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Title:
Interview with Carl A. Byrd, March 20, 2003
Date:
March 20, 2003
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Byrd, Carl A. Interviewer:  Johnson, Joyce / Cody, Sue Date of Interview:  6/9/2004 Series:  Williston High School Length  49 minutes

 

Johnson: I’m Joyce Johnson and we’re here today to interview Mr. Carl Byrd who was the New Hanover County Human Relations Director. We’re going to talk about Williston, Williston Alumni Association and any other information that Mr. Byrd has concerning Williston

Interviewer – Joyce Johnson

Interviewer 2 – Sue Cody

Johnson: First I’d like to say that the reason we’re doing this video is because there is not enough information, oral or written information about Williston and we just felt that it was necessary that we gather that information from Williston alumni. First, I would like to ask you to tell us something about yourself, where were you born, your parents?

Byrd: Okay, born here in Wilmington, a native and attended Peabody Elementary School, from Peabody to James B. Dudley. From Dudley then we went over to Williston Junior High. This is when D. C. Virgo was being completed at that time. So 8th grade was at Williston Junior High. I moved back across town north side to D.C. Virgo and that’s when D.C. Virgo was 7th, 8th and 9th grades. Completed 9th grade there and then of course high school at that time was 10th, 11th and 12th grade and that was at Williston Senior High.

My class was the last class to graduate from Williston in 1968. But this is home. I’ve had the pleasure of working in the Midwest, Michigan and Illinois, to live and travel some outside of the United States and work out of the U.S. at that time with Caterpillar Tractor Company. I was a senior financial rep for Mexico, Central America, South America. Unfortunately, I lost some friends I made then that were killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

We were all young fellows at that time, starting our families and out of college and laughed about how we used to wear the Afros and the long hair with a couple of fellows who mentioned they wore the Sonny Bono look (laughter) and our peace symbols. Eventually, I came back home to Wilmington. My three kids were able to grow up here.

I got to know their families and that obviously made it THAT much more exciting coming back home.

Johnson: Tell us about your parents.

Byrd: My parents…?

Johnson: Their occupations and any sort of thing.

Byrd: Mom was a Williston graduate also. The Jackson family was from the north side of town. Mom did domestic work. She, after completing Williston and doing some studies at Cape Fear Memorial Hospital at the time, did a little work as a licensed practical nurse. I think that is what it was called. She did that type of work and then we kept her busy and I say we, I’m referring to myself being the oldest in that family and a younger brother, Rick, and a set of twins, Michael and Michelle.

With dad, dad was a barber and a longshoreman here and he’s one of those people that had a 6th grade education as far as formal education, but a Ph.D. in common sense and business. He taught me a lot in the early years. He passed when I was a sophomore at Williston, 14 years old, but there were work ethics and attitudes and relations as far as working with people that he instilled in me that I still apply to this day.

Johnson: Tell us about your days at Williston Senior High.

Byrd: Days at Williston Senior High … were fun as I look back at them and I say now and smile and say fun. At that time I wondered about some of the teachers we had because of the structure which now I appreciate and was able to come back and tell a lot of them, the teachers, that I appreciated that structure and discipline, though I did not at that time like a number of other Willistonians.

It was a will and an interest to learn that they created in that environment acknowledging that it was a segregated environment as far as the high schools, but we weren’t made to feel as such. We felt, and I know now, we were given the best that they had to offer with the tools that they had. Even to this day, I don’t feel that I was slighted or missed or anything. It’s because of the home environment, family and extended families that we had back in those days in the Taylor homes, and Nixon Street and all.

Then at Williston also because those teachers would go to your house and tell your parents. Typically they attended church with your parents or some social club. But Tenth grade there, 11th and 12th and thinking back it was Mr. Newkirk and Mr. Fewell that stimulated my interests in math, which I hated at the time, but because I enjoyed drafting, they taught me that I needed to know math to apply the drafting skills. So therefore they found where my interests were and caused my attitude toward math to change.

Then I had instructors like Miss Eunice Boykins, a Spanish instructor and a church member of mine at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church where I studied Spanish and never knowing that roughly 20 years later that would really impact my work career where with Caterpillar as I mentioned I was a representative for countries in Mexico, Central America and South America.

Because of those skills gained at Williston under Miss Boykins, I was able to apply the Spanish as well as learn Portuguese to work and travel in those countries. I was blessed to be able to tell her what those skills and those foundations that she set for me back then did. Today, speaking of Williston, I also studied under Miss L.S. Williams who everyone knows with respect to literature and English and also Mrs. Lethia Hankins who is today the Human Relations Commission, Director…I’m sorry, Chairman.

It’s really funny looking at Mrs. Hankins and calling her by her first name today and working with her. We tease a lot with the student now teaching the teacher after all those years. It was a good experience, it was very positive.

Johnson: Were you a member of the band, Glee Club?

Byrd: Played a little baseball at Williston, but not a member of the band or Glee Club, more so baseball and the intramural sports.

Johnson: I know that Williston had a lot of social clubs. Were you a member of any of the social clubs?

Byrd: The social club I was a member of was the Gaylord’s. The Gaylord’s and Gaylettes were primarily those from the north side of town that belonged to that club. The clubs back then primarily depended on where you lived in Wilmington and social status and those kinds of things. I wasn’t involved in a lot because at that time as I mentioned my father had passed so I worked to help support the family. I mean after school it was time to work and the same thing with weekends.

Cody: Where did you work, by the way?

Byrd: One of the key jobs that helped along the way was Coastal Lighting Supply and the fellow’s name who is still living today is Herman Blizzard. In fact, we were out here for his display on Herman Blizzard. Herman was an individual that encouraged me, was one of many who encouraged me to stay in school when I was considering dropping out of high school and Herman did something that wasn’t particularly popular back in the 60’s.

He taught me as a young black man accounting and inventory skills and trusted me with his inventory and encouraged me to go onto college. He’s the reason today I’m a Rotarian in the same Rotary Club that he is. I shared that as a speaker at the Rotary Club as to why I joined the Rotary.

Cody: That’s a great story.

Johnson: I remember him saying that that day when they were out here honoring Mr. Blizzard. And you talked about Mr. Fewell and Miss Williams. Were there other teachers that … who were your special teachers, I’ll put it that way?

Byrd: Those two, Mrs. Hankins that I mentioned and the part of having the pleasure of working with her as chair of the board for the commission and at times to look at her and flash back to those days where she was standing in the halls with her arms folded and would just give you that look, you know, “Boy, you better get to your room or where you’re supposed to be.”

Miss Draine, Mrs. Bert Todd were some of the teachers also that encouraged us to go onto college and to help Miss Wick with the financial aid piece as far as identifying where you could get loans from or grants and that type of thing. But more importantly they were role models because when I saw Mr. Booker T. Washington I felt, “Why couldn’t I be a principal?”

I mean in that environment, we were nurtured to the point where we felt we could achieve whatever we wanted to and it was never, no you can’t do it, but it was okay, are you willing to pay the price and the sacrifice to do what you need to do achieve that goal.

Johnson: Do you feel that attending Williston …what can I say… protected students from discrimination?

Byrd: Protected, no, I’m not going to say I felt protected because our teachers were frank and honest in telling us what existed beyond the walls of Williston. Those of us that worked experienced it in the workplace. But what the teachers did share and guide that we could overcome the discrimination and that we could challenge it through education and that education was the way to challenge it in the sense of negotiations to achieve a positive result and if necessary, confrontation, not so much in a physical manner, but in an intellectual manner to achieve.

They taught us the need for dialogue and so therefore you had the dialogue where you were able to share the diversities and why blending those diversities, we all could benefit.

Johnson: There were other persons that we interviewed and they talked about notable celebrities visiting Williston. Do you remember any attending while you were in school there?

Byrd: Coming back to visit you mean?

Johnson: Right.

Byrd: Meadowlark Melee comes to mind.

Cody: He came back fairly often, didn't he?

Byrd: Yes, he did and had the pleasure a few years ago to play a round of golf with him when he came back for Earl Jackson’s retirement from the Community…what was then the Community Boys Club, which is now the Community Boys and Girls Club. But I’m also a club member and sit on that board today. That’s a part of my way to give back to the community that helped me give me direction. Mr. Best, Mr. Blue, Earl Jackson, Joel McGuire and all those fellows back then. But Meadowlark when he came back, he was one of the keys at that point in time.

Johnson: I should have asked you this prior, but tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now as the New Hanover County Human Relations director.

Byrd: Okay, I’ve been into this particular job April will be three years and serving as director of the Human Relations Commission here. The basic function of the commission is two fold. The first the commission itself which has 20 representatives from the county and these individuals are appointed by the county government, city government and designated organizations such as the minister of the Alliance, minister the Round Table, NAACP, YWCA, League of Women Voters, the three beach communities, Wrightsville, Carolina and Kure.

The purpose of this commission is to provide a base for dialogue with respect to what’s going on in the community, New Hanover County and what we can do to expand the diversity and enhance the diversity. Given that commission, one of the key functions is to assist the professional staff with education and outreach of EEOC, Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, fair employment and with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD with respect to fair housing.

The professional staff, we’re the enforcers. We have federal contracts so we represent EEOC here in New Hanover County and we represent HUD here in New Hanover County. We do initial investigations and if necessary, on site investigations. And be it, if we have to file subpoenas, we also do that to obtain information with respect to an investigation of fair employment or fair housing.

The advantages, we’re one of three in North Carolina, commissions that have work-share agreements and contracts with federal government. So we do a large bit of proactive and that’s been --- my impetus there is to be proactive not just reactive, but to educate and outreach the citizens of the county as well as business and ministry.

Johnson: We’re trying to interview as many people as we possibly can, well as many alumni of Williston. Can you think of anyone that you feel that we need to interview?

Byrd: I’m sure a number of the alumni from Williston you’ve interviewed particularly those with the Williston Alumni Association.

Johnson: Are you a part of the Alumni Association?

Byrd: Yes I am. And with Linda Pierce, she headed that up and Florence when they bought that together. In our class, it’s just regrettably that we never had the high school to come back to. One of the things growing up that we wanted to achieve was to be able to graduate and come back and walk the halls of Williston with your college sweatshirt on and to see some of those teachers that taught you along the way, to come back to the homecoming football game, you may remember that… and the big thing was what college were you attending or what fraternity that you belonged to at that time. We never had that. It was a part of my life that’s missing, you know.

I’ve shared with some members of the alumni association the attachment that a lot of them still have just because of those years of being able to go back as an alumni, but with us it was we graduated, that was it and we never had anything really to come back to. I identify a lot, in addition to my class of ’68, but with my sister’s class who graduated in ’67 and some of those in the class of ’66 because we were all there together. It was to see them come back and again that was a joy we never were able to have.

Johnson: How do you feel about the closing of Williston?

Byrd: I feel that Williston could have been saved. I feel that renovations, that type of thing, could have been implemented to save Williston and grow it. Again I’m looking at what’s taking place over there today as is Williston Junior High and the expansions and all that have taken place. Again looking at the signs of the time then where the powers to be felt it was best to build the new schools, Hoggard at the time and later Laney.

But there was a lot lost. That was a piece of my life that was taken away, thinking that it was for the better of the whole, but there is a group of us in the sense of the alumni where that was a part of our history and our time in Wilmington.

Again I feel that the generations to follow us, had they been able to walk some of those halls, be taught by some of those teachers in that setting that their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, maybe again that type of feeling of extended family could have motivated more of them to have the desire for education, well high school education first and education beyond high school.

Johnson: So you do feel that it would have survived as an integrated school?

Byrd: Yes I do, yes I do and I say that because the teachers taught and they taught whatever their particular curriculum was at that point in time. They had a true commitment and love for education and for any and every student that was there. Do I think they could have adapted? Sure I do because they were the ones, as I was a child at that time and many others, they were the adults that were working within that segregated system and even with that, that being the segregation, they kept us focused and kept us positive.

Cody: It could have been a good influence for some of the white children.

Byrd: Yes, I think so. I think so because there again the diversity side of it. Those teachers in my opinion would not have segregated, but would have incorporated that diversity with a need for the betterment of Wilmington and New Hanover County as a whole, the world as a whole versus promoting the segregated part of it.

They knew we had to work within an integrated society. We didn't have a choice. Those teachers taught us that … learn all you can learn, be the best that you can be because you’re going into a society where you’re going to be challenged not so much because of what you know, but purely because you are the young black man or Negro as it was at that time.

So here again they took the negative and made it a positive for us. I think had we had the integration at that time, they would have promoted diversity because they would have seen the positive in it. There are a lot of things that we are achieving today maybe had we still had that quality of teaching then in an integrated setting, an educational setting, more changes and more acceptance of diversity would be in the community today.

Johnson: I know during the 4th of July, the Williston Alumni Association usually has the mix at old Williston. Can you tell me something about the mix, what they usually do?

Byrd: The past few years I haven’t been able to attend because of family commitments with July the 4th. The couple that I did attend, it was reminiscent of the old prom days and seeing your friends that you graduated from high school with, some in my case that I hadn’t seen since 1968. It was interesting to see them now and in some cases their families at some of these settings and to catch up on where you are and what you’re doing as well as some of those who graduated before me.

It was networking. It was good, plain, simple networking on where folks were and what they were doing and who was relocating back home and the skills and exposures that we brought back to Wilmington and to get involved with the community through different boards and commissions, to help make Wilmington a better place.

Johnson: Now is your class organize, do they have reunions?

Byrd: We have some meetings. Hank Brown, I guess would be one of the key contacts and Audrey Gaines, were and I think still are two of the key spearheads for contact with the class of ’68.

Johnson: What and you may have already touched this to, but what does Williston mean to you when you hear the word Williston?

Byrd: Can do, achieve.

Johnson: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about Williston, about yourself?

Byrd: Well, I’m sure like a number of alumni we share with our families and when I say our families, my children, what Williston meant. I shared earlier; maybe in more detail with them, walk them through Taylor Homes and talk about how or where we would meet different friends and how we would walk down 10th Street or 5th Street to walk over to Williston. Share with them the walk and they were thinking, “Dad, you guys didn't ride? Nobody drove?” (laughter).

Cody: No cell phone (laughter).

Byrd: Right, no cell phone, we walked. Then if you were lucky enough, you may have had the nickel or the dime to catch the special across town to Williston and of course that was us coming from the north side of Williston to the south side. In a number of cases that dime, you thought about buying that honey bun from Williston Junior High and I’m sure you’ve heard a number of stories about the honey buns.

Cody: We haven’t, tell us about that.

Johnson: No, one has mentioned them.

Byrd: You’re kidding… Williston Junior High, the dieticians and cooks we had over there made some of the best homemade cinnamon buns and bread pudding you know, back in that day. That was your treat after school. They sold them half price and you could stop over there in your way home. You would either buy the bread pudding or the cinnamon roll, or the honey bun and you would eat that walking back from Williston back over to Taylor Homes.

You had your friends that you picked up along the way in walking back home. They dropped off along the way. It could be two, three, four of us, whatever and we would share that honey bun and water or soda, whatever we were able to get. It was the friendships, and I’ll say lifelong friendships, that were established in that walk.

As I told my kids, you know, I said we didn't think about it. You did it. That was how you got to school, you walked. Again you picked up your friends along the way and for me it started out with my sister Sandra, with her and some of her friends and they would pick up her friends and the little brothers and that’s how I got to know some of them.

Then it was friends like, one of her girlfriends Minnie Monroe, who her older brother is Lee Monroe who’s Dr. Monroe now, president of Paul Quinn and that’s how I got to know Lee and we became friends and later we both had the pleasure of serving in Governor Jim Martin’s cabinet in Raleigh and we’re still friends. It’s those types of relationships that you built.

You know he was one of the big boys that lived over in Taylor Homes and they would let us on the court to play basketball, and they got tired. I would tease Lee that I’m back to haunt you (laughter). But it’s that type of camaraderie. It was big family, extended family. That’s one of the things Williston was because at that point regardless of where you lived in New Hanover County, your high school was Williston.

When you left Wilmington, be it military and college, I can speak to that, if you were from home, home in Wilmington, you know, everything was immediately okay. You identified, you assisted. You know home boy or home girl and that had a totally different meaning then than it does today. If it was making sure they were fed, if they needed a place to stay, it was that network through all of the campuses. I understand from friends that were in the military that that same camaraderie was there.

Johnson: You talked about having older siblings as well as younger siblings. Did you see a difference in the education received at Williston as opposed to the education received at other schools?

Byrd: I would say with my older sisters, Delores, who was also a Williston graduate and Sandra and myself, I’m going to say it was more focused because the reality of we had to come outside and deal in a segregated society and it was about survival. There were skills that were taught other than just the book learning. It was in addition how to apply these. But there were some social skills that were taught to be able to achieve.

Where as with my younger brother and sisters, they felt they would immediately be accepted for who they were and whatever the education piece that they brought to the table. I don’t think they were really prepared from the high school sense if I can compare them graduating from Laney or my kids from Hanover with what they truly had to deal with because the reality is there is still some racial prejudices out there that we have to deal with and it’s how you confront that can truly impact your success or failure in life. And that’s knowing what I know.

So I think yes, Williston, those teachers knew what we had to deal with because they were the adults. They had to fight that battle to get where they were and they were preparing us to learn and achieve.

Cody: You can maybe talk about it more openly in the Williston situation maybe than you could in an integrated..?

Byrd: No, it was a fact then. It was a matter of fact. Now the question becomes how are you going to get beyond that. If it’s getting your television repaired, shop as we called it, vocational rehabilitation I guess is the term today, where people like Leon Devine with his radio and T.V. repair. That started an interest in T.V. repair then and maybe going on to Cape Fear Community College.

But say you were laying bricks like a classmate of mine, Albert Gaines, and his brothers and dad and all; they had a brick masonry business. It’s the same thing, they also taught drafting, electronics, to have your own and to be able to repair it without having to wait until someone else decided to take time to repair yours or maybe not even repair it properly.

Cody: Be self-sufficient.

Byrd: Self-sufficiency is where I was going with that. It encouraged us to be entrepreneurs as a part of self-sufficiency. I think of the stores on Fourth Street back in that day, Red Cross Street, the different businesses we had in the communities that we don’t have today, but it was about self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship and bartering.

A lot of bartering was done then. It wasn’t unusual for my father to receive meats, milk, old-fashioned milk fresh from the cow with the cream on top in a quart jar for this individual to get a haircut or his kids to get haircuts. So versus paying, they bartered for goods. They brought in the mustard greens, the collard greens, the homemade sausage, the pork chops, the chickens, the different things. You know you traded off.

So he had a service that he provided as a barber, they had goods where they raised these crops in Castle Hayne, Wrightsboro, and the places back then we called the country (laughter) because we thought we were city folks. So it was that type of relationship. He with other businessmen, Tom Jervay may stop in to get a haircut, French I. Davis, who had Davis Funeral Home at the time, Herbert Bell Shaw and different ones. You know, they were all tied in by being black or Negro businessmen at that point in time.

So again it was networking, not so much the monies, but exchanging these services. That’s where the social clubs of the day, the Masons and Shriners and Elks and all. Here again these were benevolent fraternal organizations. Again it was about self-help, benevolence.

Cody: Where was your father’s barbershop?

Byrd: James Alley which is between Fourth and Fifth, Nixon Street. It was right there on the corner of that alley. I spent many days cleaning that barbershop up and only job I’d ever been fired from. My dad fired me because I wanted to raise the price on my shoeshine from 10 cents to 15 cents because the guys on the corner, the street corners that were shining shoes were charging 15 cents. Typically they would get a quarter, a 10-cent tip.

I wanted to make more money and just as much as they did. I made the mistake at that time of telling him that, after he told me no, that I couldn’t, that it was my shoeshine stand and my polish and brush and these other things and I felt like I should be able to raise it and he politely told me that when he goes to the barbershop the next day to have my shoeshine stand, my shoe box, my polish and all of my other things out of his barbershop.

Cody: Your lease was up.

Byrd: Exactly, I was out and if I expected to eat in his house and for his roof to be over my head, that his barbershop better be cleaned up each night. And it didn't take much convincing. I made the mistake of challenging him before and he reached me through another end of my body (laughter). I learned a lesson from that because I encountered obstacles and had polish taken and shoe brushes taken from me working out on the street corners or people not paying you that I would not have encountered had I stayed in his barber shop.

And those fellows that got their haircut, they’d tip me. But again I didn't see the dangers and the obstacles because I was in the protective environment of the barbershop. But going out into the real world, you know, I learned real quick what I was being protected from unknowingly to me. He did let a friend of mine come in to shine his shoes and he let him charge 15 cents. And I still had to clean the barbershop for him.

When the shoe brushes and different things were taken, I had to replace them with my money. Again in his own way he let me know, that wouldn’t have necessarily happened here if you had stayed in the barbershop. You didn't understand the risks and liabilities of starting your own company. I remember him saying ‘company’ and I thought I’m just shining shoes, but he was instilling me that thought, that dream of why not having my own someday and there were risks and obstacles taken with it.

The old adage ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,’ I learned that early. It’s one I carry on with my kids. Today I have an oldest daughter who through downsizing was laid off in June and I challenged Carla to take that energy and anger and frustration to start her own business. I’m proud to say that she just shared with me maybe two or three weeks ago she has got a contract with BET where she’s working.

She’s done some work for them in Los Angeles, Toronto, Canada, Atlanta, the MBA All-Stars, the Stevie Wonder Walk of Fame and now she’ll have her own this October activity with Jackie Joyner-Kersey and some others through Essence and BET. So it’s about that generation, she and her sister and my son, to encourage them to move forward.

That’s again going back to, with the family values that were taught and then the values through church, St. Mark’s Episcopal and Williston Senior High School.

Cody: Now you said you went to A&T.

Byrd: North Carolina A&T, right.

Cody: What did you study there?

Byrd: Accounting. The first degree was accounting at Kitrell Junior College and after completing two years at Kitrell, ’68-’70, then I transferred over to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Aggies, and business there and received the Bachelor’s in business there. I did further study later on at Bradley University when I was out in the Midwest at the University of Illinois and back here at home at Chapel Hill and Shaw Divinity School.

Cody: Lifelong learner sounds like (laughter).

Byrd: Lifelong learner and now in the present job with EEOC and HUD, you know, constantly keeping up with the federal laws and the details of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 as amended and again teaching. That’s the education outreach piece.

Cody: Did you go to the, was it college day at Williston?

Johnson: Some other people had talked about having…that A&T would have college day.

Byrd: Recruitment, right.

Johnson: And that students from Williston would go up to A&T to see the campus.

Byrd: Okay, back then I did not and quite honestly I do not remember if we had that. The schools came down to Williston and at that point in time didn't have the monies to attend A&T, but there were some grants and loans available and the opportunity afforded me at that time was Kitrell and that’s why I’m excited about being on Cape Fear Community College’s Board of Trustees and today I’m vice-president of the Community College Trustees Association for the State of North Carolina.

Because here again everyone when they come out of high school aren’t necessarily ready for that four year school, but here’s where a community college can save a lot of our kids. It can encourage them to complete high school because everyone doesn’t necessarily need liberal arts and sciences. There’s some technical and Voc Ed skills…

Cody: We need to have people with those skills.

Byrd: Exactly and so it’s a two prong attack there, but Kitrell was it, grants were there, work-study.

Cody: Where did you work?

Byrd: When I was at Kitrell, I was hall monitor, restroom cleanup person, mop the floors, wax the floors, a little of it all, wherever thy needed you, rake the yard, cut the grass, whatever.

Cody: What needs to be done, right (laughter).

Byrd: What needs to be done, you did it… washed the cars at the school, but again it was another nurturing environment. It was a little small college, it was black. Again it was that nurturing environment that I felt prepared me for a large university like A&T when I got there and I felt like I had an advantage because with the small classrooms you had more focused training and learning and hands on whereas you go to a class back then at Kitrell maybe 25 people in your class to a class at A&T that had 100.

You could get lost. So those skills they taught me at Kitrell I applied at A&T and made sure I met my professors and again making sure they knew I was doing my best to learn and enjoyed it, the two years there and making sure that all of my hours were received and accepted at A&T and I did graduate in ’72. So even going to a junior college, I was able to graduate on time and that’s with working. I share that with my kids, they must work, have an investment in their education.

Cody: Good advice.

Johnson: Well I want to thank you for coming and sharing with us today.

Byrd: Well I apologize for being so quiet and reserved (laughter). I’m an introverted kind of guy (laughter).

Johnson: Thank you again. Sue and I have really enjoyed talking with you today.

Byrd: It was my pleasure, Joyce.

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