My father in law, Joseph Patrick Denton, was born March 17, 1923 to an unwedded 17 year old farm girl from Olivia, North Carolina.
We do not know how old he was when his mother took him to the orphanage. But we do know that soon after dropping him off, she went north to pursue her education as a nurse. She probably came by to see Joe on holidays when she would return to Olivia from school and later when she started work in New Jersey as a nurse.
Sometime in the early 1930s, near the start of the depression, Joe’s maternal grandmother showed up at the orphanage and took Joe back to the Denton family house where she made a place for him outside, off the front porch.
Joe was initially enrolled in elementary school, but soon dropped out to help around the farm and get what work he could to help support his grandmother’s family.
A boy about his age later said that they didn’t treat Joe “right” at that house, expecting him to do more work than the others, only providing the barest of room and board, taking the money he made from work. A relative said, “there was no cause for them to treat Joe so mean.”
But being a known “bastard” was unkind and forever in the rural Bible-thumping southern hinterland.
Joe never discussed these difficult, formative years with me or with his children. I knew him for 40 years and he never talked about the orphanage or the work he had to do for his grandmother…. although with me he found every opportunity to discuss his young life after he left the Denton farm,
when he worked as a CCC volunteer in the government’s economic recovery program. He always smiled in telling the story of signing up and being sent to California where he joined with other CCC workers in clearing scrub brush out of timber forests. He talked about the hard work and the equipment they used and he beamed in discussing the barracks where they lived. He said they were served large, hearty portions of food in the mess hall they built and had “feasts” on the holidays. He took pride in his simple stories about the young men he worked with – he remembered all their names – which were probably born from the fact that CCC was the first real family he had ever known, where he was treated as an equal and there was no stigma about his parentage. He worked hard and was accepted. And for that he was forever grateful.
He returned from his west coast CCC work and in his earliest photos, he’s a strong, handsome man, with a no-humor, no-nonsense look in his eye.
In his early 20s then, he got a job at Fort Bragg as a maintenance worker, met and married Betty Medlin and within a few years had two girls, my wife-to-be, Brenda, and Betty Jo. In 1944, towards the end of WWII, he was drafted into the US Army Air Corp and sent to the west coast. According to family folklore he sent all of his pay back to his family and when the war was over, he thumbed home so that he could save bus fare.
He started back working at Fort Bragg and made the 40 minute commute with a group of other men from Sanford. These six men continued their five day a week drive for twenty years. They knew everything about each other, their aches and pains, their families, their worries, their politics, their plans, their cars, their religion. Joe relished the fellowship. Like CCC before, he worked hard at his job, and then spent time in warm fellowship with close friends. Week day in, week day out. It was a solid, enduring existence.
A product of the depression, Joe did not believe in credit and he never borrowed a dime his entire life that I know of. He found four and half acres of land for sale west of Sanford, North Carolina and bought the tract when he had enough saved from his Fort Bragg job to pay cash.
In the time it took him to clear the land, he built up cash to start building a house on the land. He’d buy some lumber, some nails, sometimes getting his car pool buddies to help and he’d work on the house every day after work. Every Saturday, rain or shine, he worked. He didn’t have any architectural drawings that we know of. He built from the plans he had worked out in his head that included every detail about the heating system, the kitchen, the bath.
Sometime he had to stop and wait until he had collected enough money to buy more building material and then to buy the appliances and the furniture.
During those times when he was waiting for the money from his meager Fort Bragg civilian salary to accumulate, he would work on the back side of the four and a half acres, plowing the land for a large garden that in time produced a rich variety of vegetables and fruit.
It took him about 8 years to build that house and to develop the area for the garden, and by the time the family moved in, two more children had been born, so he had to start building an addition to his yet uncompleted house. He never stopped working.
I met Brenda on Christmas Eve 1967 and we married five months later. I came to accept that well-built house and those incredible vegetables from the garden as an extension of Joe Denton and his wife. Unpretentious, functional, sparse, solid: Joe Denton was a throwback to earlier generations when people built their own homes and grew and canned most of their own food.
Joe never bragged about his homestead. Never held it over us in the credit generation that he had paid cash for everything he owned.
He had a particular way about him, quiet with strangers, but strong and vocal with his family. And very sure of himself especially in the house he had built himself. He wasn’t much for expressing his feelings around us, but sometimes you could see the pride in his face as he looked around at the family he had made.
He loved his children very much, and he adored his wife. Since he came back from Army Air Force service in WW II, he never spent a night away from Betty.
To me he seemed happiest, however, when his mother came down from Philadelphia for visits every other year or so. She was a well-dressed woman who wore high heels to accentuate her shapely legs. Even in her eighties, she was a handsome woman. Her clothes were either tailor made or came from a mighty fine store. She had married a doctor and was a member of New Jersey high society.
When I was around, she and Joe never talked about the past, but focused on the here and now. She seemed detached almost aloof though happy to see Joe, then happy to leave.
On the other hand, Joe would stop everything he was doing to prepare for her arrival and when she was around he held onto her every word. He never went with her when she visited her brothers and sisters in Olivia, so she would come by for just a day visit. He was sincerely sad to see her go, but he was always beaming.
Joe continued to work at Fort Bragg, but his competence had been found out and he, towards the end of his 25 years there, was a top level supervisor in jet engine maintenance.
Some of the men he was commuting with wanted to retire. Mr. Denton didn’t like the military bureaucracy that came with the supervisor role, so when he got his 25 years in, he retired too and for a few years worked carpentry jobs in Sanford with one of his old commute buddies.
In 1972 Joe started working at a Weyhauser plywood mill a few miles out from Sanford. He worked there for ten years and during that ten year period, something amazing happened.
I saw it with my own eyes.
In New Jersey, Dr. Dunn died and Mrs. Dunn, Joe’s mother, decided to tell her three children by him about their half-brother, Joe Denton in Sanford.
And they rushed to meet this person they had no previous idea whatsoever existed. A brother and a sister came down from New Jersey and another sister came up from Florida.
They did not come together and they did not come with Mrs. Dunn.
Joe was beside himself he was so happy to meet them.
The brother came first, then the sister from Florida, and finally the other sister from New Jersey.
With varying degrees, they all re-acted the same.
They tried not to show much surprise about the house Joe built but they looked around when they first came in as if they had never been in anything quite like it. Each seemed to lose interest initially in Joe and his family as they judged their surroundings. But after that pause each wanted to talk about themselves in almost stifling details and about the rivalry among the three children. They disliked one another immensely and reached out to Joe as an ally. They wanted him to understand their individual positions.
I was there; I could tell he missed the point. He just was so happy to be with them. Here he was with a brother and two sisters he had never met before and he was just so, so very happy.
We sat down for grand meals Betty Denton prepared, vegetables from the garden, cornbread, home cooked pies, sweet ice tea. The table was in the center of the kitchen and the room would have the rich smells of southern cooking.
All Joe’s family, and in turn, his half-brother and sisters and their families, would sit down to eat and there would be that same quizzical initial look from the newcomers about the mostly home grown food. They didn’t seem to notice how lush the tomatoes were, the squash, and the corn. They didn’t seem to appreciate the roast. Maybe they did. It just didn’t seem like they did. Eating Betty Denton’s enormously good food, a person usually had something to say. If nothing more than to recognize the time she had spent to prepare the meal.
What they talked about was the Dr. Dunn family wars. There were incidences of homosexuality – or claimed homosexuality – tattoos, run-aways, body piercing, lies, theft, deceit, mistrust. And eventually a suicide. Never theirs, always the others.
Each continued efforts to get Joe to understand their side of things and Joe said he did, absolutely, yes sirey, boy oh boy, he was on their side. He would look them in their eyes when they talked, sometimes at their lips.
Joe’s children and their spouses weren’t called on to talk much. Brenda and I drove down from Washington to join the family in each coming together but it wasn’t our time. It was Joe’s. We were his supporting cast. So off to the side, we watched and marveled at how Joe’s new siblings were so fixed to another place and another set of circumstances. They had trouble talking about anything other than themselves.
They were miserable people.
Prosperous looking, sure, but enormously unhappy. But Joe did not find any fault with them, because they were his family. Blood relatives. He sympathized with each one. Seemed to clearly understand each’s problems. Never considered that they were part of a bloviated, dysfunctional family.
They were part of Joe’s family now and he was so grateful.
Each came and left. Never to return again.
Three very unhappy people.
One very happy person.
Three people born to luxury and status and entitlement.
One raised in an orphanage.
Three failures at life.
We were so proud of our man, our Cinderella man.
In 2004 Mrs. Denton, my mother in law, showed early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and in 2005 she was placed in a nursing home. Every day Joe Denton woke up, got dressed and went to her room there. He would sit at her side in a rocking chair, sometimes talking to her if she were awake. Sometimes when she was asleep, he’d pull the chair up and place his hand on her arm. One of the children told him that he didn’t have to stay there all the time and he said, no, it was where he wanted to be.
Father’s day 2007 he had most of his kids around him and they took Mrs. Denton out of the nursing home and went to an upscale buffet in a nearby town. On the drive there he sat with his hand on her leg. He was with his wife and his family and he was happy.
The next day one of his daughters went to spend the morning with Mrs. Denton in the nursing home and Joe stayed at the home he had built to work in the yard. Around mid-day he came inside, sat in his easy chair, picked up a copy of Guidepost and gently passed away.
To his end, he was never a problem to anyone.
He left more than a million dollars to his children.
Brenda and her Dad