A friend for life|Chance meeting was the start of good times

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 14, 2010

She was looking for three college boys for dates for three of her favorite students, and Mrs. Josephine Alexander wanted to know if I would be willing — and also recruit two of my Mississippi College buddies.

Of course, nobody dared say “no” to Mrs. A. She described the girls, and I had first pick. I chose the one who was short, plump, smart and delightful. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made, for that was 50 years ago, and my blind date, Charlie Moore Gholson, has been one of my closest friends ever since.

Charlie was a college freshman at All Saints’ Episcopal School. She had come to Vicksburg two years earlier, in 1957, enrolled in the high school department and remembers falling in love with Vicksburg immediately, feeling at home “the minute I crossed that river.”

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Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

That’s quite a confession, coming from a Texan whose family settled on the Brazos in 1823 with Stephen F. Austin when Spain still owned Mexico, and whose kin include two of the Republic’s presidents.

That was her “first tour of duty” here. After All Saints’ she went home, graduated from the University of Houston, married, raised three children and, when she got a divorce in 1986, many friends here urged her to come back to Vicksburg. She bought a Baum Street house and has been here ever since — the first member of her family permanently to leave the Lone Star State.

But between diplomas there was also a summer session at Mississippi College. Charlie and I both smoked “because we were cool,” so a no-smoking rule for MC girls didn’t faze her. Puffing away between classes one day, someone who seemed to have authority told her she couldn’t smoke on campus.

That’s when Charlie assumed her Mexican role, speaking only Spanish and not understanding English and even offering the objecting person a cigarette. Bewildered and disgusted, he gave up trying to reason with one who must have been a foreign exchange student.

It was at All Saints’, though, that she became Charlie after she appeared as Charlie the repairman in a skit. It stuck, is even in the yearbook and, besides, she said, her real name is a bit big — Dorethea — and that’s with the Spanish pronunciation. She got invitations to join the Merchant Marines, the Air Force and the Army.

No one stands out more than Mrs. A among Charlie’s many friends: “She was the best. If you ever needed a friend, you had one — unless she didn’t like you — and then woe unto them. She was not a woman to anger in any way.”

Mrs. A was from Yokena “and knew everything and everybody you needed to know — and those you didn’t need to know. I spent a lot of time with her.”

Charlie was talking to Mrs. A years later, recalling, “I have dieted most of my teenage and adult life — not with any tremendous success, but I was dieting — and I told Mrs. A I wasn’t as fat as I used to be. She said, ‘Fat! Why, Charlie, I never thought of you as fat. You always looked like you were made to commemorate something.’ That probably did more for my self-esteem than any other single remark that has ever been made She was, indeed, wonderful.”

When Charlie moved to Vicksburg in 1986, she brought with her many treasures and possessions, including boxes of heavy, heavy books — all of which she had the movers to take upstairs. One of the workers, exhausted after a trip or two, asked her if she had read all those books, and she assured him she had. “Then can I ask you something else?” he said. “You gonna read ’em all again?”

Charlie bought the old Sylvan Myer home, built about 1900, and with it came “absolutely the best neighbor,” Celeste Ford. After noting signs that said “Yard of the Month” — and neither of them had ever gotten one as they weren’t garden club members — they decided to organize their own club. The Baum Street Late Bloomers was duly formed, a sign donated, and Celeste and Charlie took turns displaying it, until one day Charlie said she had seen another neighbor, Carol Campbell, “looking over here longingly,” so they decided to award it to her. Carol, however, soon returned it.

Restoring the Baum Street house was a real challenge. The front had a stucco facade which the neighbors called “Taco Casa.” Charlie had the exterior returned to its original look, and on the inside she did a lot of the work herself, hanging all the wallpaper, which was no small chore for someone who is a little over 5 feet tall. “It’s a long way up and down in a house with 11-foot ceilings. Hitler was a paper hanger. I can see what made him mean,” she said.

Charlie loves to cook and learned by hanging out in the kitchens of various family members who didn’t cook, but had cooks. She loves to eat and loves to feed people and once had a restaurant where she learned a lot, “like I never want to have another restaurant.”

She’s often found in the kitchen preparing for some event and cooked large amounts for the troops when the Old Court House sponsored re-enactments. Oh, for a camera the day I walked into my kitchen and Charlie was cooking a huge pot of beans! My stove is about 4 inches higher than normal, so Charlie was standing on a stool — stirring the pot with a short-handled boat paddle!

She’s always been active and supportive of history-focused organizations. She’s president of the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation, former vice president and now on the advisory council for the Old Court House Museum, and is on the board of the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation. She’s not just on the list — she’s a working member.

I remember one incident at the Balfour Ball when I, playing the part of Dr. Balfour, gave a plea for the ladies to donate their jewelry for the Southland. (All ladies had been furnished some costume jewelry for the occasion), and when I got to Charlie she pulled off her wedding ring and announced, “I think it will be more valuable to the Confederacy than it has been for me.” I kept a straight face and mumbled something about the Widow Gholson, “who has only recently lost her husband.”

It was also at the Balfour Ball when it was learned that Yankees were headed to Vicksburg and Gen. M.L. Smith ordered everyone to leave the city, and Charlie quipped, “It looks to me like it’s a good time to buy property.”

Charlie should be queen of the quips and one-liners. When the checker at the old A&P on Grove and Mission once asked her if she preferred paper or plastic bags, she had an answer for the serious young man who didn’t laugh much. He turned bright red when she told him, “Either will do. I’m bisacktual.” She ranks it as the best pun she’s ever made.

One of her best friends was the late Hobbs Freeman.

She met him at my house at a weekend party. He had come up from Fayette, she was visiting from Texas “and we had made a late night of it,” she said. “Hobbs and I both tended to drink a bit — it was pardonable as we were both going through divorces. The next morning, Gordon — good Godfearing, church-going man that he is — got up and announced that he was going to church and wanted us to go, and Hobbs being the perfect guest planned to go. I said, ‘Gordon, I’d go but I don’t have anything to wear to church.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you wear what you had on last night?’ And Hobbs said, ‘She can’t wear that to church. It’s been sinned in!’ We became immediate friends.”

Charlie loves music, claims she knows the words to every song ever written, “but I don’t sing so good and they won’t let me.” She recalls a time when she was in the junior high choir at St. Stephens in Texas, and when they sang “There is a Balm in Gilead,” she exploded like a bomb. She was just looking for an excuse to get out of the choir anyway.

She’s never lived anywhere else that has so many elections as Mississippi, she said, and among the things she has voted on include continuing pensions for Confederate widows, and another was defining the state line between Mississippi and Alabama which “surely they should have known. I’ve crossed it numerous times.” On answering a telephone political poll once, when asked what quality she looked for most in a candidate, she told the woman, “I tend to choose the one who is not currently under indictment.” The astounded pollster turned to a worker and said, “You’re not going to believe this one.”

Charlie’s work record has swung like a pendulum, from working as a cook on a towboat to operating an antique shop,  My Great Aunt’s Attic, and has also been a social worker.

Her passion, though, is historic preservation and she has been “redoing old houses since I was 25.” It runs in the family, for they still own an 1823 cabin on the ranch in South Texas. Her family, she said, “just never sold anything” and her grandfather, when mayor of Richmond, Texas, saved several buildings, “mainly because something happened there. His home is now the museum for the city of Richmond.”

Charlie has her serious side, and she couldn’t be more so than when talking about her work on the Architectural Review Board for the city. She’s the longest-serving member, having been appointed by Mayor Robert M. Walker.

“Anybody who has been here a long time has seen what wonderful things we have lost in this town,” she said. A photo of a grand old building, torn down in order to build a service station, “makes me want to cry.”

“We’re not just sitting in judgment on your taste,” she explained, “for we have guidelines and the historic zoning ordinance. Those guidelines prohibit the board from imposing personal tastes on anyone. We’ve got to hang on to what we can. Occasionally, you come across something that’s a total lost cause — but then I think about places that have been far from a lost cause that have been torn down. Shamrock, the Porterfield mansion, is an example.”

She noted that the Architectural Review Board sometimes is the object of criticism, but said, “I can’t help it. I’m just doing my job” — and it’s truly a public service position, for there is no pay.

Of the many projects with which she has been involved, her favorite has been the restoration of the Cobb House for the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation, “being allowed to do the whole house. I ‘hired on’ Hobbs, who made as much as I did.”

But she couldn’t resist another quip: “I’ve not done too many things shameful. And they were fun.”

If I had to drive across country, or travel around the world, and could take only one person with me, it would be Charlie Gholson, for time always flies when you’re having fun.