Bartow Houston: man, myth and definitely a Beaufort County legend

Published 10:12 am Wednesday, May 10, 2023

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I know it’s a bit of a surprise to see Bartow Houston on the front page instead of his usual perch on Page 8 in the Saturday paper. It’s not a mishap. I’ve purposefully put him on the front, because I thought it high time I interview “Washington’s Poet Laureate” – a joke exchanged between Houston and myself.

Francis Bartow Houston was born in Washington in 1939. His father moved to the city three years prior and opened the first Belk’s store.

Life was good in Washington for Houston. He had loving parents attended St. Agnes Academy and Washington High School.  He studied at Wake Forest University for one year before “getting an education” in the U.S. Army, he said. He spent seven months at Fort Knox in Kentucky and 29 months in Germany. He came home and earned a degree from East Carolina University in the mid 1960’s.

He became a physical education teacher at John Small Elementary School and John Cotten Tayloe in Washington and was a junior varsity track and football coach.

“Coaches have among all the vocations probably one of the best opportunities to touch somebody’s life in a good way,” Houston said. “They don’t all fulfill it, but that opportunity is there, because kids want somebody to look up to.”

He is in the Washington High Athletic Walk of Frame both as an individual and as a team member.

Eventually, Houston, Sally and their two daughters, Sarah and Mary-Bart moved to Manteo and lived there for 17 years. Houston taught English at Manteo High School and started the school’s track and field team.  They migrated back to Washington.

Houston affectionately calls his only wife of 57 years, Sally, his “first wife.”

Houston met Sally while teaching in Washington. He would find out from his Washington P.E. students who had sisters that were single. He would hand those students a note to take home, which would say, “My P.E. teacher said to tell you ‘hi.’” One made its way to Sally who was working as a secretary at a medical office.

According to Houston, Sally says she “was the one that bit.” Houston and Sally went on a date and were married six months later.

“We’ve been married 114 years together and she says, ‘it sure seems like it,’” Houston joked. That’s if you take the 57 years each of them have committed to the marriage and add it.

Houston considers his parents, his wife, his daughters and three grandchildren the “eight best things” that ever happened to him.

When you’ve ridden 83 trips around the sun, you learn a thing or two (or maybe ten by that point) about life and have a wealth of insight to share. Also, you may need a Dramamine with that many trips.

Speaking on having one life to live, Houston said, “You don’t make but one trip unless you’re Shirley MacLaine. She said she’s coming back.”

When asked for his opinion on the state of the world and its future, Houston recommended everyone read “The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Meacham. Meacham illustrates that throughout American history there has always been a reason to hold on to hope during the most tumultuous political and social climates.

On politics and religion, Houston shared, “you have to be very careful with some people when it comes to politics and religion. Whatever I believe, I figure they really don’t want to hear it. They want to tell me what they believe.”

Houston said Washington is a much better place to live now than in the past, because of new people moving to the area from other places. “It broadened people’s horizons. They were very active as volunteers. Like I tell them, ‘you talk funny, but you’ve made this a better place.”

“Washington was a sleepy little southern town,” Houston continued, “Progress did not come easily. “ He believes it a “wonderful” thing that downtown Washington has come alive in the last few years.

General life advice from Houston is that everyone needs to learn how to be civil with one another “regardless of views and opinions.”

Most of the people he looks up to are older than him and “if they’re still here on the planet, they ain’t moving around.”

Lastly, Houston believes in the Pancake Theory. “No pancake is too thin that it doesn’t have two sides,” he said.  Also, he subscribes to the “Bumper Sticker Syndrome and that is – stuff happens,” Houston joked.