Willoughby recalls his 54-year love affair

Friday, November 30, 2007
Myrtis Haislip and James Willoughby married in 1945. They were married for more than 54 years before her death.

Right by the Dixie Theatre on the square in Lewisburg, there's a small woodworking shop called Odds & Ends Woodcraft. Listening to James Willoughby talk about his life is a lot like seeing the beautiful odds and ends he sells in his shop.

Willoughby was born in Athens, Ala., and lived with his parents in Nashville until they moved here in 1945. He was 15. Except for the time he worked at a cotton gin in Nashville for five years or spent a few months in Florida, he's lived in Lewisburg ever since.

James got his first job at the age of 15 at General Shoe in Lewisburg. It was located up on the hill in the same place as the Superama Shopping Center. It was there he met the girl he was to marry.

Woodworking is something Willoughby has done all his life. "A lot of times I'm working and I just get the idea to make something else. That's the way I've always done it."

James said that his job involved cutting out the insoles. Myrtis Haislip sat nearby up on a big rack, gluing on the insoles. She used to throw wads of glue at him, and that's how he knew she liked him.

"I told the fellow sitting in front of me, Jack Bigham, one day I said, 'Jack, I'd sure like to have a date with that gal there.' He wheeled his chair around and said, 'Hey, Myrt, this boy said he'd like to have a date with you. Can he have it?' Myrtis said, 'Anytime he wants it.' So then later, I stopped her. I said, 'Did you mean what you said about me having a date with you?' She said, 'Sure.' That was back in the old days in 1945."

James explained that Myrtis lived way out on Spring Place Road and he lived way out on the Needmore Road on a big farm. On their first date, she had to catch a milk truck to town, and he had to walk into town.

"Didn't have no car or nothing," James said. "A bunch of us boys that played guitars would sit and play music on Saturday."

They used to meet upstairs over what is now the Enchanted Gardens florist shop on the square. R.C. Wiley had a radio shop upstairs then.

"Well," James recalled, "that morning I sat in the window up there, watching for her to get off that milk truck. She got off the milk truck, we walked around the square a couple of times, and we went to the theatre. We sat in that theatre until that afternoon, when she had to catch the milk truck to go back home. That's where we did our courting."

The next Saturday was a repeat of that first date, except that when Myrtis got ready to leave, James asked her a question. "I said, 'Well, what you want to do: you want to go home or you want to go get married?' She said, 'I'm going to have to think about it.'"

By the next Saturday, they had set the wedding date for Oct. 6, when they packed into a five-passenger Chevrolet coupe with James' grandmother, mother and uncle, and went to get married.

"We were married 54-and-a-half years and six days when she died. So that short courtship turned into a long marriage. Back when we were young, a divorce was a 'no no,' you just didn't do that. You just toughed it out."

He added, "We loved each other and we had a good life."

James said that soon after they married he went to work at Florence Stove, which later became Heil Quaker. He went into the roofing and contracting business more or less by accident and stayed for 20 years. Then he opened up a sporting goods store where Mopeys is now.

"I opened in '74 and kept it until 1988. I had to get up every morning at 3, be over there and open up." Willoughby said he would close at 6, but sometimes hunters would bring in deer to check-in at 8 or 9 at night.

"You had deer season, then you had turkey season and all the different seasons. Fishing was a year-round thing. We sold live bait and everything. I've had people to come over there at 9 at night, wanting me to go over there and get them minnows to go fishing, and I accommodated the people. I did what the people needed. That's the reason why I feel like I did so well. Wal-Mart hurt us a little when they came here, but they didn't hurt us all that bad."

Willoughby said he's done woodworking all his life, so it was natural for him to do that professionally once the sport shop hours got too stressful.

"I've been piddling with it since '88," he said. "I never did go to school for it. It's just something that God gave me the gift to do, I reckon. I just love to do it. It just grew into a business before I knew it. Since my wife passed away, I need somewhere to go. house."

James Willoughby makes unfinished wood furniture and knick-knacks of all types in his shop, everything from birdhouses, doll furniture and cabinets to outdoor swings and benches. He'll soon be 79 and says he's slowing down somewhat. However, he still goes to craft shows and comes back with new ideas for furniture to make in his shop.

James has one daughter, Jackie Willoughby Wood-ward. She has two children, Mandy and Josh. Mandy Mitchell lives near Belfast, so his three great-grandchildren, Mattie, Hollie and AJ live close by.

Many people would like to go back and do things differently in their lives, but James Willoughby isn't one of them.

"I wouldn't back up and change my life one day," he insisted. "I've never been a rich man, but we've always been able to get by good. I've had a good life, that's all I can say."

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