, so our meetings became humorous complaint sessions.

We’d complain about almost everything associated with the newspaper business, whether true or not, but it was mostly just a means of reducing stress and enjoying ourselves. There was far more laughter than complaining and I don’t think either of us actually had as many problems as we made out. But it was fun to meet on neutral ground to discuss how similar our jobs were and whine about the evil folks working in the Ahoskie office, which is where our papers were put together and published.

My last few years with the paper were spent in the Ahoskie office. That didn’t stop us from ragging on the higher ups. By that time, the newspapers were no longer owned locally, but were controlled by various corporate entities we could laugh at.

I considered Helene a friend. We didn’t visit one another or have barbecues, but we could talk and laugh all day long when we did meet. In many ways, Helene and I were very like-minded and we shared a subversive, anti-establishment humor.

I’ll always remember Helene for her laughter. She could appear gruff when she wanted to, but she was really a sweet woman who cared for others, was devoted to her church and community, and who was filled with the joy of laughter.

And she was tough. Though she was very sick for several years, she still put out a newspaper every week and never complained about her cancer or the effects of her treatment. She spoke openly about her illness, but always in a straightforward, almost detached, manner that wouldn’t give you cause to think she was suffering.

Maybe she wasn’t suffering. Undoubtedly she was in pain, both physical and emotional, but she had so much spiritual faith that maybe the pain of the flesh and the fear of death were rendered as nothing to one who has made her peace with God. I can’t say that I know this, but I like to think it’s true.

I’ll miss Helene. The area has lost a true original.

Just as it did when Arthur Lee passed last week.

Whether you loved him or despised him, if you’re honest you know that Arthur Lee loved Ahoskie and wanted it to thrive and prosper. He worked hard to make that happen and he deserves high praise for his dedication to the people of Ahoskie and Hertford County.

I counted Arthur Lee as a friend, even though I rarely saw him. My best memories of him are of standing on the sidewalk at some new business in Ahoskie waiting to cut the ribbon for a grand opening. He was there with his gigantic scissors to officiate at the ribbon cutting ceremony and I was there to document it for the paper. And we always had to wait for the thing to start.

We could have talked politics or world affairs, but we didn’t. Instead, we joked around and laughed a lot.

Funny, when I think about both these people – prominent figures known by just about everybody in their communities – I only think of them laughing and smiling. It may be the way I prefer to remember people, but I like to think it is because Helene and Arthur Lee were happy.

&uot;At the end of the day&uot; (if I can use an already overly abused clich\u00E9) they were happy people – good people who did what they could for their communities, their families, their friends…and even perfect strangers.

I feel lucky to have known them and I will remember them fondly now and in the years to come.

Another passing that I feel compelled to mention is former President Ronald Reagan, who will be laid to rest tomorrow.

As many of you can surmise, I didn’t share many of Reagan’s political ideals, but I have to give him a great deal of credit for having ideals that he passionately believed in. And he is another person that I remember as happy.

Reagan was a good leader, no matter his politics, and his optimism and joy for America was infectious. His unflappable cheerfulness and conviction that the American way of life would prevail over time against all competing ideologies made a huge difference in this country.

Following the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, the racial violence of the ’60s and ’70s, Watergate, the Arab Oil Embargo, and the Iran hostage crisis, we were a fairly dour nation. Reagan changed that. He made us proud to be Americans and gave us all – Republicans, Democrats, Independents – the sense that we really were living in the greatest nation the world had ever seen.

For that he deserves all the praise he’s getting this week as the nation mourns his passing.

Me, I’ll remember his smile and his laughter most of all. Just as I’ll always remember the smiles of Arthur Lee Wiggins and Helene Knight.