By Sherrie Norris
He has been described as perhaps one of the country’s most colorful politicians in the last half-century — and he’s coming home to Boone to launch his autobiography.
Thanks to the efforts of the Watauga County Historical Society and The Jones House Cultural and Community Center, native son Rufus Edmisten returns for a special event at which he’s looking forward to reminiscing with old friends, meeting new ones and signing his recently released autobiography, “That’s Rufus: A Memoir of Tarheel Politics.”
The event gets under way at the Jones House on Friday, October 4 beginning at 5 30 p.m., just one of several efforts spearheaded by the Watauga County Historical Society in an effort to preserve local history and celebrate the people who made it what it is.
“We are delighted to be hosting Rufus Edmisten as he comes home to Boone,” said Bettie Bond, president of the WCHS. “It’s going to be a fabulous time for all, and coincides not only with First Friday in downtown Boone, which is always a big deal, but also with the new photography exhibit, “Western Carolina’s Finest”: An Exhibition of Appalachian Theatre History, which opens that same day and runs through Oct. 30. It all takes place at the Jones House. Admission is free and we invite everyone to join us for this amazing evening.”
Edmisten told High Country Press on Monday that he is happy to be part of this event and is dedicating proceeds from this book signing to the Watauga County Historical Society.
Who is Rufus Edmisten?
A Boone native born to Walter and Neil Edmisten, Rufus Edmisten rose to fame as a North Carolina Attorney General and Secretary of State — and drew international attention when he served as deputy chief counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee. His work, together with that of others, uncovered the truth about the Watergate scandal in 1973. He has the distinction of being the first person on a congressional committee to serve a subpoena to a sitting president of the United States. Currently a practicing lawyer and lobbyist, Edmisten lives in Raleigh, but said Boone has a huge presence in his book — and certainly in his heart and memories.
“A big part of my book is centered around Boone,” he said. “It formed my attitude, it made me who I am today in so many ways. Boone, to me, is all about wonderful family and friends. It’s where we worked hard growing up and where we played just as hard. It’s about going to Winkler’s Creek to swim, and other things I remember so fondly, like getting a watermelon on Saturday at Wheeler’s Produce, and putting it in a big tub at home to cool overnight so we could enjoy it on Sunday. It’s about riding through the mountains on my horse with my cousin, going over the river and through the woods to my grandmother’s house; sitting around the table with my family on a cold winter’s night playing Rook. Now, that was a family affair, for sure – five boys and one girl. You can just about imagine how it went. We had to take turns playing, and I loved playing with my mother; I could always tell when she had the Rook by this little sly look on her face. She couldn’t keep it in.”
Other things, too, Edmisten remembers and shares in his book, including how his mother was such a great cook and loved to preserve everything she could put into a jar or into her one of her three freezers. “She had one for meat and two for vegetables. I remember it all so well — and that she did so much of her cooking and canning on her old woodstove, and then her fancy warm morning stove.”
Edmisten and his siblings grew up on the family farm, located where the high school is now.
“We had to milk cows every day; I have to admit that I loved rainy days, when we didn’t have to go out to work.”
His memories of Boone include going to see a movie at the Appalachian Theatre, and how far a quarter went back in those days.
“A ticket cost a dime, so you had plenty left over for a drink and popcorn, or a hot dog at the Soda Shop.”
He continued, “Is it any wonder that I’m looking forward to coming back to Boone with my book that contains so many of these memories? It’s special to me – and the triangle that formed my life, from home, to school and the Three Forks Baptist Church. That was the center of my life.”
Those were the days, he said, that really matter most to him. “I can remember those things better than what happened in Watergate, and delivering that subpoena to President Nixon on July 23, 46 years ago.”
Of course, he said, many of those details are also included in his book, and his political pathway once he left Washington and came back to run for Attorney General, his hard-fought, but unfortunately unsuccessful run for NC Governor in 1984 – and beyond. “
I couldn’t have been beaten by a better man than Jim Martin – a splendid individual, who, ironically, I later began serving with as Secretary of State in 1988.”
Despite the political scandals of which he has been involved through the years, Edmisten said, things were much simpler then.
“Even those politicians on different sides got along well. I grow weary today with the political scene and how people are out to destroy each other. During the Watergate, Senator (Howard) Baker from Tennessee (R) and N.C. Senator Samuel J. Ervin, Jr. (D) got along well. They made a pact that they would not disagree publicly with the big problems. Nothing much has worked since then.”
And about Senator Sam, known as “the country lawyer,” from Morganton who was a prominent political figure in those days, and with whom Edmisten worked closely, traveled by his side for 10 years, ate together, slept in the same room, etc., he said he knew the man well, and delves, in his book, into much of what he learned from that giant of a politician
“Part of the book shows how we have come back to Watergate, how money has been allowed to seep into the political realm. In the middle of Watergate, it was the ruination in both parties. I’ve tried to talk in my book about the importance of having empathy.”
Empathy and faith, Edmisten stated, are important factors he brings up in his memoirs.
“My theory is that faith covers about 90 percent of what happens in your life, and the need to gird up your loins when fate intervenes in ways you do not expect or desire.”
It’s important, too, he said, to have empathy for others, to try to understand what your fellowman is going through. And choosing your own friends, rather than allowing them to choose you.
“And, never forget to thank those who helped you get where you are —and then thank them again. Don’t get puffed up and think you don’t have to follow the rules, either.”
Admitting that he’s made his mistakes, in life, Edmisten said he has learned that people will judge you, no matter what.
“When you are in the valley of despair – people judge you on how you come back up from the bottom to the top of the mountain. That’s what counts.”
Edmisten’s book, his autobiography, is just that. “It’s been a work of labor and love,” he described. “And one I’m glad that I did. Obviously, I’ve left out some things. I don’t set out to destroy anyone’s character, and as far as I know, I’ve not attacked anyone in what I’ve written.”
Edmisten is very thankful, he said, for the assistance of Nancy Carter Moore, who helped bring his story to life.
“She has been so intrigued by Boone and has heard so much about it. She’s planning to be there with me that night,” he said.
During our interview, Edmisten shared how this project has been something he thought about for a long time, but was originally prompted to share his memoirs by the U.S. Senate Historical Office.
“It was about five years ago, this nice lady said they wanted an oral history of my life to go into the archives in the U.S. Senate, especially about my time in Washington,” he shared. “I sat down with her over the next few months and did as she requested. It was the first time I’d ever done that. I don’t like talking into a recorder, but it got me to thinking how I needed to get this stuff down on paper.”
He started looking for someone he could talk to, he said. “That’s when I hired Nancy, a genealogist and historical writer, a brilliant person, to help me.”
While several of the 19 chapters in Edmisten’s book are focused on his political career, he said he was proud that “the largest portion of the book is centered around my years growing up in Boone.”
Coming back to Boone for this event, he said, is sure to be the most important part of his book tour. “There were over 300 people at my earlier book signing at the NC Museum of History in May, and I appreciated everyone who came, but there’s going to be something extra special about having this in Boone.”
Admission to the event is free and books will be available to purchase for $29.95. As proceeds from those purchases will benefit the Watauga County Historical Society, proceeds from the Raleigh event went to Edmisten’s Super Kids Foundation, which has helped hundreds of disadvantaged children all over North Carolina in the last 25 years. “We’ve helped 37 kids over the past 10 years go through the program,” Edmisten said, “including several from Watauga County.”
More About Edmisten and his Book
In promoting one of its more recent releases, Ashe County’s own McFarland Publishing described Edmisten as a farm boy from the mountains of North Carolina — and one who could not have been prepared for the halls of power in Washington, D.C. during the Vietnam War era, as young men burned their draft cards and pro-cannabis factions held “smoke-ins” in the capital.
A University of North Carolina Chapel Hill graduate, he earned a law degree at George Washington University and landed a job as counsel to U.S. senator Samuel J. Ervin, Jr.
This led to Edmisten’s appointment as Deputy Chief Counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee—he personally served Richard Nixon the first ever subpoena of a sitting president by Congress.
Returning to North Carolina, he served as Attorney General and Secretary of State before retiring from public life to practice law and participate in charitable activities.
Written with humor and candor, McFarland said, Edmisten’s memoir recalls the cultural contrasts of American life in the 1970s and 1980s, and affirms that the business of government is to enable us to live together peacefully.
Between the 234 pages of his book, 19 chapters include it all — from “My Mountain Home,” and “High School Days” all the way to Law School and Washington D.C., Watergate, (maybe not in that order) and everything in between and after, not excluding personal thoughts and reflections on a life fully lived – and 108 photos, some of which are part of the recently developed Digital Watauga project.
In a recent article appearing in the News and Observer in Raleigh, and in the syndicated column written by D. G. Martin, Edmisten was described as “possibly the most colorful politician in North Carolina’s last 50 years,” and referred to as one who’s never been known to friend, foe or family as anything but “Rufus.”
More About Watauga County Historical Society
Since 1977, the Watauga County Historical Society has been committed to bringing history alive in Watauga County. Whether through various lecture series, serial publications (Writings on Watauga and Watauga County Times…Past), and books (Memories of Cove Creek High School: 1922 to 1965 and The Architectural History of Watauga County, North Carolina), the organization has worked hard to connect Watauga County residents, students, and visitors with our community’s rich and often surprising past.
Its most recent initiative, the Digital Watauga Project, aims to make the complex history of Watauga County more widely known and easily accessible to the public by digitally preserving the images, documents, and artifacts of Watauga County. Through this partnership with the Watauga County Public Library, the project brings together materials from historical institutions, area businesses, and individual residents of Watauga County, allowing donors to share digitized versions of their historical materials with the public, while retaining their original materials and the associated rights to those materials.
The Watauga County Historical Society is a registered non-profit corporation operating in the State of North Carolina. Donations to the WCHS are tax deductible.
For more information, visit www.wataugacountyhistoricalsociety.org.