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Tales of the town

Photo by Ava Barlow. By Vicky Dickson

Ever since her days as a flight attendant with American Airlines, Valarie Schwartz has known that people like to share their life stories with her. Back when attendants actually had time to chat with passengers, she was the one most likely to walk the aisle after meal service, hearing passengers’ excitement about what awaited them when they landed. Or, sometimes, their dread of what lay ahead.

She’s also known since she was 27 that she wanted to be a published writer. Her first attempt at a novel ended after six chapters, and she subsequently tried her hand at both screenplays and short stories. But it wasn’t until Schwartz answered an ad for a feature writer in the Chapel Hill News that her talent for listening came together with her love of writing. The first feature she wrote, about a Chapel Hill High School production of Oklahoma, appeared on that paper’s front page in 1996. Shortly thereafter, she took over the Neighbors column, which she wrote for 11 years before joining The Carrboro Citizen as a columnist.

Neighbors focused on the work of local nonprofits and civic groups, and Schwartz soon developed such a following that her calendar was booked months in advance. Her writing also caught the attention of History Press, though it wasn’t until last December that the idea of a book based on Schwartz’s columns was realized. The project progressed quickly; in two months, Schwartz both collected the photos she needed and wrote the collection of essays recently published as Remembering Chapel Hill: The Twentieth Century as We Lived It.

“I tried to pick stories that painted the best picture of what was at the heart of Chapel Hill in the 20th century,” says Schwartz. The stories are diverse, including such luminaries as Bill and Ida Friday and Chapel Hill stalwarts like Frances Neal Hargraves, the first black teacher at Glenwood Elementary, whose mother, Alice Neal, cooked for university President Frank Porter Graham. Schwartz doesn’t shy away from controversy, portraying the anger and hurt of the farmers whose lives were disrupted by the creation of the Cane Creek Reservoir and the sadness some graduates felt at the closing of Lincoln and Northside schools after integration. Her book will be of value to anyone interested in knowing how Chapel Hill has come to be the town it is today.

Carrboro residents will be happy to know that Schwartz’s next project will be Remembering Carrboro. After that’s accomplished, she hopes to get back to novel writing, and already has an idea for a historical novel that will unfold in the community around the Cane Creek Reservoir of Orange County The novel’s characters have already begun telling her their stories.

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