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Local Boy Made Huge

Times Staff Writer

Two days after Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry announced his choice of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as a running mate, there was little evidence of the event in Edwards’ rural, industrial hometown.

There were no banners, no balloons, no Kerry-Edwards lawn signs.

Although the owner of the Capt. Snipper Salon and Day Spa had put up a hand-lettered poster on the morning of the announcement -- “Congradulations to John Edwards” -- that poster was gone by the next day.

At Amy’s Cafe, old men in work-worn clothes sat eating barbecue sandwiches. The police chief’s office was empty in the stifling heat; a door handle clattered to the floor when visitors entered and exited the station.

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“It’s dead anyway,” said Gary Maness, 59, the owner of B & G Fashion, along Robbins’ two-block downtown. “But on Wednesdays, it’s even more dead.”

In campaign speeches across the country, Edwards has shaped his small-town upbringing into a resonant American story. In some ways, the Robbins he describes holds true -- with more than 2,000 factory jobs lost since 1990, people can feel their town’s future constricting.

Most would agree with the small-town values that Edwards evoked while campaigning in the Democratic primary: “Work. Responsibility. A fair shake for all and a free ride for none.”

What Edwards does not mention in these speeches is the deep vein of Republicanism that runs through his hometown. Edwards did not carry the county, Moore, in his run for the U.S. Senate; in Robbins, the town that formed his political identity, he won 394 to 267.

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And last week, as national attention was trained on Edwards’ charisma and character, some residents expressed lukewarm feelings about his political ascent.

“He lives in Raleigh. He doesn’t live here,” said Terry Parrott, a United Parcel Service deliveryman who lives in nearby Carthage. “Seems like, in the last couple of years, the only time he’s been here was when the news comes to town.”

But many people in this community of 1,200 remember Edwards fondly. His parents, Wallace and Bobbie, are well-loved residents of Robbins

Middle-aged women gush like schoolgirls over how cute he was when they passed him in the halls of North Moore High School. Others remember him as a likable, ordinary kid, more interested in sports than in school or politics.

A few give descriptions of an unusual young man. The Rev. John L. Frye Jr., one of Edwards’ closest friends, and now the pastor of a church in Aiken, S.C., said he saw a powerful compassion building in Edwards while they were growing up together.

Edwards grew up watching working people like his parents struggle to get ahead, said Frye, 51. Sympathy for working people “is at the center of his being,” Frye said.

Populism was a bone-deep tradition in Robbins even before it became an industrial center. While the plantation economy to the north and the south raked in money, “there wasn’t a slave within 10 miles” of Robbins, said John L. Frye Sr., 85, a former mayor. The Scotch-Irish farmers eked out a living in hilly land and refused to join the Confederacy, Frye said.

“We are all outliers up here,” he said.

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At the time of the Civil War, voters in Robbins supported Abraham Lincoln and became Republicans, although the South then was overwhelmingly Democratic. Conservative Democrats have long since switched parties, but Robbins holds “the original Republicans in the South,” said Bill Newton, chairman of the Moore County Democratic Committee.

Efforts to organize Democrats in Robbins have failed miserably, Newton said.

Loyalty to the GOP runs so deep here that the younger Frye, who ran his family’s clothing store in Robbins for 14 years, was careful never to put a sign up supporting a Democratic candidate for fear of damage to his business.

When Edwards left Robbins after his high school graduation, he -- like many of his classmates -- encountered a world of new influences.

Raised Republican, he became a Democrat. He married Elizabeth Anania, a brilliant law student whose father, a Navy officer, had moved the family around the country and overseas. Edwards became a personal injury lawyer and a multimillionaire.

Edwards’ party is not the only quality that unnerves people in Robbins; many here find the practice of law immoral. The elder Frye flatly refused to contribute tuition to send his son to law school; “the law profession,” he said, “is not an honest profession.”

Linda Sheffield, a clerk at Frye’s department store, remembers a customer coming up to her with a look of worry, saying her son had expressed an interest in practicing law. The customer asked Sheffield whether lawyers went to heaven when they died.

The election season has brought with it an air of tension, as people weigh pride and affection against partisan convictions. In a town like Robbins, “when you go in to vote, everyone knows what you’re doing in there,” said Sheila Powers, who works at the Baker & Candlestick Maker, a downtown bakery.

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“I think it’s causing arguments in families,” she said.

In the meantime, residents are bound to see and hear much more of the man who left Robbins almost 35 years ago.

Elaine Williams, who was in Edwards’ high school class, looked wistful as she mused about his life since graduation. As for her, she lost the brick house she once owned in town and now lives in a trailer in the country.

She works as a stocker at Fred’s, a discount store. It’s the best job she has ever had.

“Anybody that can get out of the town of Robbins without getting stuck here their whole life does pretty well,” she said. “One day, maybe I will.”


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