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Title:
Interview with Gayle Van Velsor, March 13, 2007
Date:
March 13, 2007
Description:
Interview with Gayle Van Velsor, retired Regional Vice President for Progress Energy (formerly CP&L). Here, she discusses her career and personal history, her philanthropic activities, and her point of view on Wilmington's evolution since the 1970s.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Van Velsor, Gayle Interviewer: Jones, Carroll / Dail, Jennifer Date of Interview: 3/13/2007 Series: SENC Notables Length 92 minutes

Jones: March 13th, 2007. I am Carroll Jones with Jennifer Dail for the Randall Library special collections oral history project. And our interview guest this morning is Gayle Van Velsor. Gayle retired as Eastern Region Head of Progress Energy, if that's wrong correct me in a minute. She was Chairman of the New Hanover County Medical Center Board, and she and her husband, Dr. Harry Van Velsor, have been generous benefactors underwriting a series of jazz concerts for New Hanover County Museum. We're going to find out what else Gayle has done. Good morning Gayle, and thanks for visiting us.

Van Velsor: Good morning.

Jones: Would you start by telling us a little bit about your background, where you're from, grew up, and how you came to Wilmington, and I just learned that you were a high school teacher so you've got a lot to say.

Van Velsor: I grew up in North Carolina, in Selma which is east of Raleigh and Johnston County, it was a really farming community. My father and grandfather had a business that, really an agriculture business where they sold everything from fertilizer and tractors and trucks to cheese, seed. So I had, I was the oldest of four. We were at that time I mean just like everyone, a very close-knit family, and there were-- obviously being the oldest grandchild and the oldest child, there were high expectations for what you would do, but mainly it was that you would teach or you would perhaps do something in that area, not nurse, you know, not be a nurse, for some reason that was not exactly--

Jones: Right ___________. Secretary perhaps.

Van Velsor: Yeah, maybe, no, it had to be a little better than a secretary, but mainly teach until, because that's sort of the history on both sides of my family. And until you then became a housewife, mother, whatever. And you know, through a series of bad choices, unfortunate events, whatever, things didn't go like that for me. I started college, I was at--

Jones: Where did you go now?

Van Velsor: I went to Duke first, and I was there for about a year, I dropped out, got married, and then kept on going to school sort of at night, and working. I had a child, and then I was able to go back to school full time just for another year at what is now Barton. I was still in North Carolina, and the idea was that I would get a secretarial certificate, at least I could do that. My family, you know, now well, I was pretty much pushed by them I guess you'd say, and wanting to please. And that's the southern woman's way, I think.

Jones: Yes it is.

Van Velsor: So, once I got there and I was doing really well, and I realized that by then I had enough credits to be a junior plus in college, I did not want to stop. And the idea was that then my husband I started re-negotiating the contract, and rather than-- he was going back to school part-time and I was going full time. So I did get my degree.

Jones: Good for you.

Van Velsor: And then I started, by then we were in Greenville, North Carolina. So my first real teaching job other than filling out a year in a rural community school in Johnston County was then teaching Advanced English for ninth graders at Rose High School. And it was a real learning experience for me with the university.

Jones: Now that was kind of a country area too, agricultural.

Van Velsor: Well, it was. The university pretty much was the focus of that town, other than the fact that it was also the center of, you know, rural Eastern North Carolina. And I had a number of the professors' children, and it enabled me to stretch a little, it was a really good year. Then I left there after a break up in my marriage, and moved back to Johnston County, and at first I did not teach, I worked with-- at that time Linden Johnston's, you know, one of his poverty programs and we were doing reading programs for the disadvantaged. And so I coordinated the materials, et cetera, for that. And that was a lot of fun too.

Jones: That was in Johnston County.

Van Velsor: But they finally convinced me that I really needed to get in the classroom. So I did go back, and I taught at what was then Smithfield Junior Location, different location, and now SSS Senior High. And I enjoyed it until I think in my third year, I did not have the students who were more college-bound, I had more of those on a regular track, had some interesting things happen. I mean one young woman sat right in front of me all year and she missed the final exam because she had a baby and somehow I didn't realize that she was pregnant. So, and we already had a discussion about, you know, birth control. How we got off on that I'll never know, but I, you know, so let them talk about things they were interested in, and they were all in--

Jones: This was in an English class.

Van Velsor: In an English class, and they were all in to the Lord will provide, you know.

Jones: Oh boy.

Van Velsor: So, obviously I understood then why that was her philosophy, but I realized that I was a single parent, I was going to-- I needed to be with adults.

Jones: Yes.

Van Velsor: And I think that what really did me was some of the sophomores which were really tough, they don't really like themselves and of course they hate English, and you know. So I had originally, it's ironic that when I went to school that I wanted to be a guidance counselor, which was almost my undoing there because they put me in zoology which meant I had-- a pre-requisite for the nursing students, so I almost got washed out in all of that, typing, doing your own blood type is no fun. But anyway, so I did do some work at two elementary schools. That was great fun, I mean just sort of did some things-- I learned a lot that was-- I realized how different lives were. I had two sisters come to me about having been abused by their mother's boyfriend, and I didn't know how to handle it because I just couldn't believe it was true. You know, I just thought well they've come to tell me this just so they can get out of class and be entertained.

Jones: This brings up something, in today's world you can't touch a child, you can't ask too many questions, you can't do too much. And this period you're talking about, was it the teacher who they would most likely come to would kind of shepherd these kids in to a right direction or talk to the people responsible, parents?

Van Velsor: Probably if they trusted the teacher, but the teacher didn't know what to do with it. The teacher had no skills for that, they had no education, that was just something that was-- I mean maybe, as I said, it was for me but I think it was for all teachers that you, you know, so like that was the family's business, what would happen if you got involved in it. I also did with-- had a great time with eighth graders that we were doing sex education. I had to go to the principal, who was very, very nervous about us doing this.

Jones: I can understand that.

Van Velsor: All these eighth graders, it was all girls. And I said, well just if we-- he had to send a note home and let the parent-- if it was okay with the parents. And I said what I want to know is what they want to know. So they wrote questions that then they wanted answered and they didn't have to put their names on them or anything, and there was ironically an nurse intern there in the county who was working with the health department, who was from Duke, and so she came over the night that we brought all the questions home. And so, we had to work on taking some of those questions seriously. You know, because some of them were just-- showed their lack of-- I mean they thought that, for example, one question was is the wider a woman's behind is, is than indication of how much sex she's had. Well, you know, we really had to work hard to be educational.

Jones: They weren't putting you on, you don't think?

Van Velsor: No, they were not. I don't think they were putting me on at all.

Jones: So it's just out of ignorance.

Van Velsor: Just totally out of ignorance, and they wanted to continue through lunch, they wanted to continue another day.

Jones: Well sure.

Van Velsor: And so later with the principal, I said "I think it went very well, they want to do this again." He said, "Well yes, it did go well." And I looked at him quizzically, and he said, "Well I was listening in on the intercom." And I said, "Well, did you learn anything". But so that was interesting. Then I had kindergarten children who was just from such poor families that--

Jones: You wanted to take them all home and feed them.

Van Velsor: Yeah, you did. And you wanted to help them, give them some tools to take care of themselves. So I did things like teaching them to brush their teeth, how to wash their socks because many of them only had one pair. And of course that went well until one sock got flushed down the--

Jones: Toilet.

Van Velsor: No, not the toilet, just down the sink and it stopped up the plumbing, and so that didn't seem to go over real well with the principal. But eventually I decided well maybe I really ought to go-- I was enjoying this, and maybe I really ought to go back and work on finish my degree in guidance because I was doing this without a certificate.

Jones: You were enjoying it, you were enjoying it, yeah.

Van Velsor: And, but by then I had remarried and I had two children, I was a single parent again and I had two children. And so I decided well I would still move, I did, in to Raleigh, and I went to school part-time, and then I decided well maybe I needed to find a job since my bank account was getting pretty low. And so I went to an employment agency. And I worked as an employment counselor, helping people prepare for jobs. And in the meantime, I would look for a job for myself. So I went through all these old job orders and I found one with CPNL in Corporate Communications, they wanted a copywriter. Well, obviously with my English background, that was going to work, and I went, and after a period of months, the interview process took forever, and the decision process, and then I did get that job. Later, the Vice President of Corporate Communications laughed about I went and interviewed him with him, he said, "Gayle, do you remember you said my mother is downstairs and she wants you to know I really need this job."

Jones: So he remembered that.

Van Velsor: He remembered that. I can't believe I did it, but whatever.

Jones: You were very open.

Van Velsor: Oh, I was, I was very open with him. So I did that for five years. I did things like writing customer materials information that goes in the bill insert, I worked on financial reports, the annual report, anything that-- at that time the company was starting to build or had announced their plans to build a Sharron Harris Nuclear Plant outside Raleigh, and so there was a lot of education to be done. And so I sort of learned from that. I also then became the coordinator between what was the Customer Service side, and this is like starting '73-'74, and that was our gas crunch time. And so the company had been really pushing sales of electric homes, and suddenly they had to go in to a total 180 to get in to conservation. So I didn't have-- I guess the best part for me is I hadn't had that sell, sell, sell mentality, and so I thought this was yeah, right, this is what we ought to do. Well, some people didn't really like the fact that I was pushing it so hard or trying to get them to, because they were-- it was a really cultural change for them. But after five years, and I did a few things I was really proud of. I know in '76-- I had started reading about California, you know, which always sets the stage for things, and they were getting really in to energy-efficient buildings and the insulation and solar, et cetera. And so I talked to our corporate heating and cooling engineer, and I said "You know this is something that we really need to do." And he said, "Well, I guess so." And I said, "Well let me work on this a little bit." Well, there was another engineer in Florence, South Carolina who was a little ahead of his time, and we partnered with a builder and did some promotional materials for him, and said we decided to call it- I named it the Common Sense House.

Jones: You were the, you were the mover and shaker...

Van Velsor: I was the corporation.

Jones: ...and he was the engineer.

Van Velsor: Mm hmm.

Jones: I guess that's a good partnership.

Van Velsor: Well I was really just the communications person. And so we named it the Common Sense House, it was '76 Thomas Payne, you know, and all that revisitational thing. And it stayed the Common Sense House. The company has dropped that just a few years ago, so that was really fun.

Jones: I can remember seeing that. Is this the one they did the diagram throughout the house?

Van Velsor: Yes.

Jones: Yeah.

Van Velsor: Yes. And I remember that when I came- you know, then went to the corporate people to say what about this, and I said this is what we tried down in Florence, it went very well, what about us teaching this idea. That one response was Common Sense, that sounds like -- well, oh he said about, "What about Better Baggie", and I said, "That sounds like something you'd find at the basement of Belks, I don't like that."

Jones: You know what, you're right. You're right.

Van Velsor: So obviously I was outspoken. And--

Jones: How many women were doing what you were doing at that time.

Van Velsor: At that time, as writers, there was one other writer.

Jones: This was really during a period where women's lib had come to the fore, and women were opening doors where perhaps they were-- I don't know that they couldn't have before, but they were too timid to try perhaps.

Van Velsor: Yeah, they didn't know that it was possible. And--

Jones: And you just didn't know any better.

Van Velsor: I just didn't know any better. So I was not-- I realized that the only way to break through, I didn't see myself sitting there in that little tiny cubicle, and when I first started we didn't have electric typewriters, I think about it know with the computer, that's like Grandma Moses now. But that I just didn't want to do that forever. Five years, you're pretty rung out, and we laughingly said, the other writer and I, that we had three artists in our department also, and that no one ever goes to an artist and takes out an eraser and says that arm isn't exactly right, let me redraw it for you.

Jones: That's true.

Van Velsor: I mean the artist is absolutely, I mean what they do, they like it it's what they see and the people either like it or they don't like it, but they certainly don't start working on it. Well, when you're a copywriter that was not at all true. Everybody, you know, it was a free for all to, and I finally decided my job is to get people started and to give them an outline so that they can then put in their own words. And when it was a speech for someone, that was not a problem. But at times it got really frustrating to continually have people fight over a tiny little word, you know, when we were doing some of the conservation bit I would say, you know, use the heat producing items da-da-da-da-da. Well, they wanted to say you might consider. I said, might consider?

Jones: So what are you selling here?

Van Velsor: Wait a minute. Well, they still couldn't get over that we've got to sell electricity, you see. But anyway, I then finally went to-- I had a very good relationship with my supervisor, and I went to him and I said I just don't want to do this forever, and I said I'm not an engineer and I'm not a lawyer, but I know that I'm going to have to get out in the field...

Jones: People to people.

Van Velsor: ... and be with a customer and get on the customer's side to be able to go up in the company. And so I finally decided we had a new President and CEO, and the president moved onto CEO, and I said maybe he needs an assistant.

Jones: So you're creating jobs also.

Van Velsor: So I'm creating jobs, [inaudible] so well then, now he didn't think he really did.

Jones: He didn't know any better.

Van Velsor: Well, his predecessor, I mean the CEO had had an assistant, but I think he was so new and so hands on that he really was not ready to relinquish anything. So I said okay, what was the next thing I could do, and they were doing customer service representatives, representative was a position in the company. It was all male. There were a few females that during some reorganization who had been [inaudible] economists, and they stopped that program who then moved in as customer service reps, but not many. And so I had an opportunity in either Raleigh, and I wasn't, you know, I was kind of ready to change places, and Asheville, and Wilmington, and of course I knew this area from coming down here all the time as a youngster to the beach.

Jones: To the beach. Hmm.

Van Velsor: So this was just great. And I will say that I did not have the support of my parents. My father said A, he didn't think a woman was going to ever be a Vice President, B, that he always thought that the corporate office was the best place to be if you wanted to move up. I said well, eventually, but this is where we go. I did-- well, I came here-- I laugh about it now, but they put me in that old part of Wilmington motel, and that's been now torn down. And it was awful then. I mean there was a green goo on the pole, and I thought if this is the heart of Wilmington .

Jones: Were your children with you at this time?

Van Velsor: No, just for two weeks I was here by myself.

Jones: I see.

Van Velsor: And the children were with their grandmother. And so I thought if this is the heart of Wilmington, I'm really worried about the rest of it. But, then I finally, you know, found a place to live and I was living at Wrightsville Beach, found a condo out there and again, you know, my sisters came and they were going we don't know whether this is what you want to do, and I said, well I tried it in a house and I know what it's like to do the yard, and if I'm going to work and really get in to this, and have two children, then I don't need to do all that. I mean, condos were sort of a new idea, the beach was sort of a new idea too. So I just kept, I mean with that, it was interesting, I was the first one, the administrative assistant who was a secretary at the time. She took me under her wing and that was so helpful, she did not feel threatened at all by me. She had been there a long time, she had trained a number of people, men who went on to be managers. She basically knew where the bodies were buried, and she told me. She said, "Gayle, every wife of the men in here have called me to tell me that they know that this woman is coming who is single and has been divorced, and they want me to watch out for their husbands."

Jones: You're the wicked woman.

Van Velsor: Oh yeah, and I just looked at her, I said, "There's not one here I'd be interested in. Are you crazy?" And she just laughed, she said "I know, but I just wanted you to know in other words what you're up against."

Jones: I guess that mentality did exist.

Van Velsor: Oh, of course it did.

Jones: These were ladies who stayed home.

Van Velsor: These were women who stayed home who if their husband took a business trip, they packed their suitcase, literally. So--

Jones: And then unpacked it.

Van Velsor: And then when they got back, they unpacked it. I don't know what they did, how the men got themselves dressed while they were gone, but they did.

Jones: Probably very well.

Van Velsor: So I did run into, there were two things really stand out for me of what I ran in to then, and one was the companies-- all companies have changed so much since then. There's such an intensity now about working, et cetera. But at that time, it was much more relaxed here.

Jones: I can remember.

Van Velsor: They were overstaffed frankly, so they had enough-- nobody really had to work so hard, and it was sort of an unwritten law around 9:30 or 10:00 that they would all leave and go out for coffee. Well, I realized this one day when my first training in this job was to sit here and start going through these manuals. Well I mean, that was gruesome, and I thought...

Jones: This is what you were told to do.

Van Velsor: ... I got to get out and do something, that's what I was doing. You learn from this, and then you, you know, sort of shadow someone. So one day I looked up and the whole place was empty. We were all in one big room.

Jones: And where was that located?

Van Velsor: That was downtown at where now the community colleges offices are.

Jones: Right, okay.

Van Velsor: Front and Chestnut and Walnut. And so I thought well there must have been a fire drill and I didn't know about it. I mean I seriously did think that. So, at that time we had what we called line and service supervisors who were, for the most part, they had been the meanest, toughest guy in their gang, you know, in their work group who could climb the highest, spit the furthest, you know, they were not well educated, they were tough guys who during Hazel were out, putting their life, you know, and other many other storms, and just sort of had this real macho. And this line service supervisor happened to have three daughters, and one of them was in law school, or wanted to go to law school. And so when we walked in he said, "Where is everybody?" I said, "Well, I think they've gone for coffee?" He said, "Well, why didn't you go with them?" I said, "They did not ask me." He said, "Come with me." So we went to what was then the coffee shop at the heart of Wilmington, and they were all back in the back, and so he said, "No, no, sit down here please." So, he and I sat down at a, you know, table ...

Jones: And he educated you?

Van Velsor: And we just chatted. So one by one they all came back as they were going by and said, well why didn't you come join us, or you know, or how are you, they were kind of going from foot to foot. And because the line service supervisors have a lot of influence because they could determine when a job got done, in other words when his line was running this pole was that, et cetera, the customer service reps were a little bit at their mercy. So they got the message, and I will never forget him doing that. And his daughter now is a lawyer in town.

Jones: In Wilmington?

Van Velsor: In Wilmington, and a few years ago I had- I finished it, I got my degree at Meredith, and a few years ago she came to my house, we had a little reception for the incoming freshman from Wilmington, and we stood there and her daughter was going to go to Meredith, and her father back then had died of cancer, and she and I looked at each other and she said, and then she was in rotary too, and she said, "My dad would never have believed it," and I said, "He was the one that helped us."

Jones: Isn't that nice.

Van Velsor: And it was just great.

Jones: So you've remained friends.

Van Velsor: Well, with his daughter, you know, our paths don't cross much, but just with very fond memories of...

Jones: That's terrific.

Van Velsor: ... of what her father did. And he was so rough and tumble, nobody would ever have believed it.

Jones: Sometimes, you know, that's the way.

Van Velsor: Then I went in to the training class after about a month or something, they sent me to Raleigh for a week for a training class. And you know, it was typical all day long, and somebody after another would plow in and, you know, go through their little bit about. And so at that time there was a lot of discussion about the mobile home, and that our service territory covered a lot-- we didn't have the Piedmont which was more fluent. And so going in down in to South Carolina and Eastern North Carolina, even over into Asheville--

Jones: So you actually had the South Eastern Area.

Van Velsor: Mm hmm, like from I95 East.

Jones: So, Wilmington would have been probably the only area of any stature or?

Van Velsor: Well, Wilmington, Florence, Raleigh, and Asheville, because we had Wake County but we just didn't go in to Durham or Orange. But so anyway, he was talking about mobile homes. And he said, you know, over a third of our new residential customers are mobile homes, except they called them residential connects, and that's just the lingo. And so then he flashed, and he said, "So we have to stay connected with that customer." So he flashed up this little thing that was in a screen of two ducks in air, and one of them obviously in the, you know, sort of a sexually implied picture of one of them underneath the other. Well I was infuriated. And I mean I just could not get past it.

Jones: What was this for?

Van Velsor: This was just to illustrate his point. It was just to throw a little good old boy stuff in there. And so I sat on it for a while, and then I happened to go for breakfast before a meeting, and I ran in to one of the supervisors who knew I wanted to be a Vice President, and he said, "How's the training going, da-da-da-da,". I said, "Well let me tell you." And so I told him about this, and he said, "No." I said, "You know, I've worked with this company at this point going on, this is my sixth year, so I know that we can do better, and we need better, and this is not typical. But what if I had been a new hirer in that training class as a female. What impression would that person have had of this company?" He said, "Well, I suggest that you call this guy's boss", which I did.

Jones: Didn't that take a little courage, you're putting somebody on report really.

Van Velsor: Oh yeah, it did, it did. I said, "Well, of course the guy that actually told me to do it was superior to this guy, so that's what I said, "Bobby suggested that I call you." And there was this total silence on the phone, he doesn't say a word. And so finally I said, "Let's put it this way, Gerald, if it had been your daughter or your wife or your mother in that class, how would you have felt?" "Well I just really find that hard to believe, da-da-da-da-da. I'll check it out, I'll get back to you." Clunk. Nothing happened. I went back to Wilmington. I think the class actually went for two weeks. So I went back to Wilmington, and so at that time my supervisor came, you know, said, "Well how was the class?" And I said, "I'm going to tell you, one thing really bothered me." And so I told him about it. And he said, "And you never got an apology? Nothing?" I said, "No." So at that time, John Monroe who is retired here and is really involved in this community, and very instrumental in my coming down here, John sort of took me under his wing, and he was infurious about it. And so he took it on up, and he had a lot more clout to do that. And so I know that the guy got the word because for a year or two after that if we had any meeting and that man had to speak, he would say, he would point me out and say, "Gayle, this is PG rated". So, fine.

Jones: Gosh.

Van Velsor: But, you know, I just kept, I wanted to do more things and I learned, and you know, I thought that--

Jones: Well you must have earned the respect of everybody to have been advanced and advanced and advanced, you know.

Van Velsor: Yeah, I think I did. I really tried to learn, and I know the first-- I came in at August, and that year at Christmas some of the builders bought me gifts. I mean I had a honey-baked ham from Miller Building at the time.

Jones: Really.

Van Velsor: Well, that caused a lot. So I took it in the break room, and I said this is for all of us, da-da-da-da.

Jones: Yeah, I was going to ask you, what was the criteria on accepting gifts at those days.

Van Velsor: Well, you didn't accept them from a vendor, and customers didn't usually offer you a gift, but I didn't even think about it that way, I just decided well, I've got to kind of smooth the waters here with my team.

Jones: Sure, sure.

Van Velsor: So, anyway, then I did believe they-- as I said, I dodged and weaved to be able to stay in Wilmington. By then, I married Harry, he was in private practice here, and he was not going to leave Wilmington. He understood, you know, some things. He said, he used to laugh and say when I talked about upward mobility, he said, "Gayle, until I married you I thought that was a sexual preference." You're kidding, he's a doctor.

Jones: Was he at that time affiliated with a hospital or in private practice?

Van Velsor: He was in private practice. He was on hospital staff, I mean he could practice, you know, he could admit patients to the hospital.

Jones: Was James Walker still evident at that time or not?

Van Velsor: No.

Jones: No, okay.

Van Velsor: But he had been, James Walker.

Jones: I heard that he had coached girls' softball.

Van Velsor: Oh, he did. In fact, his whole family is so athletic that I'm just sort of the enigma of all of them. I can't walk and chew gum.

Jones: Obviously you're doing all right.

Van Velsor: But I really did, I learned, as I said, everybody needs a mentor, and John Monroe was a wonderful mentor about he would bring me in and he would say, "You need to be doing something for education, to further your education all the time." He said, "Even if it's cake baking," well I wasn't sure I liked that reference. But anyway, I got his point. And he sort of looked over at me, and how I was dressed, and how my hair was cut, and how I wear makeup.

Jones: Really?

Van Velsor: Oh yeah, and everything, he told me that was fine, I wanted to go, "Well, you're damn right." But, you know, I realized that--

Jones: Was he that unusual or he was just--

Van Velsor: He wanted to--

Jones: You were to be the corporate woman, was that it?

Van Velsor: I was to do well-- one of John's strengths was looking in the organization, in his organization, and selecting people that he thought had ability to do more. And then his reputation I think he felt sort of depended on that person, and sometimes he struck out. And so...

Jones: Okay, I see where you're going.

Van Velsor: ... it was important...

Jones: To make him look good.

Van Velsor: ... to make him look good, I had to do well.

Jones: Sure, well that makes sense.

Van Velsor: And I thoroughly-- I understood that and I appreciated it, and I took it for what it was worth. You know, it was mutually beneficial. And so he pulled me in to a number of things, some chamber of things, legal women voters, just sort of kind of guiding what I was doing.

Jones: Broadening your horizons.

Van Velsor: Broadening my horizons, and was very aware that although I said, you know, these reproductive parts don't talk to each other, it's not necessary, I didn't say that to him, I said it's not necessary for a woman only to be able to talk to a woman. But I think, you know, there was a better entre probably. And, you know, even with a woman in the city council, I would be the one to go and talk to her. And I think-- I had to prove myself beyond that, but maybe that did make me a little bit more approachable. But then I became a-- they started a job training coordinator, and I did that for a while, and then I went back to-- oh, I just had various jobs. And then I became a supervisor, and this part was really funny. This is funny in that we had not built the office at Acewood which is now Progress Point, you know, and all the stuff that's been done there, but it was all planned. So we had two marketing groups, two customer service groups there together, and one supervisor was my previous supervisor. And then I was the other supervisor. So I went, they had a little back spot that I could go in to, and I replaced a guy that I knew who then went on to another area. And so I went in on a Sunday afternoon to clean out the desk so I'd be all ready for Monday, and you know, I was going to hit the ground running, and you know. I didn't quite know what I was doing, but so I started cleaning out his desk and he was single, and so I found several-- I mean a couple of things there that if I brought that home. I said, "Well, you'll never forget boy what he left for me." My husband said, "What?", so I kind of... and my son immediately knew. So then my daughter then, of course, was seventh or eighth grade, and she said, "What? What?" And so my son said, "Condominiums." And Suzy said, "Why would they leave condominiums in a desk drawer? How do you do that?" Well, so then it became a joke. Well, she finally, you know, we finally sat down and she finally figured out what was going on. I mean she was in high school by then, so she sort of figured that out. So the next day at work, I get this bouquet of flowers that said "Good luck mom, even with the condominiums."

Jones: That is funny. The guy ever say anything?

Van Velsor: No, I thought I'd let you know, I said, "You didn't clean out your drawers-- your desk very well, did you?"

Jones: You forgot something.

Van Velsor: But he said, "Well, did you throw them away?" I said, "Yes, I did." He said, "Well that was a waste."

Jones: Have it ready.

Van Velsor: But then I became-- at that time in that organization, we had district managers. And all throughout, I think the equivalent would be like a local bank, whoever headed the local bank, and those were all men. And they finally decided in the '90s, at around '93-'94 that they really needed to have some women. And we had a new CEO who I think was pushing this, and so I was named the district manager here in Wilmington. So that year was the safest one, we would always host senior management would come to visit-- some would come and say to us, well one of the women who was made a district manager was going on to South Carolina but she had been here in another capacity as an engineering supervisor. And a third woman who had been in economic development was going to go in to the Raleigh area. And so that night at dinner, the three of us stood up, and this Senior VP said, "Oh Lord, what are you women going to say, before he said girls."

Jones: Yeah, girls.

Van Velsor: And I said, "We just wanted to salute you and toast you for your courage and your good sense, and we promise we're not going to disappoint you."

Jones: Good for you, good for you.

Van Velsor: So we had fun that night.

Jones: That probably brought down the house.

Van Velsor: Yeah, then we sort of all wanted to.

Jones: But was a light touch, yeah. So then that was district supervisor.

Van Velsor: Mm hmm, I was like a district manager.

Jones: District manager.

Van Velsor: That was the level above. Then we started collapsing some of the levels of management, and then we did a big reorganization and the organization became much thinner, and then I became a marketing supervisor and I had the marketing manager report-- I reported to a marketing manager. You know, sort of almost like a staff job, it was not fun. I didn't like it, I didn't get out with customers, I was just really-- no.

Jones: You were a people person.

Van Velsor: And I was not close to the people that I supervised either, I was in a building way away from them out on a military cut off. And that was tough. And he, my supervisor was not happy either, and so he found out there was another position coming up, and he said, "You know, you really can do my job better than I can, and I want to do so and so. And I'm going to apply for this." And I said, "Good, I think you should." Well, he didn't get it, but eventually he went on to something else. So then that would have been at a section manager level that would have reported to a VP. And that was John Monroe's selection, and I guess, you know, I hoped that the fact that John had sort of mentored me early on had anything to do with it because there were a number of other good candidates, but I think that with Stewart at the time that they felt we need some females as section managers.

Jones: But he could see you and your work where as some of the others may not have, and maybe they accounted for a good bit more too.

Van Velsor: Yeah. I think, well, he had seen what I had done.

Jones: That's what I'm saying, yeah.

Van Velsor: Yes. And he was a big believer in getting involved in the community too. I went for legal women voters I got on the Human Relations Counsel--

Jones: When did you join rotary?

Van Velsor: Rotary was probably '95 or '96, when I became the district manager is when I...

Jones: So that's another avenue.

Van Velsor: And that was another avenue. But prior to that I was on the Human Relations Commission and could really see some of the tensions here that we even read about and that we are aware of today. And that was an interesting experience too.

Jones: I'll bet.

Van Velsor: So then I stayed a little involved in politics on a peripheral basis, and just sort of trying to know what was going on.

Jones: When did you retire?

Van Velsor: I retired in '02.

Jones: And your last job, the title was?

Van Velsor: I was the Eastern Regional Vice President.

Jones: Okay. Well that was pretty good for a gal who--

Van Velsor: I'll tell you, when I went up to interview, and at that time we had a new Senior VP and they sort of changed the organization, and I went up, you know, in the high mighty four, and someone in Corporate Communications that I had known came by and said, "Hmm", I just said, "Hmm", you know, I was just interviewing. So when I went in and finally talked to him and I got all excited about something, I almost knocked this lamp off the table, I said, "Oh, excuse me, excuse me." I thought, well that went well, you're not going to get a thing. And I had just needed, you know, again that that was not going to happen, and you know, that they didn't have any women who were VPs, and that...

Jones: But it was time.

Van Velsor: ... and as a regional VP they didn't have that. And, but when he called me to tell me, he said, "Subject to the Board's approval, this is what we're recommending." Well I was just completely floored.

Jones: Weren't you-- didn't you have a sense of fulfillment or proud of yourself?

Van Velsor: I did, oh I was so excited. And I said to him, "Would you say that again?" just kind of kiddingly, and he said it all again in just the very same voice.

Jones: Gayle, was your father alive at this time?

Van Velsor: Yes.

Jones: And what did he say?

Van Velsor: He was very proud. I called him and told him. Said, "Well you see?"

Jones: Your wayward daughter has done well. That's terrific.

Van Velsor: So I enjoyed that job. They did change it some, and so it sort of went back to its earlier form. So I had Engineering, Customer Service, [inaudible], all those things under me. And I think probably I was promoted right after Fran. And I think because of how we handled the storm here, I was really-- because I was a communications person, I was really committed to keeping the lines open with the media and with the customers. And so I think that probably had a lot to do with it. We learned a lot. I mean with Fran, we worked for two solid weeks.

Jones: I can imagine.

Van Velsor: And we just began to, they have made a science out of how to handle hurricanes, it's just absolutely wonderful.

Jones: Yeah, well it's shown, of course thank God we haven't had a good one.

Van Velsor: But I mean we learned so many things. For example, we would have people coming in and we were trying to find homes for them, and then there were corporate cards that had a five hundred dollar limit on them, and they came to me saying they won't take this card, and I just gave them my card. And so later on when our CEO came down, I said, "I my husband really laughed when I get my Visa bill and it has all these rooms on it for one night." And he was asking about different things. And he said, "Oh, we need to change that." So they started a whole group that was more of the support group for us so that, you know, you could focus on the getting ready and attacking it physically, and then you had like your logistics group that supported all of that.

Jones: When you left and you finally retired, did it leave a void? I mean you were so active and so involved, do you miss it? Or did you miss having somewhere to go every day that you were needed, et cetera?

Van Velsor: Well, about the time--

Jones: Because I'm thinking you got involved in other things.

Van Velsor: I did, I did. In fact, that's one of the reasons when they asked me if I had any interest in going on to the hospital board. I knew I was inching toward retirement, and I wanted to do that because I thought that was sort of a bridge toward retirement.

Jones: Were you interested in that sort of thing?

Van Velsor: Well, a little, yeah I was. Of course, you know, I married in to a medical family. My husband was a doctor, one of his sons-in-law is a doctor, another son-in-law is a national sales rep for a ...

Jones: Pharmacare.

Van Velsor: ... well a hospital supply firm, two daughters are nurses, I mean, you know.

Jones: Sure.

Van Velsor: It was really frightening.

Jones: In that case, I have a question for you. You were Chairman of the Board of that committee when Atkins was there, right?

Van Velsor: Just as he was leaving.

Jones: Just as he was leaving. So you weren't really one of those that was advocating-- I mean that was sort of a time of turmoil.

Van Velsor: It was. When I went on then, it was obviously that as a commissioner's appointment. And as one commissioner told me, that of a political appointment, and I said that has its good and bad connotations. And so there were some political appointees on there that I understood that there was some concern about some conflict of interest. And so they were not reappointed. And the board at that time was sort of left without anybody who had been groomed to be chair. So they did, Howard Armstead who had been on the board for a while...

Jones: Good doctor.

Van Velsor: ... and of course really knew the community and the hospital and everything, went on for a while.

Jones: He had been a commissioner at one point as well.

Van Velsor: And he had been a commissioner, and he then just suddenly resigned. I think there was questions about where he was actually living, you had to be a New Hanover County resident, and I really think that the reason, but I was Vice Chair by then. I mean one day I'm a nothing and the next day I'm a Vice Chair, and I'm thinking wait a minute, I don't know how to find the parking lot yet. And so I was at home, and I mean all of a sudden this fax comes out that he's retired, I mean he's resigned. I'm going gee whiz, and you know, about that time then Bill was leaving, and so we had to find an interim who just, it was just serendipitous. We had a wonderful guy who had been at Duke Regional, and then when Durham bought Duke Regional, he decided to leave, and he had retired early, and he was ready to sort of do some things. And so he came here, and we said we don't want you to start anything new, we just want you to keep the train on the track, and then kind of let us know where some issues are. And he taught us a lot about facilities. He said, "You have rooms packed with facilities plans that nothing has been done with them."

Jones: That was my understanding.

Van Velsor: And he brought in-- he did some taking care of some poor performers, which we encouraged him to do, and he also brought in someone he worked with formerly who was a facilities expert because we have been told that the tower could not survive hurricanes, and would have to be totally replaced. And several of us said, well what about these buildings in Europe that have lasted for hundreds of years. So this man--

Jones: And those buildings were not that old.

Van Velsor: No, they were not that old. And we said this doesn't make any sense. And so he came back to us and had done a thorough check and had some other people in inspections, and said, "You've got the solid bones here." He said, "Yes, you need to do some work to bring some things... the windows need to be replaced, but this tower can be remodeled and be brought up to like a new building." And then we started talking to him about what centers of excellence we wanted. We knew women's and children's was-- if you look at business-wise, that's not a money maker for the hospital, that's really a loser for the hospital, but it's going to happen. And so, we felt that we wanted to do, we knew the doctors were scrambling for more OR rooms, the Emergency Room situation is always incredible, that's just become the place for people to go who don't have a doctor or insurance. And so those kinds of things we worked through, and we also at the time then worked on hiring a new CEO, region head, and so we feel that things are really on track now.

Jones: They seem to be. I do remember, and of course, someone you and I both know quite well, the paper was so full of business about abuse of salaries, abuse of this, and abuse of that, that-- and this hospital from the time I could see, comparatively speaking the short time, my husband's from here, I'm not. The only thing I knew is coming down here every summer to go to Wrightsville Beach with the kids, you know, a fun place. But I did volunteer work over there, and I could see that it was just growing, and of course people are going to go to a hospital if they don't have a doctor. You're right, they were coming from Leland, they were coming from everywhere because they had a sore arm or whatever it is. There's an awful lot of abuse, I understand that. But it did seem that there were a lot of abuses taking place. So during that period when you were on the board, and Bess Dawson and making waves and bringing to attention, which it probably should have been. Is there any money making part of a hospital?

Van Velsor: Yeah, there are.

Jones: The drugs?

Van Velsor: There are some services that do better than others.

Jones: Better than others?

Van Velsor: Outpatient surgery, and of course we're getting competition now, as you know, from other doctors who are setting up their own surgery centers, and where they do their own diagnostics, et cetera, and we were just starting, I'm chair of the strategic planning committee, and we're working with...

Jones: Are you still on that board?

Van Velsor: Mm hmm.

Jones: Okay, I wasn't aware of that.

Van Velsor: You can serve two three-year terms, but I was filling in an expired term, so I just finished my first three-year term in October of '06. So I was reappointed to '09. And I think there's been some discussion about whether that's the right link. Some have talked about maybe it should be five year terms, others talked about maybe three three-year terms, and then-- because it takes a long time to understand.

Jones: I would think, I would think.

Van Velsor: It really does. And I think that we're having to look at can now the hospital be all things to all people because of the--

Jones: Is there any hospital anywhere that is always?

Van Velsor: Oh, we try, we are a public hospital. We are a public hospital, you know, we have a reporter who can come to any of our meetings, we abide by public, you know, all the open meetings laws, et cetera. So, I mean, and we can't refuse something, but I think sometimes that the doctors have felt that they've been taken advantage of, that some of the outlying hospitals when a specialist didn't want to bother with a particularly typical case or wanted to be on vacation or just didn't want to come in would say take them on to New Hanover. So, that is an issue that's just going to have to be addressed, you know, that we were taught a lot about the haves and have not's in hospitals. And we right now are maybe a have up there with Wake Med and Duke and Chapel Hill and Pitt, but we're in the middle of a lot of have not's, these very small hospitals are going to have to partner, and we now we have a for-profit in Brunswick County, Novant, and they have been approved for two OR's that they're going to put in Autumn Hall, which in other words they're coming right into New Hanover County, and they made it clear that they thought competition would be good. And I think it just takes me back, the whole thing about deregulation with electricity, you want to say it is so capital intensive how much can, you know, how low-- someone is going to win and somebody's going to lose, so we're going to have to have some alliances more than we have in the past, and try to work with doctors to find out what we can do to make things easier for them, and I'm a real advocate for patient care, I mean the quality of care. And so that's what it's all about.

Jones: We're going to change the tape because I want to continue with this in a minute, but I do want to say that I do have unfortunately been a guest over there a couple of times, but there's some people who are absolutely wonderful, and I did work for several years for St. Mary Church taking communion on Fridays to the critically ill, et cetera. I couldn't go to see the children, they just got to me. But I've seen was, is it Mary Ellen Bonczec?

Van Velsor: Mm-hmm.

Jones: She's wonderful. At least I found her to be, so, and the people over in the Pulmonary Rehab and Cardiac Rehab are terrific people. They are so human, it's wonderful. And I've heard some of their stories. So I know things are changing for the better, but when we get a new tape in I've got a couple of questions to ask you that have a bearing on this community, this area now with the hospital. So you want to just go ahead and change it now and we'll pick--

[tape change]

Jones: Talking about the hospital and changes I'd like, and since you're still on the board, strategic planning committee, is that it?

Van Velsor: Right.

Jones: With all the changes taking place in southeastern North Carolina, not just New Hanover County but Pender and Brunswick County, has there been any conversation addressing what the most particular needs are for this area, with the influx of retirees, with younger people having children, they're coming here, there's business here for the younger upwardly mobile you might say. Where are they going? Which direction are they going?

Van Velsor: I think we're still working on that but we realize that there are so-- I mean you have two factors that are-- or maybe-- you have several, but some that come to mind is the growing number of under or not insured, and the hospital becoming the first and last resort for them.

Jones: Is it true that they cannot turn away anyone?

Van Velsor: That is true.

Jones: Even as an [inaudible]

Van Velsor: That is true. And they can stabilize the patient, you know, and then refer them to a doctor, but they have-- anyone who comes there that's just not an issue whether they can pay. The other is the competition piece. I mean competition from for profits, you know. Novant tried to buy our hospital. And then from other-- and physicians who were-- I mean they're business people too. They have to be. And of course the growing Hispanic population. And that's another one.

Jones: Are they basically uninsured?

Van Velsor: Yes. Yes. And-- but just being able to handle them, having the interpreters, etc. We're lucky that our CEO, he said, "You won't have just started in this. He said, "Where I was," he said, "it was a much greater Hispanic population." And he said, "having people that can interpret, who understand their culture, that when one of them is in the hospital the whole family's there." And so all-- and of course the other thing is just the availability, the whole nursing education is-- that we hire every nurse that we can find. I mean like-- but the problem has been that we're not having enough nurses who go on and get an advanced degree so they can teach. So UNCW is, you know, has a wonderful program. We were supporting that. And Cape Fear and those students intern and work in our hospital. And we try to take as many of them as we possibly can. But they could, you know, they're limited by the staff or the faculty that they have. So that's, you know, that's another issue. I think that-- I don't think that the hospital will, as long as we are a public hospital, and I don't see that we're going to, in my lifetime, that we'll become a private hospital, but as long as we're a public hospital we're not gonna turn people away. I mean that just goes against everything our country believes in.

Jones: Is there room for growth there, land or--

Van Velsor: Yes there is room for growth. There is room for growth.

Jones: My understanding with the last census that was taken, that the population now for New Hanover County is 106,000, which is a tremendous jump over the last census, and growing. And the infrastructure here does not have factories but there are businesses that are coming. Now I imagine most of this--

Van Velsor: Green businesses in a way, which is really great.

Jones: Right. And of course the younger retirees are coming to play and often diving in and doing a lot of things as well.

Van Velsor: And a number of people who work-- who live here but sort of telecommute and work other places.

Jones: So the question I hear so often is what is going to happen to the quality of medical care, particularly having to do with older people and particularly having to do-- and you just brought it up, the influx of the Mexicans and the language barrier. So since this is a nonprofit where is the money coming from, the tax money? Everybody wants the tax money for something and there's only so much you can do.

Van Velsor: Well I think probably what people don't understand is that we are a public hospital, owned by the county but the county does not-- no county funds go into the hospital. The hospital is self supporting. So I think people think that, you know, my tax dollars go to support this hospital. The only times that we're involved with the county might be when we were doing-- having-- wanting to float a bond, for example, and we have to-- and the county then sort of backs that. But the negative in some ways are that we are still, because we are public, that we are restricted in how we invest funds, and that has been changed slightly by the legislature to make it a little bit more helpful so now we can do it the way the state does. And then also with the bidding process that you have to have open bidding, and of course you've got to abide by certain laws about bidding. And I don't-- but I think that Jack was saying-- he said we're supposed to get three bids. He said, "Well you got to get two," he says, "And you bid again and," he said, "the people that bid those two bids, they're not gonna come down any." he said. So if we could have a little bit more competitive bidding then that-- we could hold some costs down that way. I think that to make the hospital an authority, so it's still county owned but it is an authority the way the airport is. I don't know think people realize what the difference is, that that is a solution that has been tried. But it's going to take a lot of education. I think that when it failed the first time probably the right people were not speaking. I think it was the paid staff that did all the talking about it. And I think that the community has to understand what that-- what the pluses and minuses are and that this is not giving away the hospital and that the-- and it's not gonna make their tax dollars go up, you know. The hospital doesn't give the county money and the county doesn't give the hospital money so there's a real misunderstanding of that.

Jones: How about contributions and endowments from the Zimmer family and recently the Cameron family? There have been others I know.

Van Velsor: Well we're trying-- with the capital campaign now we're trying to raise around 15 to 16 million dollars, but the whole construction project is about-- over 200 million.

Jones: Did you apply for grants as well?

Van Velsor: Mm-hmm. In fact there's one that we're-- I was talking to the foundation director about recently that she's applied for and there are some stipulations in there about what percentage giving you have had from your trustees, from your board, from how much money you've raised, and then they match. So those are-- we're really working on those.

Jones: Will this become a teaching hospital? I know that there are some now.

Van Velsor: It is a teaching hospital now.

Jones: Well specializing in any one thing.

Van Velsor: I don't know. I think that we have to-- it's tough to say, but I think we have to see what we can afford because--

Jones: More and more I hear people say I don't need to go to Chapel Hill. I don't need to go to Duke. I can go right over here.

Van Velsor: And I think that's something that the community needs to understand too. But-- and that we are-- and I don't think people realize, I mean interns, that we are part of Chapel Hill and their interns from here, etc. And we put-- and the hospital does support that some. But that enables us to have some of the clinics that we have, fun things that we do that-- and outreach that we would like to do. But as I said, it's-- I don't have an answer. I mean we're not there. I mean we're just sort of looking at where it is. We know-- and we know that there are these boomers. And I think more and more Wilmington becomes "haves" and "have-nots". And you're gonna have those that-- and when we look at where the pay comes from about, I think it's 24% of our patients pay a depending on what they call commercial. In other words they have Blue Cross Blue Shield, they have employer whatever. Then a chunk is Medicare and then Medicaid, and then sort of other, which is uninsured. But when were talking to this consultant that we've been working with, who is just a real guru about-- he specializes only in hospitals, he said 25% private pay or commercial pay is very high. He said, "You don't realize how lucky you are to have that." He said, "Many hospitals only have 4 or 5." So I think that there are things about the hospital that maybe we've taken for granted. We're getting into some new territory and we have to decide, you know, what kinds of relationships-- one of the things we have, one of the things we've discussed, is a number of years ago there was an idea about the hospital buying doctors' practices and they got out of that. They decided that wasn't a good thing. And now talking about whether a number-- many, many hospitals employ many more physicians than we do because the mindset of the doctor is not like the good old doctor so and so who would come by at night and check on you or you could call or whatever. They want to have a life. And it's very expensive to have your own practice. And then, you know, all those kinds of things. So we do have hospitalists now so that if it's an internist admits someone to the hospital then they talk to that hospitalist who sees them when they're there so they don't have to go in and out. Now not all of interns-- not all the doctors do that. Some of them very much believe in seeing their own folks in the hospital. But my sense is that's more of the physicians who will be retiring in the next ten years.

Jones: Is there now, I did the accession for the university and all the documents and papers having to do with the building of this hospital and the years it took. The first couple of bonds were voted down. It was an eye opener to see the most minute details had to be covered in the bidding. The thing that intrigued me the most, and I'm gonna ask you if it still happens, is which doctors could practice, which doctors could operate in the hospital, which doctors were allowed an office there. And it seemed that it was a convoluted system of how they were approved to be a part of the hospital and yet have their own practice. And there was one doctor particularly who kept applying and applying and applying and never did make it for various reasons. Is there a set parameter or set of rules that determines whether or not a doctor can practice, can do surgery, can administer tests, and so forth?

Van Velsor: And that has to be-- we have what-- there are two pieces in that. There's a credentialing committee, which is-- there's now a trustee in that committee but it's mostly made up of doctors, and they're the ones who go through any doctor who applies to be able to practice at that hospital, admit patients to that hospital, that they are sure that they are who they are, have the credentials that they have, don't have, you know, haven't changed their names, all those kinds of things. And they work very hard at that. Then there's also a peer review process so that doctors reapply every two years, I believe, and unless there is something negative in their file then that obviously is not an issue. But one of the things that we have talked about some has been that the trustees are ultimately responsible for what happens in the hospital. So if there are some bad actors in there, maybe not because of a lack of technical skill but maybe because of their demeanor, they keep it from being a positive work environment for those who are supporting them like nurses, anesthesiologists, etc., and if that's the case then their peers need to deal with that. They need to go with them and say-- and these are documented instances of behavior or-- and we've read-- some of them have gotten to the point, they've been in the paper but, you know, but we have said that that's something that needs to be looked at. And Dr. Ryan, Jan Ryan, is on the state medical board, and she says they have a number of people from business who are on that board and she said, "They told me," they said, "You-- this medical world doesn't know how to handle the poor performers." This is something businesses learned a long time ago. So that's really part of just, I mean, not doctors, but for those who are in the hospital, the staff, the administration, is looking at. We have to work on, you know, that we're going to do everything we can for those who are good performers but those that are not good performers and are never gonna be good performers don't need to be here, that it can be dangerous at worst and it can just be something that irritates everybody at best. It doesn't make for a positive environment. And the same thing is true with the doctor. I mean I-- if everybody knows that a certain doctor does not practice good medicine or that they are dismissive of anyone, you know, that their opinion is the only opinion, whatever, the things that you run into in any walk of life, that those issues need to be addressed. But I-- that's a change in the culture too 'cause then they can say well then we'll go sue the hospital. You're trying to keep us from earning a living.

Jones: That's the other thing I imagine, that that's a very--

Van Velsor: It's a very--

Jones: Tight line to--

Van Velsor: It is a tight line.

Jones: Because part of the cost is passed on through the medical insurance they have to take out but at the same time there are shoddy doctors as well as shoddy anything else. But I imagine that the ugly thought of suits-- because there are some lawyers that are so proficient in this, and what do you do? Do you factor that in as part of the costs?

Van Velsor: Oh sure we do. You have to. I mean there's been quite a bit in the paper about the problem that we had with one doctor. And the hospital is ultimately responsible for working for those lawsuits. And so that has been a significant sum of money.

Jones: You're very passionate about this aren't you?

Van Velsor: Yeah, I am.

Jones: That's good. If you're going to be on that committee, you're knowledgeable, 'course you're married to a doctor so maybe you-- but you're a woman who's been in business as well. Let's get on to this. I want to talk about yours and your husband's underwriting a series of jazz concerts and all these other things which are wonderful. I've attended a few of them. We attend only certain ones, mainly 'cause we know the people. But it's a great thing to have for a lot of the retired community who can go and bring snacks and enjoy a couple of hours in a very tranquil setting with a lot of parking, and perhaps be taken back to when they were younger, listening to some of the music. How did this come about?

Van Velsor: Well my husband's an amateur musician and he's had a band since almost he started-- came here. And they used to practice-- he has a few articles-- they used to practice at a hangar at the airport. They said one time they were practicing and the current governor, maybe it was Terry Sanford at the time, wanted to know what party was going on. He walked in there and there they were just practicing. So he's had this band, they'd turnover, but he just loves that.

Jones: He still does it?

Van Velsor: Still does it.

Jones: What does he play?

Van Velsor: He plays piano now. He did play soprano sax but he had a fall so now-- he was trying to repair the dock, and the dock flipped. So anyway, he had some problems with his teeth. So now he just plays the piano. But he just loves the music, he adores the music. And so from there-- he started that when I met him in 1979-- he was starting the idea of bringing top-notch musicians to Wilmington. And they had brought one or two in to play with their band and he said, "We were so bad it was really embarrassing." He would love to get somebody down here who played at the find jobs, people at the Blockade Runner in the summer, they would have Saturday night dances, which they don't do anymore. So he started with two sort of private parties that he and the late B.C. Hedgepeth put together, that they did over a weekend, that they had a Friday night and a Saturday night. Dinners and music. And you know B.C. would provide at that time, Greg Gables was there, and B.C. provided the best of wines and foods, etc. And so then they brought in a top trio. And so from there in 1980, hearing that there were jazz parties around the country. And so he started one, and he was really nervous about it. He got it set up as a non-profit because he said, "If this doesn't work, I'll pay for it." I mean I'm obligated to pay, you know, for the rental of the Thalian and I'm obligated to pay for all these musicians.

Jones: That took courage.

Van Velsor: He was a little nervous also. And we were not married at the time and we learned a lot, he really did. One musician came down, he called him and said something about he wanted him to come. He got a little better about knowing how to approach him, but he said, "If you would like to come down early." He would use anything he could to get them interested in coming. We have great golf down here. So the guy said, "Yeah I believe I would. I'll call you." So he called him two weeks before the festival, this is the first festival, and said, "I thought I'd come down." Well at that time here he was living in his bachelor pad, behind his office, that just had one bedroom. And so there he was with this jazz musician, who was much older than he was at the time, and so sometimes I would call him and he'd say, "Well Bud and I are in here lying on the bed watching TV." I said, "I don't want to interrupt you." So we gave him a lot of grief about that. But the first year well, and so this past year's been the twenty-seventh. They've done it every year. They've had some leaner years than others. It was obvious that for Harry it was too much to handle. His office secretary had handled all the-- everything about arrangements: who sits where, all the tickets, everything. She died unexpectedly so everything was thrown at us-- I mean at me. I just had to go through all this stuff that she had, so we had to get a little better organized and the musicians were aware that Harry needed to do that too, but his whole idea has been for Wilmington, to understand what's being brought here. As people who have come here from other places have said, "This is just great. This is something we thought we'd never get." And so he has a wide circle now that he knows. And now they have, we worked through this so that they can mirror up jazz festival with Cape Fear's jazz appreciation society, so that even North Carolina's jazz festival is an entity of itself, its under the auspices of Cape Fear's jazz appreciation society. And Sandy Evans who was the president of Cape Fear jazz appreciation society, who is the most organized, go-getter I've ever known, loves music and she's taken this on. And she knew we had some places that we needed to try and work at saving money, because we had a bottom line that we needed to be able to put on a concert if nobody came. So we had to have a $30,000 cushion.

Jones: So you're paying the musicians?

Van Velsor: We're paying the musicians. Yes, and the musicians like to come. They love the way they are treated. Because Harry's a musician he loves it, we have a hospitality room for them, we get Sweet and Savory to bring food in. Because the first year they would be hungry at midnight and there would be nothing open.

Jones: Where do you do this now?

Van Velsor: At the Hilton. And so we had to learn about things we had to do. We treat them really special and they pay them pretty well. I mean he said occasionally he'll try to ask, he doesn't want to say, "How much you get paid here?" or whatever, he'll say, "How do you compare what we pay to what others pay." And they said, "You're in the top percentage."

Jones: Really? How about for the Cape Fear museum?

Van Velsor: The museum-- I was on the museum board for a while, then I realized I couldn't do that, the hospital was too much. So Nancy Buckingham, who was their development person, called me to say that they had had a corporate sponsor every year. Harry's band had-- and this was part of what Cape Fear jazz society did in the park, in Airlie, they would play in Airlie and love that. And then when they were bringing it to the museum, we really had not participated very much, we knew it was there, and we hadn't gone. So when she called me I said, "Harry, this is something that we need to do." He said, "Well, how much?" I told him. And he said, "That's just too much." I said, "What if I split it with you?" He said, "Well, okay." So we've done it and--

Jones: How many years have you done this?

Van Velsor: This is just the first year we've done it. I think it'll be another year, I'm sure we're in it for the long haul but he's-- I mean it's been great, we've thoroughly enjoyed it, we had a great time going, are very unhappy when we have a conflict. It's just, and I think it's not that much money for what it does. You know there are so many other couples, or people, singles, whatever, in this community that can give this kind of support, but they don't. And I think that for him has been an issue of-- I guess that's both where we are, about giving back to the community. When we were first married and I was very involved in the-- grief, now it's left me. United Way! And I'd chair United Way and be helping with the campaigns and he said, "They tried their best to get me to do more." He said, "I am mortified at how poorly the doctors participate in United Way." And then when we go to the Thalian and some of the opera house productions, there are not enough doctors who are participating in this.

Jones: And you know he's right.

Van Velsor: Yes! He is right.

Jones: There are not enough doctors who participate in a lot of things in town. But I always say, "Well, they have odd hours."

Van Velsor: Well, but they can give money.

Jones: Yeah.

Van Velsor: But I think some of them now are becoming more involved. But we've got good support from the doctors with the hospital and the hospital growth plan, building plan.

Jones: We have to give a lot of credit to Jim Honely [ph?].

Van Velsor: Oh indeed!

Jones: Jim and Linda, they're perfect, yeah.

Van Velsor: They're defiantly there. And with the Landfall foundation now and the One Wilmington group. It's not just with music, but different groups that they're saying they want to support. And we're lucky One Wilmington supported women's and children's this year.

Jones: So you're going to continue this with the museum.

Van Velsor: Well I'm not making a promise.

Jones: I know, we're not going to show this to everybody.

Van Velsor: Don't show this to Nancy. But yet I hope we can because I think it's great for Harry to do.

Jones: Do you have any say-so about who is to be showcased on a particular evening?

Van Velsor: No, that's totally left up to them. We've been astounded by how many people go the first night we went. I mean we were in the back, we were sitting on the floor. I said, "Well next time we'll have to get here earlier."

Jones: Well I'll tell you, a year ago we went down to Julie Reader, because we like Julie and we like this kind of nightclub. And the music. And we walked in and said, "God, were overdressed." We weren't overdressed.

Van Velsor: We felt that way too.

Jones: You didn't need to change from your jeans. (laughter) And we brought chairs and this cooler full of stuff. I thought, "Oh, how stupid." But Wilbur kept saying, "Just a lot of old people." Well as it went on, I thought, why not? This was their time, this was a style, this was a period, and they were just so happy and just kind of keeping time with the music. Some of them lip singing, you know, so that I think that when this year's program opened up, we decided, we went to several of them. We learned a little bit of how you could just go in and saw some of the same faces. And they're there absolutely loving it. Funny thing, we went to see Julie again this year and she said, "Sit in the back, my dad's coming up, and his birthday's in a couple of days," and she knew what my favorite song was, it happened to be the same as his, and she said, "I'm going to sing you guys' favorite song." And she said, "He will keep time with his feet and his fingers and he may be banging on your arm." And he was, and I thought it was so sweet for her to recognize him. Everybody else there was singing "Happy Birthday," it was like a very close, unteamed kind of neighborhood gathering. So whatever was to be accomplished I think is accomplished. And then of course Grenaldo goes off on a wild whatever. (laughter)

Van Velsor: I know. He's just a real parole-hearer. He likes to go everytime he plays.

Jones: We go down to Water Street occasionally to see him when we can.

Van Velsor: We had him in our house for Harry's birthday a few years ago. That was really fun.

Jones: Yeah! Yeah, that's terrific. So that's good work. What else are you involved in? You got time for anything else?

Van Velsor: Well, just little peripheral things. Well, I mean my family. I have a daughter who has a four-year old and a six-year old. I try to see them-- in fact I was up there Saturday, they had a school function, and I guess in the mother tradition, she was involved in organizing that. It was a fundraiser so my job was to go to keep the boys out of her hair for a while, go to the fundraiser. Then the six year old figured out how a silent auction works, so he started working on me, "This is for the school." And then I have to grandchildren in town and my son's children, and I don't do as much with the church as I'd like to, keep thinking that I will. I'm a care-giver now and I really have to work to keep time for myself, to keep times I can do things.

Jones: It's important. It's important. It really is. Let me ask you this before we let you go and get beautiful again. What has impressed you most about-- you've been here since the 1970's?

Van Velsor: 1978.

Jones: What has impressed you most, good or bad, or you can think of positives about the changes that have been made here.

Van Velsor: I think Wilmington has become so much cosmopolitan. I remember that the first Christmas I was here that I would go back to Raleigh. I went in to get a polo shirt for my son and they said, "Well what color do you want?" They had all these colors. I said, "You mean I have to make choices?" They looked at me like I was nuts. I think that, I think the university, which has sort of had a wall around it, I think it's out now reaching to the community. The community is more involved in that. All of the wonderful things the university does other than for just students. That's one of the next things on my list to get involved in. So I think that that's the growth and diversity beyond just, and I think that that's caused us to get out of the real old south, if you want to call it mindset. There may be a little bit of that, but I think that it's going away. I was astounded by how different it was in Raleigh than what it was here, when I first moved here.

Jones: What do you see for downtown? Or what would you like to see for downtown?

Van Velsor: Of course I think-- the way we are now, I think that when you have the Mayfaire, at some point Autumn Hall, and you have Independence Mall, I think it would be a little fool-hearty to think that downtown is going to attract a lot of base retail business. I think downtown needs to be like Savannah has done, and other places. They have to be boutiques, the art galleries, those kinds of things. And also a place to go downtown and enjoy the river, and a place to dine.

Jones: Gene Meritt has talked a number of time, and taking the temperature of certain people, about expanding the waterfront to include more parks and benches and more, he's got something particular in mind. What do you think about something like that?

Van Velsor: I think that would be great.

Jones: How do you feel about having two-way traffic again at Front Street over one-way traffic or not having traffic at all for a couple of blocks?

Van Velsor: Well I know that Raleigh's just gone through that. And I think there was this trend to have a pedestrian mall and we sort of half-wayed it by making it one-way. Raleigh's was totally a pedestrian mall and they found that downtown died when they didn't have some traffic down there. And so I think that may be a way of opening a little bit. I don't think it's the worst thing that can happen. I really don't.

Jones: I heard recently that the elementary school population is falling off in New Hanover County, but picking up tremendously in Brunswick County. Due to the fact that the average age of couples with younger children, the affordable housing is in Brunswick County and not here.

Van Velsor: And Pender.

Jones: And in Pender, yes.

Van Velsor: Pender schools have better--

Jones: Have a good reputation. Yeah. I was talking to Carolyn Justice just recently about this. Given that, and given to the number of place spots for us. The shopping at Lumina, the shopping at Mayfaire, etc. Do you see evidence of this area becoming let's say only affordable for upper-middle class and upper beyond that?

Van Velsor: I hope not. I mean I think that now there's a silent circle of, I don't even know who they are, of people who are very, very moneyed. And who own numerous houses here and in other places.

Jones: This is allegedly, has the highest concentration of retired, fortuned 500 mid and upper-level executives, who may not live here all year round, but do pay taxes on the property they have here. I found that mind-blowing, but evidently that is true.

Van Velsor: Yeah. I mean I just hear a little more and more about that. We're still going to have to look at affordable housing. We saw what happened with Giravet [ph?], that's very attractive. But the entrance is horrible, that hasn't been improved. So somehow the entrances to the city have to be better, I think. And there are places, there are still places to have affordable housing.

Jones: And because of this the schools are undergoing tremendous problems. So you really, what I'm hearing you say is you're up-beat about the future here, and the growth, which might extend across the river.

Van Velsor: Well it's just so close. If Wilmington becomes a place, a hub like it is now for medical services, and retail services, and cultural services, and educational services, it wouldn't be the worst thing that happened. It's just that we're going to become a larger metropolitan area.

Jones: So you're looking at this through a realistic view as a woman who's in business and had to look at realistic views. We here, many of the opinions, are like yours and some say, "We've lost our innocence. We lost our way of life." Maybe so, but this is progress.

Van Velsor: If you don't change, you die.

Jones: That's a very good thought.

Van Velsor: And this community is not dying. And I think those that are trying to push against that tide, I think that's fear. When people resist I think it's a fear of change. A portion of your population is going to have that. I mean with the tax reevaluation.

Jones: That's not set yet though.

Van Velsor: It's not. That's it, and the paper has done so much about it that if I lived at Wrightsville Beach, I would just be panicked. I would be we have to live, we have to move, da, da, da. And we still don't even know how much it's going to be. So I wish that the paper were more positive and that is an effort that won't ever happen. That's been an issue since I've been here. It has got to be what is negative today.

Jones: You are absolutely correct, and too many people are voicing these opinions. The circulation has dropped off, it's picking up in Brunswick. But it's this way all over the country from what we here and they're going more and more to the blog situation, to the internet to get news. Of course you could turn it off if you want, but still. You're right, I do feel that they should have a more positive look on a lot of things. Gayle, it's been really, we can sit here and talk, I could ask you all kinds of questions.

Van Velsor: Just think of all the interesting things you can find out.

Jones: I know, I know, it's been fun, and you had a sense of humor about it which I enjoy. And I've learned some things about you, and I've learned some things about the hospital, and the history of jazz here, so I'm convinced that anyone who watches this is going to have a fun time as well as a learning time.

Van Velsor: I hope so.

Jones: I'm so glad you came and said thank-you. To us and we thank you. I think you said it was an honor, it's an honor for us. Come again, we'll call you again.

Van Velsor: Thank you very much.

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