It’s been a tough week in my hometown of downtown Wilmington—to riff on the opening of the Lake Wobegon segment of “A Prairie Home Companion.” We lost two pillars of the downtown community last week—two men who did a lot of heavy lifting early on to make the revitalization of downtown possible. Richard “Dick” Daughtry passed away on July 31, at the age of 97, and Bob Jenkins passed away on August 1, at the age of 83.
It is hard to explain to people who move here now what downtown used to look like. But by the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was basically a no-go area. Calling it a red-light district would be a kind description. It took a lot of courage and vision to try to open up a “daylight” business down here back then. In 1978 Jenkins bought 12 Market Street, opened an antique store and moved in upstairs. I remember him telling me years ago those were the days it was just him and the hookers mixing cocktails in an old washed-out bleach bottle.
“Bob was a preservation pioneer,” recalls Beverly Tetterton, New Hanover County Library’s retired historian. “He had a good sense of style as well as history. He said many of his clients were surprised he would renovate a dilapidated building on Market Street, but what he saw wasn’t dilapidated. He said he envisioned an historic building that, with a little renovation and panache, would make a great store and office on the ground floor, with roomy living quarters on the second floor. His restoration of No. 12 Market Street became an excellent example to others and within a few years many other restorations followed.”
A few years later in 1982, Daughtry opened a used bookstore at 22 N. Front. The first location, in the old Gaylord Department Store in the 200 Block of N. Front, had the books on sheets of plywood atop sawhorses and was only open when the sun shone through the front windows. I remember my parents taking me there when I was 2 1/2 or 3 years old; we brought flashlights so we could see the titles. In full disclosure, 24 years later Mr. Daughtry chose our family to write the next chapter of the bookstore upon his retirement.
In 1985 Jenkins launched Adventure Walking Tours, which set the standard for guided history tours of the area. Passersby couldn’t miss him: straw hat, Bermuda shorts, knee socks, and a cane he used more for gesticulating than for walking. He had a voice that could carry through a hurricane.
“It just doesn’t feel like a Wilmington day if I don’t see Bob out walking around,” local actor and friend Anthony Lawson lamented.
Connie Nelson, communications/public relations director for the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau, took Jenkins’ tour often with visiting travel journalists. “I can honestly say no tour was ever the same! Bob always took the time to ask where each person on the tour was from and about their family heritage. He adapted each tour so it made a personal connection with every person. He would often detour into homes, businesses and gardens to meet the owners, see a special historical or architectural detail, unique tree or flower. He also pointed out local citizens along the way, introducing them, according to their contribution to Wilmington.”
That’s a sentiment local set designer Scott Davis also shared. He said one of the benefits of Jenkins’ tour was meeting people who lived here and having context for them by the end of it. Though sometimes such context might be shocking. Davis recounted the time Jenkins regaled a group of tourists with the story of an audience at Thalian Hall getting the full view of his mother’s backside during a performance of “Gypsy” in the 1970s. Which is another fun thing attribute of Jenkins: He loved to dish scandal and cause célèbre!
“A consummate storyteller, into our conversations Bob often wove unique slivers of Wilmington’s history, both grit and glory,” confirmed Frank Trimble, Jenkins’ neighbor at the Polvogt Row Houses, where Jenkins moved after 12 Market Street. “Bob typically greeted me with an enthusiastic, ‘Hello, neighbor!’—accompanied by his broad, signature grin.”
Bob was also instrumental in St. Jude’s MCC Church, which started here on Castle Street and is now on the corner of 26th and Market. He modeled Christian values in his daily life: charity, generosity, kindness, concern, and advice. I personally wish on several occasions I had taken his advice with more grace and a little less teenaged sass.
Just as everybody seems to have a Bob Jenkins story, everybody downtown has a Mr. Daughtry story, too. There is the guy who bought the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine from him for $1, and the various recitations about his gold medals as a sprinter in the Senior Games. And, of course, there’s the oft-repeated line, if you bought a book from him, he could afford to take his wife to dinner at Hardee’s.
Mr. Daughtry was in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII and was part of the troops to liberate Buchenwald concentration camp. He moved to Wilmington from Goldsboro after the war to take up fishing, to treat his battle fatigue, and he got a job selling appliances at Sears Roebuck. When he retired, he opened the bookstore because he needed to see people everyday. He was a born raconteur who had a story for every occasion and a twinkle in his eye.
Sitting at home in retirement was just not going to happen. Much like Jenkins, Daughtry became an icon of downtown Wilmington. He used his bookstore as an opportunity to pass on experiences and philosophy of life. He did business the old-fashioned way: with a handshake and word of honor that meant something. Nothing illustrated it more perfectly than his response to our contract to purchase the bookstore. He had spoken with my father about how he wanted us to continue its legacy; the time had come for him to “go out on a high note” on his own terms. When I picked up the contract from the lawyer’s office for him to review, he looked at the multi-page document filled with legalese boilerplate in dismay.
“You could’ve said everything you needed to say in one page,” he commented.
He was right, but lawyers don’t get paid to make things simple.
It is a rare experience in life to have someone say, “Here is your future; this is what you have been looking for.” Mr. Daughtry did that for me on a grand scale. On a smaller scale, he handed out advice about daily challenges to most people who walked in the door.
We are all standing on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Those who put their weight to the wheel, and through hard work and determination made miracles happen. It might be hard to believe now, but what downtown looks like is nothing short of miraculous compared to 30 years ago. Jenkins and Daughtry gave generously of their time, resources, knowledge, and labor, from which many others could and have benefited. Their loss is real; it is felt by many. But their legacy is what they leave behind. We owe it to them to take the next steps and build upon a stronger foundation they left for us.