Beyond the Run of the Mill

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Early in the morning, the young boy would wake up to find his dad bathed in the light from the television, a notepad on the table in front of him.

John Edwards's father, Wallace, a small-town millworker with a high school education, would be taking math courses on instructional TV before reporting to work. He was always trying to better himself, to get ahead at a company that did not seem to respect, or advance, anyone without a college degree.

Wallace's status at the textile company, where he worked for more than 30 years, cast a shadow on the Edwards home. The son knew that his knowledgeable, motivated father was routinely overlooked for supervisory positions. Even worse, he was often asked to train the people hired as his superiors. It was a painful lesson that John Edwards never forgot.

"I saw my father, one of the finest people I've ever known, struggle because he didn't have a college education," Edwards says. "To me, he was a perfect example of somebody who was strong and good and worked incredibly hard, but they were bumping their head against the ceiling."

Of all the 2008 presidential candidates, Edwards talks the most about where he came from: the working-class mill towns of the Carolinas and Georgia.

Always describing himself as "the son of a millworker," he tells stories of family hardships -- the one about his father having to borrow $50, at 100 percent interest, to bring his newborn son home from the hospital is a favorite -- and says he identifies with "the little guy." But he does so with such glibness, and frequency, and it contrasts so greatly with who he is today -- a polished former trial lawyer worth millions -- that the truth of his biography is sometimes lost. These days, Edwards's $400 haircuts and $6 million house garner the lion's share of attention, and he is testimony to the fact that youthful good looks aren't necessarily a political asset.

In an interview, Edwards dismisses the accusations of phoniness as "just politics." The rich-lawyer label rankles a little, though not enough for him to abandon the trappings that he has worked so hard to obtain. "What I want to say to people is 'Well, if I hadn't been successful, would that make me better qualified to be president?' " he asks.

On the campaign trail, however, he doesn't mind poking fun at himself. "My parents actually brought me home to a little house in Seneca, South Carolina," he told an appreciative crowd in last month in Bow, N.H. "Today, as many of you have heard, I don't live in a little house."

But there is another John Edwards, the one who tooled around tiny Robbins, N.C., in a red Plymouth Duster as a teenager, who took the greasiest summer jobs at the mill to earn money for college, who still often forces his staff to eat at Cracker Barrel because it reminds him oh-so-faintly of the big meals his mother used to cook. "You can never forget where you came from," he says more than once, and friends from the old days insist he is, at his core, still one of them.

"I've known that man over 40 years, and he's the real deal," says the Rev. John L. Frye Jr., pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Gastonia, N.C., and one of Edwards's best boyhood friends. "I don't hear him saying anything different than the interests he truly has in his heart. I don't have any kind of disconnect."

To see Edwards at work in New Hampshire, where he came in an embarrassing fourth among Democrats in 2004, is to see his father's son in action, determined to overcome some pretty long odds. This go-round, he has four times the number of field organizers in the state, and he has logged countless hours in small-town forums and community meeting rooms. Armed with a 76-page plan for fighting rural poverty and helping the working poor, he has repositioned himself as the populist who "will fight for you."

Maybe something in him relishes being the underdog. But Edwards acknowledges that other forces also propel him.

"I thought everybody was smarter than me when I went to college," he says. "And I thought everybody was smarter than me when I walked into a courtroom, and I thought everybody was smarter than me when I went to the Senate."

Like his father before him -- who, near the end of his career, finally became a supervisor at the mill -- he would just work harder to prove himself.

* * *

Robbins never had more than two stoplights, but when a teenage Edwards was driving through the streets, it seemed big enough -- almost.

"My father got me that car -- it was a flood car," he says, recalling how he cleaned out the mud and shined it up. "I thought I was hot stuff in that red Duster. I drove all over Robbins. It didn't take long, but I drove all over Robbins."

Robbins, population 1,000, about 60 miles west of Raleigh, was the last in a string of Southern mill towns that the Edwards family lived in during Wallace's career with Milliken & Co. The mill, which was shuttered in 1990, was the town's main source of jobs. Opened in 1930, it employed, at its peak, more than 1,500 people. But like other towns throughout the South, Robbins lost its textile jobs to overseas competitors practically overnight, and a culture that provided a more secure living than the family farm disappeared forever. In the 1960s and '70s, when Edwards lived in Robbins, no one could imagine that happening.

Young John -- officially "Johnny Reid Edwards" on his birth certificate and still called "Johnny" by his parents -- was 12 when the family moved there. Besides his South Carolina birthplace, it is the town he refers to most often at campaign events.

"In the beginning, it was like a cocoon, it was very nurturing," he says. "I played every high school sport, and as a result, I knew everybody and everybody knew me. And when I left, it was intimidating because I had never spent any time in any town or city of any size."

When Edwards and his high school buddies discussed the future, none of them expressed a longing to escape Robbins, Frye says. There was just a feeling that college was the answer, that a good profession was the key. Mostly, the talk was about "football and basketball and girls," Frye says, though John was sensitive to his parents' circumstances. "I think he was very conscious of how his dad had to work hard to get what education he managed, to try to get ahead to take care of his family."

Wallace and Bobbie Edwards, now retired, still live in Robbins, in a comfortable four-bedroom house they built in 1993. It is not far from the more modest dwelling where they raised John and his two younger siblings, Kathy and Wesley. Campaigning occasionally for their son in Iowa, the parents have won friends with their folksy, down-to-earth manner.

"We would do anything in the world to help Johnny," says Bobbie Edwards, 74, a small, energetic woman who does most of the talking, as her husband smiles beside her.

Wallace and Bobbie both came from towns in the South Carolina foothills where the mills operated day and night. They met at a summer square dance. "He was riding with someone else, so he said, 'If I stay after the dance, I'll walk you home,' " Bobbie recalls. "And I said, 'Am I supposed to be thrilled to death or something?' I was kind of a smart aleck. He started calling me after that and he started coming to see me."

They were married 56 years ago.

College was never an option for the young couple. In that place and time, it was enough of an accomplishment to graduate from high school. "We dream about what we could've done," Bobbie says.

But they were determined that their children would go to college, would soar beyond the limitations they had faced. Years later, when their eldest child made a point of repeating on the campaign trail that he was the first in the family to attend college, they say they felt tremendous pride that their boy had done so well.

When John was born, on June 10, 1953, Wallace Edwards was making about 85 cents an hour at the Seneca mill. The family lived frugally, in a small, pink company house. "You just wouldn't believe how careful I had to be with the money," Bobbie says.

"She worked, too," Wallace adds.

She nods. "Every job I could get," including millwork. "I would fold sheets on the second shift."

But, she makes clear, "my children never suffered." Clothes were clean and pressed, and bills were paid on time. "I had to cook -- eating out was never an option -- but we had a good meal," she says. She doesn't cook mashed potatoes and gravy anymore, she says, "because I used to do it two or three times a week."

They describe their struggles matter-of-factly, without any sense of indignation. It is John Edwards who recounts the sting of watching his parents budget every penny. He has vivid memories of a rare family outing to a restaurant one Sunday after church, when he was 9 or 10 years old.

"The place was packed and I was picking out what I wanted to eat, and my father said, 'We have to leave.' And I said, 'What?,' and he said, 'We have to leave. I can't pay these prices.' We were already seated, and I remember how red-faced I was leaving. I also felt bad for my father, he was such a proud man."

The Edwardses nod politely when the episode is mentioned. "John remembers that real well, and I guess he was embarrassed," Wallace says. But it just didn't make sense to pay so much for something they could eat at home.

* * *

Little Johnny was a bright kid from the start, and his parents delighted in his love for Little Golden Books that Bobbie would buy for 19 cents apiece at the grocery store. "He'd jump up in your lap and want you to read, and he'd learn to read just by memorizing," Wallace says.

Good grades in school came easily enough. Other lessons were provided as needed. When he was just 6 or 7, John was having problems with some neighborhood bullies, and he still remembers his father's advice: "He always said, 'Don't go looking for a fight, but don't run away from a fight,' " Edwards says. "And he said, 'If you do have to hit somebody, make sure you hit him right in the nose.' "

By the time the Edwardses moved to Robbins, around 1965, John was a fierce competitor, on the playing fields and off. He and Frye and the other boys on his block -- one grew up to be the town doctor, another the town dentist -- called themselves "The Frye Street Gang." They spent many hours playing ball and a version of nighttime hide-and-seek they called "The Spotlight Army."

Bobbie learned early on "not to underestimate Johnny" when it came to any form of competition. She recalls a tennis tournament, where he was losing badly. Leaving before the match was over to pick up his sister, she dreaded asking him later how it had gone. "He said, 'Oh, I won,' " she says.

Decades later, the candidate remembers the episode well: "I believe that was the finals of the Robbins tennis tournament," he says. "I was way behind. I kept at it, and kept at it, and the guy finally cracked and I won.

"Determined. I was always very determined."

Paul McLendon, a coach and teacher at North Moore High School, saw the student-athlete in two different arenas. On the football field, where he played defensive back, Edwards was "not large, but he had a lot of tenacity."

"He was a very good defensive player -- he used his head," says McLendon, 75. "Defensive back is the hardest position on the field to play, because you're responding to the receivers coming out."

During Edwards's senior year, McLendon also taught him political science and economics. The class, limited to college-bound students, often erupted into spirited debates about race relations and other current events. John was always in the thick of the arguments.

"I recall calling him up to my desk one day after a very lively discussion. I asked him if he had ever thought about going to law school," McLendon says. "I thought he had a good analytical mind, and he could parse an issue as well as anybody. . . . He said, 'My daddy wants me to go into textiles.' "

The Edwardses always assumed that John would go to college, because he was so bright and ambitious. But they say they never pressured him. They didn't have to. In fact, he says, he was on his own when it came to filling out applications, seeking financial aid and choosing classes; his parents didn't think they could offer much assistance. But money was a concern, and his father wanted him to major in textiles because, at the time, he thought it would mean a guaranteed job.

John already knew where he wanted to go to college: Clemson University. Wallace had grown up near the South Carolina campus and often talked about how much he'd wanted to go there. He and John were avid Clemson football fans, watching every game they could together. So John came up with a way to go to school there. He reasoned that if he stayed with his maternal grandmother, who lived near the university, and got a football scholarship as a walk-on, then he could afford it.

Edwards spent his first semester of college living in WestPoint Stevens's Utica Mill village in South Carolina. It was far removed from the frat parties and drinking games that other 18-year-olds were experiencing. He and his grandmother had a simple routine.

"We would get up in the morning -- it was one of those little houses in the mill village and the only source of heat was the wood heater in the middle of the house -- and we would start the stove and she'd cook me breakfast," he recalls. He would drive the eight or nine miles to campus, for classes and football practice, and return to his grandmother's for meals.

In the end, his plan didn't work. Edwards made the football team but did not win a scholarship and could not afford to stay. For his second semester, he transferred to North Carolina State, where in-state tuition was less. In keeping with his father's advice, he majored in textiles technology.

"I didn't want to go to college and then not be able to get a job," he says today. But the idea of law school was alluring. And the more time he spent working in the mill each summer, the more he realized that he wanted a different life.

"It was the nastiest job. I cleaned out overhead in the weave room. There was junk everywhere. I was climbing around up there, then I mopped the grease up from under the looms."

One day, a longtime worker at the mill gave him a piece of advice.

"I'll never forget him," Edwards says. "He was a weaver, and he was standing next to the loom, and I came walking by. He had his overalls on. And he said, 'Boy, you don't want to do this the rest of your life. You need to keep going to school.' " In barely 20 years, the Robbins mill that had run for decades would be gone. By the time it closed, Wallace Edwards had retired, and the workforce had dwindled to 300. "It was sad," John Edwards says, to see a way of life vanish. But by then, he was already a millionaire, already a legend in North Carolina legal circles and already acquiring the polish and political skills he'd need to rise even higher.

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