DG MARTIN COLUMN: The Auman legacy covers the state

Published 2:01 pm Monday, September 25, 2023

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When Watts Auman, beloved community and political leader in Moore County, died at 84 on Sept. 17, I knew that I would have to write about him.

But there is a problem. Whenever I have written about Watts in the past, the column turned out to be more about me than him.

There is a reason. My connection with Watts and the lessons I learned from and with him have been important, perhaps life changing. So I cannot write about Watts without trying to explain how much I learned because of him.

When I first arrived at Fort Bragg (now Fort Liberty) in late 1963 and was being taken around to see the important places that airborne troops need to know, I learned that my Davidson College friend Watts Auman was commanding a team of airborne riggers.

As paratroopers know, riggers are among the most important people in airborne. They pack the parachutes, new and used, and get them ready for use. A mistake could lead to a tragedy. Watts and the people under his command regularly made airplane jumps using the parachutes that they had prepared. Watts’s quiet leadership made him a perfect commander of these riggers.

For a short time Watts and I lived with seven other junior officers in a house at 1805 Bragg Boulevard in Fayetteville. But soon Watts completed his service and returned to the family farm near West End in Moore County.

Meanwhile, I was assigned to an intelligence detachment of the Special Forces. One of my first assignments was to participate in the war games in the area known as Swift Strike as an underground spy in Moore County. Watts and his parents let me live with them for several weeks and pretend to be a part of their family.

One of the first things I saw in the Auman home was a plug of chewing tobacco encased in plastic and sitting in a prominent place on the coffee table in their living room. “What in the world it that?” I asked.

“That was Kerr Scott’s favorite chewing tobacco,” Watts’ mother explained. Terry Sanford, who ran Scott’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1954, sent tobacco plugs to the key campaign workers like Clyde Auman, Watts’ father. He had been Kerr Scott’s county chair and was now campaigning for a seat in the North Carolina House.

I learned how much struggling farmers appreciated the roads and services that Kerr Scott had pushed through while governor.

Watts led me around the farm. Although the Aumans were best known for peaches, they also farmed other crops. He showed me how to string tobacco, take it down, bind it up, and send it to market. I watched as Watts worked with the farm workers. Always quiet and respectful, but he was also demanding. It was clear that Watts had earned their respect.
One day, Watts and I took a small crop of field peas to the Farmers Market in Raleigh, selling them for almost enough to cover the cost of the gas it took to there.

Clyde Auman let me follow him around from event to event as he campaigned for the legislature. Like Watts, Clyde Auman was quiet and modest in a winning way. But that modesty made it a challenge to create campaign materials.

Even though Moore County was still Democratic, a candidate had to be careful to appeal to traditional Republicans in the northern part of the country and to conservatives in Pinehurst and Southern Pines. But our candidate was slow to brag.

In those few weeks in the Auman home, I learned more about farming and politics and the strength of humility than I did about “spying.”

Watts leaves hundreds, maybe thousands, of Auman kin across the state and region, almost all sharing Watts’s commitment to community, especially his sisters Nancy Cunningham and Laura Pitts and his brother Bob. Without Bob’s suggestions for column topics and his careful reading and correction of drafts, I could not continue writing this column.

For Watts’s friendship and example and for my connection to his family, I will always be grateful.

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