The Life And Times Of Wayne Lowe

It was 2005 at the annual Gridiron Club Dinner in Washington D.C. President George W. Bush was there as was the capital’s full constellation of dignitaries and luminaries – senators, congressmen, judges, diplomats, bureaucrats, world-famous journalists – and Wayne Lowe of Westfield, Stokes County, North Carolina. Wayne entered the grand ballroom at the Capital Hilton that night, proud and confident, taking it all in with one sweeping glance. Just a few steps behind him was the young freshman senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, glad handing and greeting giddy admirers. As Wayne and his dinner party, led by his CEO son, Ken, wound their way through the crowd, he spied a familiar face. It was Sam Donaldson, known as the foghorn-voiced White House correspondent for ABC News. “Sam!” Wayne bellowed out in his deepest southern drawl, besting even Donaldson’s vocal prowess. “Sam Donaldson!” Without hesitation, Wayne, adorned in white tie and tails, strode up to Sam, and extended his huge right hand. Donaldson rose to greet him, struggling with all his might to remember where he’d met this tall, distinguished looking gentleman before. The fact is, he’d never met him, nor would he ever have had occasion to. For one priceless moment, the irrepressible Sam Donaldson was speechless. “Wayne Lowe. Westfield, North Carolina,” said Wayne, by way of introduction. “Good to meet you!” In that instant, Donaldson learned all he needed to know about Wayne Lowe of Westfield, North Carolina. This is a man who has never met a stranger in his life. This is a man – gregarious, friendly, hail fellow well met – who is every bit as comfortable in high society Washington as he is regaling his buddies with stories at Lowe’s Auto Sales back in Westfield. This is Wayne Lowe, who has lived his entire life in the same house in the Westfield Community, just across the Surry County line. This is Wayne Lowe, loving husband to wife, Barbara; doting and proud father to sons, Ken and Bruce; determined tobacco farmer; topnotch car salesman; NASCAR fanatic; unparalleled shade-tree mechanic; and storyteller extraordinaire. This is Wayne Lowe, who today celebrates his 90th birthday. This is Wayne Lowe, a man who has led an extraordinary life and made a lasting impression on all who know him. So, who is Wayne Lowe? Well, he’s the salt of the earth. He’s the backbone of America we always hear about – one of those sturdy, honest, hard-working people who make this country great. Wayne’s story begins on August 18, 1928, a hot and sultry Tuesday, about what you’d expect in North Carolina in late summer. His mother and father, Roy and Hattie Lowe Inman, were very young and life was hard. So, Hattie’s parents – Wayne’s grandparents – adopted Wayne at an early age and raised him as their own. Alice and Luther Lowe were well known by folks in Stokes and Surry counties. Just steps from their home was the general store and gas station Luther had opened and operated. Luther was a true entrepreneur and, the story goes, a snappy dresser. In front of the store were the hand operated gas pumps he’d had installed, among the first of their kind in the county. Luther also was the resident Justice of the Peace, so the store doubled as a wedding parlor, court room and legal office. The Lowe’s regularly took in boarders who, along with Wayne and Luther, benefited greatly from Alice’s excellent cooking. Alice scrupulously guarded her favorite recipes, even from her closest relatives and friends. The Lowes had big hearts. It wasn’t unusual for Luther and Alice to open their home to parentless children, providing them respite from the dreariness and despair of life in the local orphanage. For Wayne, the Lowe household was fertile ground. He grew and thrived. It was during those formative years that Wayne learned to appreciate and enjoy the company of others. Between the boarders, rambunctious children and the steady stream of customers, constituents and local sages who dropped in at the general store, life for young Wayne was bustling and full of people. He learned from all the different life experiences they shared. Coming of age, and as a young man, he was well-prepared to set out on his own. It was at this point in Wayne’s story, that Barbara Love (that’s right, Love is her maiden name!) enters the picture. Married for a remarkable 72 years and seven months, Barbara truly was Wayne’s first and only love. They met on a blind date, but not without a little drama right at the very start. Wayne showed up for the date only to find that another suitor had arrived as well. It seems Barbara’s best friend had arranged for another blind date for the same night. Wayne took one look at Barbara and was immediately smitten. The way Wayne saw it, he only had one option. He had to “slip shuck” the guy, he would always say, which is good old North Carolina slang for completely ignoring a rival suitor and proceeding as if you’re the one and only intended date. The tactic worked, and the couple became “Wayne and Barbara” from that day forward. Their love for each other knows no bounds. They have been partners in all they accomplished together, but most important, they are best of friends. Not too long after that blind date Wayne and Barbara eloped to South Carolina and were married. America was basking in the post-World War II euphoria of the late 1940s and early 1950s as they set up housekeeping and started a family. Ken was the firstborn, followed by his brother Bruce. Wayne and Barbara worked hard to make a home for themselves and their boys in the house where Wayne was raised. Wayne supported his young family, first by raising tobacco on the Lowe family farm, and then by embracing his passion for all things automotive. Wayne loved working in his tobacco field, plowing behind a mule or riding his Allis Chalmers International tractor. There were chickens, cows and pigs, a mule named Kate (a big pet really, who loved her master very much) and the usual variety of barnyard dogs and cats. Wayne had a soft spot for the cats, including one favorite named “Sparkie.” Wayne and Sparkie, as far as anyone watching could tell, could carry on meaningful conversations. Wayne, Barbara and their boys lived off the farm, canning vegetables from the big garden they planted every year. Sometimes the garden spanned more than an acre and the arduous chore of “putting up” the harvest seemed never-ending. Wayne and Barbara were committed to living off the land and making sure the family was provided for, especially during those lean years when the tobacco crop wasn’t quite up to snuff. It was hard work, yet idyllic in its simplicity. On Sundays, they worshiped at Westfield Baptist Church, where Wayne was a long-serving deacon and is legendary for his perfect record of Sunday school attendance. The young family worked as a team and the toil had meaning and purpose. Eventually, though, a bad case of asthma forced Wayne out of the tobacco field and into the showroom selling new and used cars at Bill Simmons Ford in Pilot Mountain. Wayne found his niche and excelled. He was consistently the top salesman at Simmons and was renowned for his commitment to customer service and care. “If you make a friend you’ll make a sale, not just once but for life,” Wayne would tell Ken and Bruce. It was the kind of sage advice they’d come to expect from their father. Most of Wayne’s customers bought all their cars from him during the 18 years he worked at Simmons. They knew him as a straight shooter, a generous man, who regularly gave back to the community as a member of the Westfield Ruritan Club and as a founding member of the Westfield Volunteer Fire Department. Selling cars was a natural for Wayne. He was bitten by the car bug early in life. Growing up next to a gas station in North Carolina – the cradle of NASCAR – how could it have been otherwise? Wayne came of age and was a young man as the automobile came into its own. Also, in North Carolina and throughout the south, the first generation of stock car drivers were planting their roots. Wayne was no stranger to the moonshine runners who inspired dirt race tracks across the region. And while he never transported bootleg liquor himself, he wasn’t shy about challenging a runner whenever he encountered one on North Carolina’s backroads. He liked to test what the other guy had under the hood. “Blowing the soot out” is what he’d call it. Barbara can attest to hanging on for dear life with Wayne at the wheel, racing break-neck, door handle to door handle, with another Blue Ridge Mountain hot-rodder down a deserted two-lane blacktop. Barbara knew from their courting days that cars were important to Wayne. The first clue was the pretty Jefferson Blue, 1939 Ford Coupe that Wayne drove when they first met. His pride in that Ford was evident. In fact, while they were waiting to be married by the busy justice of the peace, Wayne convinced Barbara the extra time could best be spent washing the car. It was clear to Barbara, that cars would be a big part of hers and Wayne’s lives. (An interesting aside: Wayne had to sell that Ford one year to raise money when the tobacco crop failed. He always rued the day. Imagine his surprise and delight when Ken and Bruce presented him with the same make and model, in the same color, for his 65th birthday. Of the 11 collectable cars he owns, his 1939 Ford Coupe is the one he prizes the most.) To be clear, Wayne knows a lot more about cars than just selling them and “blowing the soot out.” He learned early on how to completely take an engine apart and put it back together. This was a skill and ritual that has spanned his entire life. Well into his 70s Wayne painstakingly restored an old Ford tractor that he’d found abandoned in a gully, mired in the mud. He towed it out, took it home and returned it to pristine condition, bolt-by-bolt. Even with the hearing problem he’s developed as he’s grown older, Wayne can still detect a sticky valve clicking from 100 feet and be able to tell you which cylinder it is to boot. He’s never lost his zeal and love for cars. Wayne has been an avid NASCAR fan from the early days when competitors drove their cars to the track, to the present day. Wayne and Barbara traveled the circuit in the 1950s, driving to every dirt track in the area. They followed the early careers of the sport’s legendary greats – Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Glen Wood and Lee Petty. On the way home, they’d stop at a local creek or stream to rinse off the grit and grime from their day at the track. As the boys grew older, and the sport matured, Saturday night races at Bowman Grey Stadium in Winston-Salem became a ritual for the entire family. Ken and Bruce embraced the sport as well and inherited Wayne’s love of cars. Today, Wayne and Ken are noted for their extensive car collection. During his 90 years, Wayne has driven or owned just about every make and model, but make no mistake, he’s a “Ford Man” through and through, and everyone in Stokes and Surry county knows it. Likewise, when it came to his choice in radio and television sets back in the day, he was strictly an “RCA Man.’’ Radio and television have played a central role in Wayne’s life. His oldest son, Ken, began his career in radio and then made a name for himself as the founder of HGTV – Home & Garden Television. Ken rose to become Chief Executive Officer of the global media company that grew out of HGTV’s success – Scripps Networks Interactive, Inc. Wayne fairly bursts with pride at Ken’s accomplishments. And it almost goes without saying that the creative spark for HGTV can be traced to Wayne’s fascination and love for electronic media. Radio and television have been ever-present in the Lowe household. Wayne and Barbara had the very first television set in Westfield. The picture was black and white, and the screen was just 12-inches square. Neighbors were far-flung in the rural North Carolina countryside, but that didn’t keep them from flocking to the Lowe household to marvel at the early telecasts. A couple decades later, neighbors flocked to Wayne’s house again when he and Barbara were the first to get a color TV. It was an RCA, of course. Wayne’s fascination with television entertainment is a direct outgrowth of his love for the movies. As a youngster, Wayne spent many Saturday mornings at the Earle Theatre in Mount Airy while his grandfather delivered milk, butter and eggs to Mrs. Lowe’s customers in town. For the nickel it cost for admission, Wayne was influenced week-after-week by the great films and immortal movie stars of the 1930s. Mostly he enjoyed the westerns and cheered on the good guys portrayed on the silver screen by the likes of Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, Gary Cooper, Richard Dix and Randolph Scott. But his favorite actor of all time, by far, was John Wayne. In Wayne Lowe’s eyes, the “Duke” could do no wrong. Like so many of his generation, television made it possible for Wayne and his family to enjoy the film and radio greats of their day from the comfort of their own living room. Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Ed Sullivan were regular fare for a rapidly growing number of American TV households. Wayne especially enjoyed Jackie Gleason and “The Honeymooners,” but “I Love Lucy,” starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, was Wayne’s and the family’s favorite. (Incidentally, like Jack Benny, Wayne claims to be eternally 39 years old.) Even with the advent of television, radio by no means lost its luster during those early days in the Lowe household. Wayne and Barbara enjoyed music of all kinds. They were just as likely to be listening to rock-and-roll as they were bluegrass and country. Their tastes in music were, and still are, truly eclectic. The family radio was often tuned to AM stations WSYD and WPAQ, and Barbara would sing along with just about every song. Together, Wayne and Barbara loved Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Rosemary Clooney and Brenda Lee, to name just a few of their favorite artists. Back then, Wayne would start each day listening to Wally Simms give the daily agricultural weather forecast on WSJS in Winston-Salem. Wayne believed that he could forecast the weather every bit as well as Wally could. In fact, his faith in his own meteorological prognosticating has never faltered. To this day he questions the accuracy – and abilities – of local TV weathercasters, despite their Doppler radar and other high-tech gadgets. As for Ken and Bruce, Wayne loved them unconditionally when they were growing up and right on into adulthood. He was their father, that’s certain, but he was a mentor as well. He was wise, giving them the freedom to develop into fine young men and encouraging them to discover for themselves what mattered most in their lives. Sometimes that meant allowing them to make mistakes and expecting them to take responsibility for the consequences. “Well son,” Wayne would say, after one of the boys would get into a bit of a fix. “You just bought yourself some more learning.” Wayne is “old school” in the best sense of what “old school” means. He taught Ken and Bruce that their word is their bond and to always treat others with respect. For Wayne, integrity is a matter of fact, and he instilled that virtue in his sons. For the longest time, he paid for everything he bought in cash and had no interest in getting a credit card. Barbara, who was manager of the local bank, finally convinced him to carry one, but the truth is, he’s never been comfortable using it. Most of the time it stays tucked away in his wallet, never to see the light of day. As time went by, Ken and Bruce grew up, graduated from high school and went on to college. There was never a question that higher education was in the boys’ future and that they would be expected to earn degrees. Wayne and Barbara had meticulously planned to make their college educations possible. Ken chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a few years later, Bruce went to North Carolina State. Wayne never misses a UNC or NC State football or basketball game. The dilemma is which team to root for when the schools play each other. The solution: Wayne cheers on the Wolfpack and Barbara roots for the Tarheels. That’s the best way, they figure, to balance the intense loyalty they feel for their sons’ respective alma maters. In the early 1980s, with both of his sons out of college and starting successful careers of their own, Wayne decided it would be a good time to retire from the Ford dealership. But retirement didn’t entirely suit him. He decided instead to go into business for himself. He opened Lowe’s Auto Sales in the very same building where his grandparents had made a living and held court so many years before. Lowe’s Auto Sales soon became a gathering spot for Wayne’s peers. It filled a social void created when men like Bill Tilley, Lock Riddle and Joe Bill Jessup closed their shops. Local sages, Wayne’s friends and acquaintances, migrated to the store to swap stories, tell tall tales and discuss North Carolina history and tradition. Wayne could tell stories along with the best of them. As a group, they loved to laugh. While Wayne held court in Westfield, Ken and Bruce went on to hugely successful careers. Ken, not coincidentally, rose through the ranks in radio and television, and Bruce was a successful sales executive for the 3M Company. Then tragedy struck. Bruce, in his prime at the young age of 48, died of a sudden heart attack. He had been spending time with his family at their seaside, island condo. His passing was unexpected and a complete shock to the family. Wayne and Barbara were devastated, as was Ken. Bruce’s passing was made even more tragic because he had been making plans to retire from 3M and return to North Carolina to be closer to Wayne and Barbara. Wayne and Barbara were inconsolable, yet mustered the strength, with Ken’s shared grief and support, to carry on. It was the darkest time of their lives. These days, even in his 90s, Wayne heads out to his garage to inspect his collection of vintage cars. A lot of the time he supervises his grandson – Brandon – whose job it is to keep the collection in tip top shape. Always an avid reader, Wayne still reads five newspapers a day and never misses local and national television newscasts. He watches 24-hour cable news channels religiously to keep up with current events and the latest topic of debate. His favorite president? Ronald Regan. He still reminisces about the trip to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum he and Barbara took with Ken a few years back. It’s a pilgrimage he’ll always remember. There’s been a lot of life, love and amazing experiences between that sultry North Carolina Tuesday 90 years ago and today – his birthday. And while he’s traveled far and wide, it’s always been good to be at home; where he was born and raised; where he’s lived his entire life in the very same house; Wayne Lowe’s favorite place in the world – Westfield, North Carolina. Happy Birthday Wayne.