A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

That late February day in 1991 proved a harbinger for our shared mission. Photographer Bruce Roberts had gained approval from Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the U.S. Coast Guard to

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

That late February day in 1991 proved a harbinger for our shared mission. Photographer Bruce Roberts had gained approval from Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the U.S. Coast Guard to

Chasing the Light

Bodie Island Lighthouse and Hatteras Island Lighthouse at night

That late February day in 1991 proved a harbinger for our shared mission. Photographer Bruce Roberts had gained approval from Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the U.S. Coast Guard to climb Bodie Island Light Station and shoot from the lantern room, and he invited me to come along. Although we had known each other for only a short time, we’d formed a trust in one another that would carry us through decades of challenges and rewards in pursuit of rescuing North Carolina’s most iconic seaside structures from ruin.

Alone in the sun-warmed lantern room, with wasps swarming around us, we talked excitedly about how beautiful the world appeared at 156 feet in the air. How stunning the panoramic view stretching infinitely around us like the beautiful backdrop of a movie. On the eastern horizon, we could see the restless Atlantic Ocean, its breakers rushing in as the Outer Banks’ omnipresent winds blew the cresting waves backward into trailing white veils. In the foreground was golden marshland offering refuge to all types of waterfowl — snow geese still resting and feeding, transforming the landscape into white-feathered fields that looked like blankets of fresh snowfall.

Bruce Roberts with his camera

Bruce Roberts Photography courtesy of Wilmington Star-News

Bruce’s index finger pushed his shutter button repeatedly, its clicks bouncing off the lighthouse walls. He moved around the gigantic first-order Fresnel lens, bracketing his shots using different aperture settings for depth of field and focus. As I watched him from the opposite side, through the lens’s prisms, he appeared as a distorted apparition. I had never seen anyone so enthralled.

Cover of The State featuring Bruce Roberts' photography

photograph by Bruce Roberts

Mutual friends had introduced Bruce and me four months earlier at a get-together in their home. At the time, I was teaching academically gifted students in Virginia, and he was working as the senior travel photographer for Southern Living magazine. Widowed, I initially declined the invitation but somehow became convinced that I had to meet this interesting older man. I was already aware of his many world-renowned photographic accomplishments. Since high school, I’d studied his work in Time, Look, Progressive Farmer, Southern Living, and Our State magazines.

After exchanging brief pleasantries, we all settled on the floor — just as I’d often sat with my students in the classroom. To my surprise, the distinguished photographer sat right next to me. Slightly intimidated, I instinctively moved away from him, but his right elbow brushed against my left arm, and an electrical shock went up and down my spine. I knew then that I was in trouble.

Now, on that sunny February day high up in the Bodie Lighthouse lantern room, our conversation subsided. Silence filled the air between us. The quiet roared in my ears. Bruce lowered his 35-millimeter Nikon 1008 camera and let it drop to his side, and his incredible blue eyes met mine. He placed his hands softly on my shoulders, leaned in slowly, and we shared our first shy kiss.

At one point, I asked Bruce how he knew what image he was getting when he looked through his camera’s viewfinder. “Cheryl,” he said, “I’m not taking pictures of objects. I’m taking pictures of light.” I haven’t looked at the world the same way since.

• • •

Our lives together became a story about light and lighthouses, a shared love and pursuit that consumed us. The experience that day at Bodie Island became a regular part of our world: Bruce’s infectious enthusiasm about ordinary, everyday things that became special through his eyes. My fascination with how he transformed those everyday things into beautiful, world-changing images. I remember the moment at his home when he brought out his boxes of silver gelatin prints of all sizes. I gently picked up each one, immediately aware that I was holding time in my hands.

Bruce had been chasing light since he was a youngster in Mount Vernon, New York. Funded by an early-morning paper route, he acquired a camera, taught himself how to shoot, and developed his own prints in the basement of his parents’ home. After studying at New York University and the University of Florida in the late ’40s and early ’50s, he served briefly in the U.S. Air Force before arriving in 1954 in North Carolina, where he worked for various newspapers, most notably The Charlotte Observer.

Photograph by Bruce Roberts of teacher comforting a Black student in a schoolhouse near Rockingham during de-segregation.

Before he began focusing on lighthouses, Bruce shot numerous iconic civil rights-era images, like Suzy, taken in a two-room school near Rockingham in the mid-1960s. photograph by Bruce Roberts

He fell in love with all parts of our state and recorded the many changes that he observed in the early years of civil rights. He preferred to take photos that were unposed and in natural light, each telling a story that he was passionate about. One of his favorite images, captured in Charlotte in 1966, depicted a Villa Heights teacher holding a young student whose feelings had been hurt by a classmate during desegregation. Bruce credited the teacher and those like her with keeping level heads under intense emotions during that turbulent era of the state’s history. He repeatedly told me, “Teachers are powerful. I’m convinced that the calm way they handled the situation is why peaceful desegregation went far better in North Carolina than in other states.” My pride in being an educator grew tenfold.

“I’m not taking pictures of objects,” Bruce said, “I’m taking pictures of light.”

The light that lured Bruce on his journey was reflected in his decades of photographs that transcended genre and discipline — many shot while traveling the back roads between Maxton and Charlotte during the ’50s and ’60s. It was in the eyes of a hardworking farmer; in the face of a student who was enthusiastic about his newly integrated classroom; in the unsettling pose of a Klansman on horseback. It was in the surprised look of an Appalachian child at Christmastime when given a bag of fruits and candies for the first time. And, perhaps most of all, it was in Bruce’s beautiful Southern landscapes, his photos of the spellbinding lighthouses that eventually became his favorite subjects.

On the way to get a sunset shot at Bodie Island from the new boardwalk in 2010 — requested by then-State Senator Marc Basnight — Bruce said to me, “You know, photography is real and an illusion at the same time. People look at a sunrise or sunset and observe the slow-motion dipping of the sun, when it’s actually Earth and we who are moving. But there’s no doubt that this illusion makes for some of the best images the heavens afford us.”

• • •

Bruce and I became touring explorers, traveling from Currituck Beach Lighthouse all the way down the coast to Old Baldy. When we first met, he’d recently published two books, Southern Lighthouses and Northern Lighthouses, and he wanted to do some shoots for fun before starting on his next volume, Western Lighthouses. We both eventually left our jobs to pursue our full-time effort to preserve the state’s lighthouse history and share it with the world. We were biased, of course: We thought that North Carolina had the most beautiful lighthouses in America.

But first, we got married. In August 1991, Bruce landed an assignment to photograph a bed and breakfast in Waco, Texas, and he brought me along. While there, he thought it a good idea for us to tie the knot at Baylor University’s Armstrong Browning Library & Museum — upstairs, in the Elizabeth Barrett Browning Salon, where lovely stained-glass windows along the ceiling’s periphery allowed bright light to stream through.

Bruce Roberts angles for the perfect light as he captures photographs on the beach in the Outer Banks.  Photography courtesy of AYCOCK BROWN PAPERS, OUTER BANKS HISTORY CENTER, MANTEO, NC

Shortly thereafter, we returned to the Bodie Island Lighthouse, which at that time was in a shameful state. Pieces of ironwork threatened to (and did) fall off the gallery deck level, forcing the National Park Service to cordon it off so that no one would be injured. Next, we visited Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to see what was happening with a relocation project intended to move the behemoth back from the edge of the beach so that it wouldn’t be destroyed by the encroaching sea. We were aghast to learn that not only had millions of dollars earmarked by Congress for its relocation gone unused but also that there were no plans at the time to do anything about it.

It was then that we made the decision to form the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, a nonprofit that we set up to help save our lighthouses. Little did we know what challenges lay ahead, but we savored each step along the way.

• • •

Beginning in 1994, Bruce and I took on a great deal of work with the nonprofit. We conducted research together at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and at every other library we could find. We were convinced that we could rescue our lighthouses from ruin if we could just make people aware of their historic value, their brilliant engineering, their importance to mariners, and the peace that they give to weary pilgrims in a chaotic world. Just look at their settings along the coastline: the solitude they offer, the restless winds, the sweeping marshlands, the expansive beaches, the layers of history.

To gain support for our mission, we embarked on huge projects. The biggest of all involved the relocation of the Hatteras Lighthouse in 1999. The Outer Banks Lighthouse Society became the major voice in favor of moving this mammoth American treasure. We spent an entire, glorious summer on Hatteras Island, conducting oral histories with the lighthouse keepers’ descendants. Although the thought of creating an interpretive publication for the impending move seemed overwhelming, we managed to get it done, and the project was one of our greatest honors and accomplishments. In 2001, we organized a reunion of the descendants of the Hatteras keepers, and then, 12 years later, we did the same for descendants of the Bodie Island Lighthouse keepers.

Hatteras Island in the 1990s, when the Hatteras Lighthouse stood on the beach itself before it was moved to its current location.

Bruce and Cheryl’s tireless efforts helped rally support for moving Cape Hatteras Lighthouse back from the encroaching sea and away from certain destruction. photograph by Bruce Roberts

Bruce could speak before large crowds with ease, and he did so often. I, on the other hand, could handle any group of kids, but in front of adults, I shook until it felt as if my bones would go flying off in different directions. Bruce would catch my eye, flash that disarming smile, and I would regain my poise, realizing that we were making history. These were joyful experiences together, and I took comfort in the strong, unspoken connection that we had formed.

As the years passed and more projects occupied our time together, I often wondered what I had done before Bruce was in my life. I felt great satisfaction and warmth when I watched him set up his camera equipment to capture the full moon rising beside Bodie Island Lighthouse’s glowing lens or Cape Hatteras Lighthouse enveloped by the light of a flaming sunset. At each lighthouse, Bruce would roam, looking at the scenes from all angles. During this wonder-sighting, his secret to photographing anything was to first take an overall shot and then move in closer for the tiny details. Wherever he was, no matter how much he wandered, he was always easy to spot — that smile of his, the cotton-white hair, the multiple cameras strapped around his neck, his pockets bulging with lenses.

• • •

The year that Bruce turned 75, I started noticing a significant drop in his energy level. Tigger was becoming Eeyore, and it was alarming to me. As it turned out, the back of Bruce’s heart was damaged from not getting enough oxygen. During open-heart surgery in February 2015, he was off the bypass machine just a few seconds too long, and it eventually caused a slow but steady cognitive decline.

By 2020, I’d become Bruce’s full-time caregiver. Keeping him engaged in meaningful projects was increasingly difficult. His alert, shining eyes began to dull and he slept more. One evening, he decided that he had somewhere to go, and no one was going to stop him. He took a camera with him. Worried, I made phone calls for help and scoured the neighborhood. He eventually returned on his own, but he was very quiet. We were fortunate that an excellent hospice facility near our home had a room available.

DCB-224 drum lights that Bruce Roberts shot in the lantern room of the Hatteras Lighthouse

Eventually, the DCB-224 drum lights that Bruce shot in the Hatteras lantern room will be replaced by a replica first-order Fresnel lens. photograph by Bruce Roberts

The last birthday card that Bruce gave me depicted two kids walking at dark, swinging jars lit up by lightning bugs. Inside, it said, “My world is much brighter with you in it.” A few months later, on June 16, 2023, Bruce began his transition to a peaceful and final resting place, seeking a closer connection to his guiding light. In hospice care, he had lain silent for days as my daughter and I stayed with him constantly. I sat with my head close to his while holding his left hand. “Cheryl!” he suddenly exclaimed. “How did you get this assignment for us?!”

Startled, I asked, “What assignment are you talking about, Bruce?”

“The one on this beautiful boat,” he said. “But I can’t figure out how I’ll get the perfect picture with all the crowds.”

“Get some height,” I replied automatically.

“Yeah!” he said in his familiar energetic voice — a voice that I had not heard in a long time. “I’ll get above and shoot down on this huge boat, the crowds, the sunset, and …”

His voice fell silent. Forever.

“… and the lighthouse on the horizon,” I said, finishing what he could not. He knew what he was seeking for his final assignment, and I knew, too. After all, we had always been in this chase together.

This story was published on May 14, 2024

Cheryl Shelton-Roberts

Cheryl Shelton-Roberts coauthored numerous books with her late husband Bruce Roberts.