Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the January 1997 issue of Our State. For more than 60 years, Billy Arthur’s contributions to Our State helped tell the North Carolina story. Sadly, he passed away on March 27, 2006 at the age of 95.
It would have been easy for Billy Arthur to look around and see the differences between himself and others when he was growing up in Charlotte.
Upon seeing that his friends were growing taller and that he would be left topping the measuring stick at 39 1/2 inches, it would have been so easy for this unlikely source of inspiration to perhaps settle for a little less in life, to be happy with moderate achievement and think that would be the best he could do.
Thankfully, for all North Carolinians, settling for less has never even been a remote part of this special man’s character.
Even when he was getting mauled on the football field as a child against boys his same age but much larger, he kept getting up and being part of the game. His parents, Joseph A. and Annis Virginia, simply told him he as going to have to try harder.
That’s what Billy has done his entire life – try harder.
In 86 charmed years, he has been a true Tar Heel renaissance man. He has done everything any man could ever want to do, and done it with such panache that others would have envied the qualities he possesses in such abundance – self-confidence, compassion, understandig, humor, and keen insight, to name a few.
The Billy Arthur resume is something to behold. He has been a radio announcer, vaudeville singer, newspaper editor and publisher, columnist, state representative, General Assembly reading clerk, Kiwanis Club president, Chamber of Commerce president, Little League baseball commissioner, hobby store and clipping service owner, and Sunday School teacher.
Oh, and you might have noticed that he’s done a little writing for Our State magazine on the side – 62 years’ worth, to be exact.
Next to Carl Goerch, who founded this magazine in 1933, Billy is the person you perhaps most associate with Our State. He began writing for us in 1935, with a first-person account of his career, and has continued to this day in his role as contributing editor, writin a Tar Heel History story per month and contributing Tar Heel Tidbits, Some Tales Retold, and Tar Heel Quotes. It’s no coincidence that those same departments are ranked among our readers’ favorites.
You might say Billy is “Mr. North Carolina.” From a historical standpoint, he probably knows as much or more about this place as any of those professional historians at our state’s universities and colleges. He has said before that he couldn’t live anywhere else and doesn’t care “for anything that’s outside of North Carolina.” The home office inside the Chapel Hill apartment he shares with his wife, Edith, is a veritable Tar Heel library, full of old newspaper and magazine clippings about unusual happenings here from decades’ past that he calls “North Caroliniana.” When he’s not digging around at home for future stories for Our State, he has Edith drive him to the University of North Carolina campus for a day at the Carolina Room of Wilson Library.
“When I get there, they always ask me if I’m doing research,” Arthur says. “I tell them, ‘No, just dredging.’ I love anecdotes, stories with a funny ending. It’s something I always look forward to. I don’t go looking for a particular story as much as I do look for something to add to my (home) files.”
Arthur adds that he enjoys stories that are fun to read. “I don’t want to be enlightened; I want to be entertained,” he says.
When you as Billy about some of his favorite subjects, he’ll bring up names like former U.S. House Speaker Nathaniel Macon (“He was his own man and never asked anyone to vote for him”), backwoods doctor Van White Budd of Chatham County (“He was performing appendectomies before anyone knew what they were”) and former UNC President and U.S. Senator Frank Porter Graham (“Anything good you want to say about him, I’ll buy”). He counts people like Grandfather Mountain owner Hugh Morton, former Our State publisher and North Carolina Director of Travel and Tourism Bill Sharpe, former UNC President Bill Friday and former Governor Kerr Scott as folks who have made great contributions to North Carolina. Of Sharpe, he says, “He worked for three governors and didn’t vote for one of them. That’s how good he was at what he did.”
Arthur, however, will put his wife of 46 years, Edith, ahead of everyone on that esteemed list. They met in Onslow County nearly a half-century ago, when Arthur was publisher of the Onslow County News and Views and Edith was a home economist extension agent. They have been a team throughout. Edith, with her expertise in crafts, played a crucial role in making a hobby shop they owned in Chapel Hill a big success from 1962 to 1980. The shop, the largest one at its time between New York and Miami, grew to 9,000 square feet and 20 employees. Theirs is a special relationship built on mutual love, support, and respect.
“The best day’s work I ever did was to marry her,” Billy says.
Next to a supportive wife, you might look into Arthur’s childhood and his upbringing to find the seeds of all of his success. His parents, both of them normal size, never coddled their beloved William J. Arthur, despite his height. They let him find his own way.
“I can truthfully say that I never felt that I was ever any different from anyone else in size because of my childhood,” he recalls. “My parents always encouraged me to do things. I had voice, drum, xylophone lessons. And they encouraged me to take a job selling newspapers on the street (at a young age). No one ever told me I couldn’t do anything.”
He took those teachings to heart. After graduating from high school in 1928, he moved to New York, where, billed as “one yard of fun,” he performed as a vaudeville entertainer in the Northeast. He moved back to North Carolina in 1930 and enrolled full time at UNC, where he gained instant fame as perhaps the most entertaining and enthusiastic cheerleader in Tar Heel athletic history. He graduated with a degree in 1933 and soon after acquired his first newspaper job as city editor of the New Bern Tribune. After seven years there, he moved to Jacksonville, where he purchased the Onslow County News and Views, becoming its publisher in 1940.
“Even in New Bern and Jacksonville,” he recalls, “they just accepted me. In Jacksonville, I was known as that ‘little son of a –––––.’ Nobody gave me special treatment.”
What does the future hold for Billy Arthur? There aren’t many 86-year-old men you can put that question to seriously, bu there are few 86-year-old men like Arthur. There’s honestly no telling where the next turn will take him on this incredible grand journey.
“God has been good to me,” Arthur says. “God and people.”
This story first appeared in the January 1997 issue of Our State. It was written by Scott Smith, Our State‘s editor at the time.