Chapel Hill: Opinion

Mark Schultz: Lunch with the Rev. Robert Seymour

He sees me enter the restaurant and leans forward, beckoning.

He extends his hand. I toss my coat and scarf across the booth. His eyes are rheumy, but his gaze focused. His Casper-white hair is combed impeccably straight back.

The Rev. Robert Seymour will be 90 this year. He’s asked me to Breadman’s to talk about something. I didn’t ask what. Some folks, when they ask, you just go.

His wife of 55 years, Pearl, died three years ago. The senior center on Homestead Road is named after the couple. He tells me she had dementia. I know a little about that and ask if he was her main caregiver. He says yes, and when I say that’s hard, he nods.

The Charles House Eldercare Center will be moving to the edge of the Carol Woods campus, he says, and adds what great work they do. This must be what he wanted to talk about, but he quickly moves on.

He mentions the recent exhibit at the library honoring Howard Lee, Chapel Hill’s first and only black mayor.

The exhibit grew out of another meeting at Breadman’s, he explains. A gathering of the town’s surviving mayors and Anne and Billy Barnes, the former state legislator and her photographer husband.

They had hoped the library would house the exhibit permanently. But the director needed the space, so the exhibit’s been put “on wheels,” he says, and will be making the rounds of schools and such.

So this is what he wanted to talk about, I figure. But only indirectly.

From the pulpit

Seymour spent 30 years at Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, leading the struggle to integrate and increase the role of women in Baptist churches. His Yale Divinity School web page quotes Dean Smith, a parishioner, saying, “Bob was brilliant in communicating his intelligent thoughts from the pulpit. ... I was nurtured bythe ministry of Bob Seymour.”

People today don’t realize what Lee’s 1969 election meant, Seymour says, or what Chapel Hill was like back then.

I tell him I’ve read John Ehle’s “The Free Men,” about the civil rights protests in Chapel Hill. I share the anecdote about the white woman squatting over a demonstrator and urinating.

Yes, Seymour says, punctuating the air with his BLT. “Most people have not read Ehle’s book and know very very little about this ‘liberal’ place,” he says.

And now he’s reached his point: The town and the university, because you can’t separate them, need a place to tell their story.

The Town Council is currently discussing what to do with the old Town Hall at 110 W. Rosemary St. The homeless shelter will be moving, and the council is considering future uses for the building.

Seymour thinks it would be the perfect new home for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Center and a town museum.

Yes, we had a museum before, and its closing four years ago, after the museum board asked for more money than the town was willing to give, has many people still bitter.

“That was so short-sighted,” Seymour says. “There’s a need out there.”

But on this, the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement, he says, the shelter’s move presents a new opportunity.

As he speaks, I glance at the wall to my right.

“I love UNC,” reads a quote from Eve Carson, the student body president who was murdered seven years ago.

“But what makes UNC truly special is not our beautiful campus, our distinguished reputation or even our basketball team,” the quote continues. “It’s us – the student body – who make UNC what it is.”

Seymour does not ask that the newspaper support his proposal. He asks only that we cover the issue fully and fairly.

“I feel like this is a unique opportunity,” he says. “I feel a sense of urgency.”

We begin to say goodbye. Seymour reaches, then realizes he has left his cane in the car.

I offer my hand to help him up.

His grip is strong.

Mark Schultz is the editor of The Chapel Hill News.