ASHEBORO – “There’s the man I fell in love with,” she said lovingly, staring at a young photo of her husband of 63 years.
He is dressed in his Navy’s best and looks handsome, strong & proud. He admits the attention the uniform brought him from the young ladies in California was “nice.”
But none of those “California girls” captured his heart the way his former hometown girlfriend Doris Gaddis did.
“I ran into her while on leave in downtown Asheboro,” Bob Wright said at their home at Crossroads. “I was going to the movies,” Doris added.
The two high school sweethearts started dating again, and the rest is history.
Their long and devoted life together has not always been easy, but their love and support for each other made the storms of life a little less painful.
As Doris said, “You work at it, support each other and compromise,” advice every couple can rely upon.
The couple’s adoration and respect for one another is a love story that is still being written.
The Uwharrie Rats
Robert (Bob) Wright of Asheboro was born to Millard and Dora Wright on Sept. 14, 1934. His father worked at McCrary Hosiery Mill and his mother sewed and did alterations at Hudson Belk (formerly on Sunset Avenue in Asheboro). They both worked 40 years in those jobs.
Bob grew up on Uwharrie Street during a time when life was simpler, but simpler doesn’t always mean easy. He described the neighborhood as a “little tough.”
“When the mill (Acme McCrary) was slow, everyone felt it,” he said.
However, “boys will be boys” and Bob and the neighborhood gang created ways to entertain themselves. The creek underneath the Uwharrie Street bridge was their meeting spot. Their clubhouses and tree houses of cardboard, along with wild imaginations, were all they needed to be “cowboys.”
“We once dammed the creek,” recalls Bob, and the Asheboro City maintenance crew came two weeks later to break it up.
Sometimes the boys pretended to “fight as cowboys do” with sticks, rocks, baseball bats, but sometimes, tempers flared and out came the fists. “We’d fight,” Bob said, “get it out of our system, and then be friends again the next day.”
The gang also spied on girls that came to the creek to cool off during the summers. It was “innocent fun,” described Bob, something to pass time during the hot days of summer.
“This one time I remember some (girls) took off their clothes, and they didn’t know we were around. We stayed quiet, took some of their clothes and put them in the tree,” he said, with a sly grin. “It was good-natured fun,” he continued.
“That’s the kind of stuff we did. We’d play cowboys, bother the girls, get in fights, and they called us the Uwharrie Rats.”
“We skirted around danger,” he quipped, with a laugh.
Bob remembers how mothers and grandmothers in the neighborhood fed and cared for all the neighborhood kids, and in the evenings, before air conditioning, families sat on their front porches to cool. The many moms were also on alert to stop the Uwharrie Rats from becoming too mischievous.
“I was kind of the runt, got picked on a lot,” Bob recalls. But he was proud, and always defended himself. “I can remember hearing many times from the spying eyes, ‘Now Bobby, don’t do that.’ ”
Sometimes those innocent escapades led to trouble, such as the time he set his neighbor’s garage on fire. “Every Saturday, me and my buddy went to the cowboy movies they played at the old Carolina Theater (close to The Exchange on South Fayetteville Street),'' Bob said. “They were continuing movies, or, in other words, you came back the next week to find out what happened to the hero.”
]“This one Saturday, the hero was tied up in a building by the bad guys, and they set it on fire,” Bob said. “After the movie, we went to his house to play, and we were in his dad’s garage and there was this big cardboard box, so I put him in there, ‘tied’ him up and lit the edge of the box. I went outside to run around the house but he panicked, fell, and the box caught the wall on fire. A neighbor saw it, and called the fire department. They got it put out before too much damage.”
“Tell her where you were while all this was happening,” said Doris, with a laugh.
“The whole neighborhood came over to help, and I was on our front porch reading a comic book. I didn’t look suspicious at all,” he said, with a chuckle.
Bob was also playing in a nearby barn, climbed into the loft, and stuck his head in a hornet’s nest. “My eyes were swollen shut,” he exclaimed. He was stung so many times, “they had to give me shots.”
Like many youths of the day, Bob made movie money by newspaper deliveries. He had a morning and evening route, delivering the Greensboro newspaper and The Courier Tribune at the Park Street areas of Kivett Street, Holly Street and Liberty Street, he said. “We would fight about who was going to deliver the papers,” he said.
Bob made $1.50 a week delivering papers, and on Saturday would go to one of the downtown theaters for a popcorn, drink, 2 pieces of candy and a movie for 25 cents. He still remembers the day a drink went from 5 cents to 10 cents, and it angered everyone.
“It was a different world back then,” he said.
“There were some rough times,” he added. “When the mills were running, it was great, but when they slowed down, it was not.”
During World War II, Bob's father was too old to be drafted, too young to retire, and it led to very hard times for the Wright family.
“We lost our car, our house, and moved into a rent house,” Bob said. “Life was not always easy.”
But everyone did what they could to keep moving forward.
Bob attended school through fifth grade at “Fayetteville Street School,” the “big white one in downtown Asheboro,” he shared.
He attended Asheboro High School in grades 6-12. It was located where The Summit apartment building is today, he said. Bob graduated in 1952.
During the hard times, Bob leaned on his older sister Lillian Bobo (Angus). She was 14 years his elder. “She was like my second mother,” Bob said. “She worked at Eagles Dime Store on Sunset Avenue, in the office. And my first job was at Eagles. I also worked at Colonial Store (a big food store) as a clerk and assistant manager.”
Across the seas, however, another war was brewing, and the Korean War (1950-1953), sometimes called the Forgotten War, was the first military action of the Cold War.
It was at that time that Bob received his draft notice.
“If I’d been 30 days older, I’d have missed it,” he stated. He joined the Air Force on the GI Bill, which meant he would serve the military four years instead of two.
In 1954, two years after graduation, he said goodbye to his family and friends, and boarded a plane for San Antonio, Texas.
Castle AFB: Home of the first B-52s
Although the Korean War ended in 1953, the Cold War, a geopolitical and power struggle between the United States and Russia, was only getting hotter.
Thirty-fourth President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an armistice on July 27, 1953, leaving the Korean Peninsula divided much as it had been since the close of World War II. The Cold War, which began in 1947, lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Dec. 26, 1991, about 45 years.
Many young men were drafted during the Cold War to help their country during very unsettling times. Bob was one of them.
He had basic training in San Antonio and his first assignment was to report to the Strategic Air Command (or SAC) at Castle Air Force Base in Fresno, CA. He was to be trained as an air frame specialist on the first B-52 bombers.
For more than 60 years, B-52s have been the backbone of the strategic bomber force for the United States. The B-52 is capable of dropping or launching the widest array of weapons in the U.S. inventory. That includes gravity bombs, cluster bombs, precision guided missiles and joint direct attack munitions.
Updated with modern technology, the B-52 is capable of delivering the full complement of joint developed weapons. The Air Force currently expects to operate B-52s through 2050, according to https://www.af.mil.
Bob’s extensive training on the mechanics of the bomber started with B-52A. He shows a book with a picture of this plane. “This was a top-secret mission” the Air Force didn’t take lightly, Bob explained. Soldiers were hand-selected for the mission, and Bob checked all the right boxes to be considered for the job.
“They checked everywhere,” Bob said, with a laugh. “They really did their homework. They came and talked to me twice. They talked to my neighbors (in Asheboro), three of them twice. They talked to my teachers at the high school and the local police department. I guess I was a good boy after all,” he exclaimed, with laughter.
Bob was one of a six man crew trained to work on the frames of the new bombers, and repair any issues that arose with the plane.
“We worked all around the bombs,” he said. “First the atomic bomb, the nuclear bomb and then thermo-nuclear bomb.”
He added, “When you are in the bomb bay with an atomic bomb, and a red light is on, you get in, do your job, and get out as quick as you can.”
According to The Great Book of Bombers by Jon Lake, (another of Bob’s books) in the 1950s and ’60s, SAC’s force of B-52s were committed to SIOP (the Strategic Integrated Operational Plan) as atomic bombers. They stood ready for a nuclear Armageddon (at a few moments notice, and sometimes even on “airborne alert”), the book described.
“I’m the only one left in my crew,” Bob revealed. Four of the six-man crew died in their 30s, and the other lived into his 60s.
“They all had cancer,” the 88-year-old and 21-year cancer survivor revealed. “When the doctor did my colon surgery (for colon cancer), he told me it looked like I’d already had radiation from the scarring.”
In many ways, he had. But it wasn't the medical radiation used to combat cancer.
The young soldiers were exposed to radiation on a regular basis and weekly reported to the hospital to check their radiation exposure levels. “We went every Friday,” he said. “We also didn’t know the fluids we used on the planes were toxic,” he added, something that is now under investigation.
Everything that occurred at SAC was secretive. “No one knew what anyone else was doing,” he said. “If the pilots went on a mission, they never discussed anything about it with us. They couldn’t, and we didn’t talk about what we did. The less you knew, the better,” he said.
Visitors to SAC had to pass top secret clearance, Bob explained. “My friends couldn’t come on base to see me,” he said. “I’d have to go see them.”
Bob chuckled telling about the time he was on night patrol, and a Colonel tried to come on base but didn’t know the secret password required to enter. Bob stopped him immediately. “I had him spread eagle in the rain,” he laughed heartily. “Afterwards, he did come tell me I did the right thing.”
It seems lonesome having to keep everything secret from very close friends and family, but Bob said he’d do it all over again if he was asked. “I would sign up again today if they needed me,” he said with a soldier’s pride.
Bob still lives with the secrets of SAC. “A lot of it, I still can’t talk about,” he said.
But for those who take the oath to serve, they live and die with secrets and scars for the good of their country.
“Some of the work we did, it’s still classified,” he said.
The B-52s that Bob first worked on are still taking flight in the Air Force today. According to www.19fortyfive.com, the first B-52 took flight 70 years ago in 1952. Seventy years later, the bomber is still in service, and the Air Force is racing against the clock to replace the engines of all 76 of the Air Force’s B-52 Stratofortress long-range bombers. The Air Force chose the F130 engine made by Rolls-Royce North America for the B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program, or CERP.
Under the $2.6 billion contract, Rolls-Royce will equip the remaining B-52 fleet with eight engines each by September 2038, replacing the bomber’s aging Pratt & Whitney-made engines.
Bob shared a couple books on the Stratofortress and Castle Air Force Base, Home of the B-52. The base was heavily secured, he explained, with Air Force guards on the inside and the Army Brigade outside.
To entertain the troops, however, some famous people were allowed into SAC.
Bob recalls Jimmy Stewart “buying everyone a cup of coffee.” He also saw Natalie Wood and Karl Malden, an Oscar winner from “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Bob longed for the days of “R and R.” Stationed close to San Francisco, he marched with the Black Watch bagpipe band on several occasions. “We marched right behind them,” he said.
“R and R” was essential after long days and nights of prepping the bombers.
“At all times across the runway, we had 12 B-52s ready to go, 24 hours a day,” Bob said. “When we went on high alert, we never knew if it was for training exercises or the real thing. There would be nothing in the newspapers. You never knew where the planes went. We just made sure they were ready to go.”
Bob shared that five B-52s were lost in the first three months of the program.
“There were six airmen in each one,” he said. “It was a turbine problem,” he added.
Those weren’t the only casulaties. Some were “sucked into the jet engines,” Bob said, and others “fell off the tail of the plane,” from 70 feet in the air.
It was the first time Doris heard this story.
Bob shared, “When you are 70 feet in the air, winds blowing, and you’re on the top of the tail of the plane, it can get pretty hairy when you are that high.”
It is a secret revealed, and almost 70 years later, it still affects him.
“I am proud of serving in the Air Force,” he said, humbly. “It was long hours, strange hours, but I loved every minute of it.”
From military service to serving local communities and businesses
Bob returned home from the service in 1958. He learned much in the Air Force, but he wasn’t finished learning yet. At 25, he began studies at Elon, and a determined Bob attended college year-round to graduate with an accounting degree in three years.
He and Doris, a teacher, were married on May 31, 1959. Bob worked part time at an accounting firm while attending Elon. Upon graduation, he joined the local accounting firm of Watson, Penry and Morgan. “I was hired right out of college,” he said.
Doris taught high school for three years, junior high for three years, before the couple began their family. David and Elizabeth were born, and while raising her children, Doris also worked part time at RCC and Eastern Randolph for 16 years.
Bob worked 2-3 years before starting his own accounting practice, Barnette & Wright in Asheboro. He worked there for approximately three years, and then took a job at Hancock Ham in Franklinville as a controller. “It was the world’s largest country ham producer,” Bob revealed.
Eventually, Bob and Reid Kearns built a two-story building on Church Street (beside the fire station), and Wright and Kearns CPAs began. Upon retirement, Bob was a controller for Pugh Oil.
For entertainment, Bob enjoyed spending time with his family and working in the pits as a statistician for NASCAR. “I would figure out when the drivers needed to stop (or pit) before they ran out of gas,” he said. “I also let the driver know where they were running best on the track and figure out their fastest laps.”
Bob worked with NASCAR owner Sam Ard, and drivers Jeff Burton and Jimmy Hensley. “I never let anyone run out of gas,” he said. “We went to all the big tracks, from Pennsylvania to Daytona to Indianapolis.”
Bob also loves the game of golf, and could be found on the local golf courses often. He served in the Asheboro Jaycees and Asheboro Kiwanis Club, and in 2021, was awarded the Legion of Honor by Kiwanis for 50 years of service.
“I have had a full life,” Bob said. “I worked with a lot of local companies, and I don’t think I ever made a client mad. They may not have liked what I told them,” he joked, but he doesn’t remember ever losing a client.
Doris complemented her husband. “Bob’s done well for a Uwharrie Rat,” she said, with a grin.
Today, the couple enjoys spending time with family, especially their two grandchildren, Lauren and Mitchell Hall. They also have many close friends, and love the communities they’ve both served for many years. Doris revealed how dedicated her husband was to his clients. As a certified CPA, Bob took an oath to never share his clients’ personal information, and was known to “undercharge” when one's business was struggling.
“I was always honest with my clients, and honest in my business,” Bob said, humbly.
You wouldn’t expect anything less from the man hand-picked by the Air Force for a top secret mission — to unveil the infamous B-52 bomber to the world.