Doris Betts, acclaimed Southern writer and longtime UNC professor, dies

jstancill@newsobserver.com April 21, 2012 

  • Funeral arrangements Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Pittsboro Presbyterian Church, where Betts was an elder. Burial will follow in the churchyard. Arrangements are by Hall-Wynne Funeral Home, Pittsboro. Memorials may be made to UNC Hospice, Box 1077, Pittsboro, NC 27312 or to Pittsboro Presbyterian Church, Box 713, Pittsboro, NC 27312.

Doris Betts, the celebrated Southern writer who for decades nurtured others as a creative writing professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, died Saturday at the age of 79.

Betts passed away at her home, Araby Farm, near Pittsboro, more than a year after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

The author of six novels and three collections of short stories, among other works, Betts was sometimes compared to the great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor.

Her novel “Souls Raised from the Dead” won the Southern Book Award and was named one of the 20 best books of 1994 by The New York Times. Her most widely known short story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” was made into an Academy Award-winning film and a musical that won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1998.

She received a slew of other honors, including the N.C. Award for Literature, the John Dos Passos Prize and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Medal of Merit for her short stories. She was a three-time winner of the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction from the N.C. Literary and Historical Association.

Despite the long list of honors, Betts was anything but uppity. Those who knew her described her as homegrown, joyous, witty and wise.

For 32 years, she taught fiction writing at UNC-CH and was beloved by aspiring authors who came through the program. When she won UNC-CH’s highest award in 1999, her colleague Marianne Gingher wrote: “No one who knows her life’s work and is familiar with the marvelous pantheon of living North Carolina writers would contest her place as First Lady if not President of them all.”

Betts was a legendary figure at the university, which established a $1 million endowed professorship in her name in 1998. Her love for books and writers was infectious, and she helped her students believe that they had potential.

The late Max Steele, former head of the creative writing program, once said she was the most popular teacher there. “I could never get into her office to talk with her,” he said. “There was always such a line of students waiting to see her that I had to go back to my office and phone her.”

Tara Powell was one of those students who sat outside Room 230 at UNC-CH’s Greenlaw Hall, anticipating her turn to talk to Betts. “You could hear her voice and her laughter down the halls,” said Powell, now an associate professor of English and Southern studies at the University of South Carolina.

Powell wanted to enroll at UNC-CH partly because she was awed by Betts’ work. Once there, the young undergraduate was too shy to approach the famous professor; later, though, Betts would become her mentor and Betts’ writing would be the subject of Powell’s master’s thesis. “I always felt like I had something to learn from her,” Powell said.

A source of inspiration

There were thousands of others who looked to Betts for guidance and inspiration.

Bland Simpson, UNC-CH professor and longtime colleague, said Betts managed to be warm and supportive even as she critiqued students’ work, writing “vague,” “weak” or “unbelievable” in the margins.

Students often took their problems to Betts. One might appear at her door, tearful or fretful, and would quickly be disarmed by Betts’ direct approach, Simpson said. “She’d say, ‘Who are you and what is your sad story?’ ”

She was a teacher of students, and a teacher of teachers, too. Writer Jill McCorkle, a former colleague, said she gained insight as she watched Betts work with students.

“She did so with great honesty,” McCorkle said. “She did not sugarcoat it, but she also made it so important and worthwhile in a way that I think people eagerly accepted her advice and criticism.”

And then there was Betts’ wicked sense of humor. At one point, her email address was “dragonlady@email.unc.edu,” said Bill Andrews, UNC-CH’s senior associate dean for the fine arts and humanities.

“This was a tremendously ironic title to give yourself,” Andrews said. “She was the opposite of that.”

Others remembered moments when Betts delivered a line like no one else.

“As good Southern women we tend to say things like, ‘Now I don’t mean to be ugly ...’ ” McCorkle said, recalling that Southern euphemism that often precedes a disparaging remark or a delicious slice of gossip. “I remember one time, I leaned in to Doris and I said, ‘Now I don’t mean to be ugly ...’ and she said, ‘Like hell you don’t.’ ”

“We got a big laugh out of that, and I said, ‘You’re right!’ ” McCorkle recalled. “I never say that but what I don’t think of her. She just blew the whistle in a hurry.”

Humble beginnings

There was no pretense to Betts, perhaps due to her humble roots.

She was born Doris June Waugh in Statesville, the only child of mill workers. She attended UNC-Greensboro, where as a student she wrote a collection of short stories and won a college fiction award from Mademoiselle Magazine. It would be the first of many prizes.

She married Lowry Betts, a lawyer who would later serve as chief judge in Orange and Chatham counties. The two had met as teenagers at a summer church retreat and kept in touch through letters. “He was the smartest boy I’d ever met,” Doris Betts said in a 2007 interview. “I thought, I’ll keep this one.” The couple had three children and shared a love of raising Arabian horses on their property.

She had a stint as a newspaper reporter before arriving at UNC-CH in 1966 to fill in as a lecturer for one semester. At 34, Betts hadn’t finished her college degree, but she already had published two novels and a collection of short stories.

She would spend her career at the university, where she helped build its reputation as a top-notch incubator for young writers. She served in a variety of roles at UNC-CH, where she directed the freshman writing program and the undergraduate honors program, was an assistant dean and in 1982 became the first woman to chair the faculty.

Despite her star status, Betts never hesitated to roll up her sleeves for mundane chores that were necessary to run the academic enterprise. She oversaw the first-year composition program and took on committee assignments with gusto. If the chancellor needed her to speak at a fundraiser, she was there. It wasn’t unusual for her to go straight from her classes to a university event and then to an evening appearance at a book club or a library in a distant North Carolina town.

Her devotion to the university was evident during the past few months.

Sometime in the 1970s, Boston University approached her and asked for her papers as part of a growing collection of records of academic women. She said yes, she once explained, because they asked.

But as her health declined, she desperately regretted the decision. So her friends and colleagues mounted a campaign and a legal process to transfer the papers from Boston to the archives in Chapel Hill.

“That was one of her goals,” said friend Carol Reuss, a retired professor of journalism at UNC-CH. “She would not be happy dying without knowing that those papers were back here.”

When the boxes arrived, she was too weak to visit the library, so the archivists took some of the papers to her Pittsboro farm, where she lived with her dogs Toby and Billy and a horse named Surprise.

Extraordinary situations

Her small-town upbringing infused her literary sensibility. She created ordinary characters and then took them on extraordinary, sometimes painful, journeys. One of her novels, “Souls Raised from the Dead,” opens with a vivid description of a chicken truck accident – like one she once encountered on U.S. 15-501 – in which a highway patrolman chases down the loose chickens. That character must eventually cope with the illness and death of his child.

In an excerpted interview published in The News & Observer in 1994, Betts talked about her book and explained that it was an exploration of how God can allow the innocent to suffer.

“I always am interested in whether or not you can deal with what I think of as the big questions at the level of ordinary working people. It seems to me that that’s essential in fiction in America,” she said. “If you really want to ask the questions that Job asked, why shouldn’t you ask them of a highway patrolman, a beautician, a shoe salesman at Belk’s ...?”

Late in her life, she had to travel the same road as the patrolman. Her daughter, LewEllyn, died of cancer last year, around the time Betts herself was diagnosed. Her husband died in 2007.

She is survived by sons, David Lowry Betts and wife Catherine of Pittsboro, and Erskine Moore Betts and wife Mary of Apex, and son-in-law Thomas Mroz of Clemson, S.C.; and grandchildren Anna Josephine Betts of Pittsboro and Matthew Palmer Betts and William Alston Betts, both of Apex.

In November, Betts will be honored when the South Atlantic Modern Language Association meets in the Triangle. One session will focus on Betts’ fiction, with four of her former students and admirers presenting papers on her work.

Joe Flora, UNC-CH professor of English emeritus, had told Betts about it last fall. The event would be wonderful, he said to her, and if she could come, it would be special.

But Betts, always dedicated to the truth, responded, “I will be there in spirit.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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