Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Robert Lindsey Watlington, Jr. (1924-2003)

The following by Lucindy Willis appeared July 2008 in the Yancey House Restaurant online newsletter:

Letter from the Chef

At 6 a.m. a few mornings ago, Michael & I headed out the door to work. Instead of the wall of hot humidity that has greeted us every morning for the last month (reminding me why I do not miss living in Louisiana), we found the air cool & crisp. A bit begrudgingly, I drove to the restaurant, whipped up a dessert & a few sauces & wrote notes to the day crew. Two hours later, however, I found myself driving back home, & spending the next few hours checking the tomatoes, peppers, & blackberry plants, putting a few more Better Boys into the ground, & weeding a bit. It was a perfect morning, one that offered the hope of future veggies & wonderful memories of a gentleman farmer.

Michael & I bought our property on Farmer Lake in 1991. The next few years were spent clearing a place for a house & putting in a road to the lake. Although never having put my hand to the plough, I knew the moment I stepped onto the land that I wanted to farm.

In search of a mentor, I stopped by a small white house on Hwy. 158 with a sign -- "TOMATOES" -- in the front yard. Around back, a gentleman w/ honest blue eyes & a shock of white hair sat next to a tower of tomatoes & cantaloupes. R.L. (Bob) Watlington weighed my selection of tomatoes but, before doing so, guessed the weight & guessed it exactly. I was impressed. Was this a magic trick? Had he tampered with the scales?

The next day & the days following, I stopped by to chat & watch in amazement as R.L. continued to guess the correct weight of my purchases. It took some time for me to soldier my courage, but finally I confessed the reason why I had been dropping by every day: "I want to be a farmer. Would you be willing to mentor me?" He studied me with bemusement & then asked what I did for a living. Fearing he would not take me seriously if I revealed that I taught English at NCSU, I instead told him I was a carpenter's helper. Not exactly a lie . . . not exactly the truth. Michael & I were finishing the inside of the house. Guessing (correctly) I might not have been forthright, he asked to see my palms. With trepidation, I turned my palms up. He looked at them closely . . . examining the splinters & calluses. Although I kept my head down, I felt those steely blue eyes taking me in, knowing the truth, but understanding the dream. Suddenly, he smiled & said, "Yes."

Before he died a few years later, I had the pleasure of his guidance in putting in my raised beds & in occasionally helping him in his garden. Every moment was pure joy. At the end of that first summer, I had to confess my true vocation. He understood, but after that he repeatedly took pleasure in telling me that I might have had to go to school 8 -- 10 years to get a Ph.D. but it took 20 -- 30 years to become a farmer. How true.

Lucindy Willis, Ph.D.
Chef / Co-Owner Yancey House Restaurant


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