DG MARTIN COLUMN: Someone who knew Washington very well

Published 2:17 pm Monday, August 29, 2022

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When I learned of the death of Salisbury native and legendary investor Julian Robertson Jr. last week, I remembered a story his father told me.

D.G. Martin

His father, the senior Robertson, told me not long before his death in 1995, about his connection to someone who knew a friend of George Washington.

When Robertson Sr. was a young man in South Carolina, he had a conversation about Washington with a retired Wofford college professor named Joseph Augustus Gamewell.

Robertson was so impressed with Gamewell’s familiarity with Washington that he told the professor, “You know so much about Washington that it sounds as if you knew him yourself.”

“No.” said Professor Gamewell, “I didn’t know George Washington. But I had a friend who knew him very well.”

But could this be true? Could Mr. Robertson really have had contact with a good friend of someone who knew George Washington?

“Not possible,” I kept thinking to myself. George Washington is ancient history — like Adam and Eve. He is too far back for there to be anything like a personal connection.

But it is possible. Chart it out. Mr. Robertson had his conversation with Professor Gamewell back in the early 1930s.

Gamewell was born in 1850 and died in 1940. So as a young man, Gamewell could have met someone who was born in the 1770s or even a little earlier. Such a person would have had plenty of time to grow up and get to know Washington, who lived until 1799. Then that person could have lived long enough to know Gamewell.

So, yes, it’s possible — easily.

Are you bored with all this? Are you asking what difference does it make that only three people separate me from the father of the country? If you are asking those questions, read no further. Read something else. You won’t understand what is going on in my head.
I keep asking myself, “If I live longer, what things will I tell my young friends? What could I say that they would remember until they are 90 years old — and then tell their own young friends?”

Like George Washington’s friend, Professor Gamewell, and Mr. Robertson, I can reach out and send my stories into the future, all the way into the 22nd century. I can, that is, if I have anything to say that is worth remembering that long.

I could also pass on the stories from the Civil War that my grandmother heard from her mother-in-law. Civil War soldiers broke everything in the house — except for one cup. It lost its handle but survived. We still have the cup to “prove” the story. With the cup’s help, could I send stories of the 1860s all the way to 2100 and beyond?

Would they want to know where I was when President Kennedy was killed — and how my friends reacted?

Would they care that I knew Julian Robertson Sr., who learned about George Washington from Professor Gamewell, and also knew Julian Robertson Jr. who reshaped Wall Street and so generously funded projects in his native North Carolina?

Rightly told, those stories might be remembered through the years.
But why do I care if my stories get passed on? And why do I rejoice in personal links to the past? Why do we sometimes battle hard just to lift ourselves somehow up, above and out of the present?

Without a past to look back at and without some future hope to hold on to, we are unconnected. We drift on an ocean out of sight from shore. We are lost on a desert wasteland without the stars or a compass to guide us.

History — not just book history, but our own extended personal experience, can lift us above our everyday boundaries. It can give us the context and the comfort to live in what could, but for these personal connections from our own times, be irrelevant and painful lives.

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”