First-time author dies, but classmates won’t let his legacy go unpublished

Eileen Friars’ personal library is stacked with books by the great writers: a little Hemingway and Wallace Stegner. John Updike, some Barbara Kingsolver. And a few North Carolina authors like Robert Morgan.

None is more precious to her than Robert Webb Brame Sr., whose first book is the latest addition to her collection of hundreds.

Bob Brame and Friars had been classmates for 10 years in a writing class taught Monday afternoons by Charlotte book editor and writing teacher Barbara Lawing.

During that time, Brame, a retired welding supply salesman and grandfather of 13, wrote his “With High Hopes a New Day Begins.” As he finished pieces, he’d read them to the class for critiques – even as he struggled with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that required him to carry oxygen and made it difficult for him to breathe and speak.

He finished the manuscript in 2010. But months later in February 2011, he died from COPD at 73.

Here is where one story ends and another one of determination begins – one Brame knew nothing about.

Several months after Brame’s funeral, Friars went to see Lawing. Brame had so moved her and the class with his book set in Union County during the 1930s, she was troubled it might not get published.

“It was so vivid. Every time he had something to read, I couldn’t wait for the next week to hear more,” said Friars, a retired bank executive. “I thought it was a story with historical significance that ought to be published.”

She offered to take up a collection from Brame’s classmates to pay for part of Lawing’s time to edit the book to get it published. The class ultimately chipped in $1,625.

“Eileen believed – like we all did – that this book was superior work,” Lawing said.

Brame’s writing ability didn’t exactly come by accident. Born in Charlotte, he grew up in Sanford in Lee County and studied English literature and history at UNC Chapel Hill, where he found his love of good writing.

Midway through his senior year, he quit school and moved to Charlotte. There, he met Helen Ligon, and in 1962 they married. A year later, he returned to UNC to finish his degree at 26.

Returning to Charlotte, Brame got a job as a welding supplies salesman. He worked that job for 37 years while he and Helen raised four children in south Charlotte.

Along the way, he continued a routine of reading four to five books at a time. He devoured Ralph Waldo Emerson. He read Faulkner, philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle, theologians like Reinhold Neibuhr and cowboy novelist Louis L’Amour.

At 60 in 1997, he retired because the company was getting sold and “all his old playmates were leaving,” Helen said. She was still working, so Brame decided to take a writing class.

“He liked to write because he could make people do anything he wanted them to,” Helen said.

So he enrolled in Lawing’s continuing education creative writing class at Central Piedmont Community College. Her first assignment was to bring back work written in someone else’s voice.

“When they came back the next week, most people had something to read,” Lawing recalled. “Nobody had overwhelmingly outstanding work – except for Bob.”

As it turns out, what he read was the first taste of a fictional story that would become his book. It was about an older woman named Sarah Lynn, who was shopping and became so miffed at the treatment from a clerk, she walked out.

In 2000, Friars tried to get into Lawing’s CPCC writing class. It was full. She urged Lawing to consider a private class in her home. Lawing knew of others who wanted to enroll, so a class of seven began meeting Monday afternoons.

Brame joined the class a year later. As his COPD worsened, Helen drove him from their home in Indian Land, S.C., where they’d moved in 2006. She’d walk while he read to the class, which eventually included Sheila Evans, Katharine Steele, Jo Ann Ball, Roslyn Greenspon and Sovella Tankersley.

In his writings, Brame weaves a story of Sarah Lynn, who as a young woman goes to live with her kind-hearted Uncle Orphey when her mother forbids her romance with a man the mother believes is socially inferior. The son of a rich family attacks Sarah Lynn and terrorizes black tenant farmers.

To “right wrongs,” Uncle Orphey buys a farm for two mistreated tenant farming families. “Blood is shed, a ghost appears and a conjurer woman works her spells,” Lawing said.

The stories were made up, his wife said. He’d never lived in Union County – though he made several library trips to Monroe to research his story. Helen Brame saw an aunt in Sarah Lynn and saw her husband in the affable, easygoing Uncle Orphey.

His characters kept him company during his illness.

Brame constantly revised. When he was the sickest, classmate Evans compiled the best of his revisions so he could see “and feel” his finished manuscript.

Soon after that, he died. His classmates attended his funeral.

‘Kind of man’ he was

Lawing found the manuscript in better shape than most she’s edited. “There were no holes,” she said. “I’ve never edited a book of this caliber.”

Evans, whose three books were written under the pen name Sheila Huntington, helped Helen Brame navigate CreateSpace, the self-publishing arm of Amazon.com, to get the manuscript between two covers.

Recently, the classmates held a reunion at the Cypress of Charlotte retirement community.

Helen Brame was the guest of honor. She brought a book for each classmate.

They hugged. They cried. They talked about and remembered Bob.

“I was real grateful for the nice tribute to my husband,” Helen said. “I believe he would be touched.”

Lawing is sure Bob Brame would have been touched – yet she’d never heard him talk about getting published.

“He never pushed with me the idea of publication,” she said.

“He told me he would be satisfied if it had been left in the bottom drawer of his desk for his grandchildren to find – so they’d know what kind of man their grandfather had been.”