MONROE — Bill Thompson is North Carolina incarnated. A Southern gentleman hailing from Hallsboro, Thompson is what North Carolina would look like and sound like if it were a person.
Thompson is stout with wavy, medium length white hair. He wears round glasses — the type an old-school college professor would wear. On this day, he wore a baby blue suit with a white shirt and a dark blue bowtie. It’s no coincidence that he donned North Carolina’s signature shades of blue. Earlier in the day, he attended a book signing for his latest publication, “Tuxedos and Pickup Trucks.”
He speaks with a thick Southern accent.
“Tuxedos and Pickup Trucks” is a memoir that honors the Southern lifestyle through stories from Thompson’s life that highlight people he loves, knows and has met over the years, including celebrities and U.S. Presidents.
Thompson is well known for his columns in Our State Magazine, his speaking engagements across the state and his other books both nonfiction and fiction- “Sweet Tea, Fried Chicken and Lazy Dogs,” “Backyards, Bow Ties and Beauty Queens,” “Celia Whitfield’s Boy” and more.
When asked if people become scared when they hear he is writing another book for fear they will be a character in it, Thompson said: “every writer uses his background to draw on.” His fiction novels include scenes and characters that are parallel to ones throughout his life, though names have been changed and scenes were lightly altered.
“Tuxedos and Pickup Trucks,” describes himself. No matter how fancy of an event he attends, Thompson carries the memories of where he came from with him.
Thompson exemplifies North Carolina values and what it means to be a Southerner through his stories. He shared a story about Governor Terry Sanford (that is also in the book). Sanford was governor from 1961 to 1965 and was president of Duke University from 1969 to 1985.
Thompson shared about the day Sanford visited his family’s general store, Council and Company. “It had one of the most modern custom meat markets for its time,” Thompson wrote. Sanford had an impromptu luncheon at the store where he was served a bologna and cooked ham sandwich and a cold Pepsi. Thompson, his parents and his Uncle Charles and Aunt Lucile dined with the governor that afternoon. Uncle Charles talked about politics to Sanford because he was chairman of the Democratic Party in Columbus county.
Friendliness, openness and sense of connection to the land are what sets Southerners — native North Carolinians, in particular — apart from the rest of the American population, according to Thompson.
Southerners like native North Carolinians may not make a living off of the land, but there is an emotional tie that geographical area is very important. Southerners, despite the history that occured, “still love home warts and all,” Thompson said.
Southerners are very open people, according to Thompson; They like to strike up conversations in the checkout line at the grocery store, sharing even the most intimate information. They’re famous for never meeting a stranger.
“There’s a sense of connectedness that makes North Carolinians want to be a part of things,” Thompson said. He continued to say that connectedness is most often centered around food like bringing a grieving family casseroles, barbeque, congealed salads and ham sandwiches after a funeral.
That connectedness is also extended to new neighbors who are brought the same kinds of food and then asked “who are your people?”
However, there is one thing that will always divide North Carolinians — basketball, UNC Chapel Hill versus Duke University. Thompson’s allegiance is with his alma mater, Chapel Hill.
Thompson’s goal in writing “Tuxedos and Pickup Trucks” is to show that the American South is a “benevolent” place about the “real people” that goes beyond stereotypes about the South born out of movies like “Gone with the Wind,” “Deliverance” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
What he means by “real people” are the people who live in a small town who are neither local celebrities, nor politicians. These people make up the meat or the backbone of a town. These are the kinds of people that Thompson likes to meet when he is touring the state. This not only gives him but his readers (Southern and non-Southern alike) a unique perspective of this part of the country.
“I feel like it’s my duty to talk about the South,” Thompson said. “It’s a changing South. I want to make sure this South that we have now is remembered as it is — not as it might turn out to be.”
Thompson said it’s his legacy to be a professional raconteur who stewards stories about Southern living. Two titles that he enjoys being known by are: a Southern gentleman, and being like his father who was also a “quintessential Southerner.”