Once upon a time in Blowing Rock…a romance that almost slipped by

Once upon a time in Blowing Rock…a romance that almost slipped by
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By David Rogers. April 25, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC – Once upon a very long time ago, there was a boy and a girl.

COVER IMAGE: Doug Drury and Cathy Barker Levering became husband and wife in Blowing Rock on New Year’s Eve at St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church. Photographic images provided by family members and friends.

Doug Drury and Cathy Barker Levering were classmates in the 8th grade at Blowing Rock Elementary School, in 1972.  They both attended Watauga High School, and both initially enrolled at Appalachian State University. At various times growing up, they were very likely in Blowing Rock Park after school or in Storie’s Soda Shop (AKA “Coman’s”) on Main Street, at the same time.

As teenagers, they both worked summer jobs at the former Sunshine Inn. Doug also worked at Hayden Pitts’ ESSO service station on Main Street, but with all those other things in common, you could probably guess that at some point their friendship grew closer, romance blossomed, and they got married.

And you would be right – except the romance and marriage part of the story didn’t blossom until some four decades later.

We ran in different crowds.

By their own admission, Doug and Cathy were almost total opposites when they knew each other way back when. Doug was into music, tennis, and skiing. Cathy was involved in sports and choral ensemble.

“We ran in different crowds,” Cathy told Blowing Rock News during a December interview by telephone, from her office in Florida where she serves as Director of Corporate Partnerships for the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) Tour.

DOUG: An Academic Road Not Taken – Until Later

Doug admitted to being more of a musician and a “nature boy” in his younger years.

Doug, in 8th grade

“I loved hiking around in the mountains,” he recalled. “As a young lad, we would all show up in the park on a Saturday morning and say, ‘What direction today? Let’s go to the fire tower.’ So, we would walk there from downtown Blowing Rock. Or we had some favorite places to go rock climbing. We spent a lot of time in the woods and riding bikes around town. We didn’t have any of what you might today call ‘geeky’ moments.

“It is definitely true, though,” he added, “that Cathy and I ran in different circles back then. Back then, I don’t really remember being interested in girls more than any other kid would. Cathy and I were just friendly acquaintances from going to school together.”

I wanted to fly.

Immediately after high school, Doug decided that college was not his thing.

“I didn’t consider myself a very strong student,” he admitted. “As a result, I wanted to join the military. My father was in World War II, Korea, and did two tours in Vietnam. He was a crew member on B-17s in WWII, but always wanted to be a pilot. In Korea, he was in tanks, then was in Special Forces, the Green Berets, in Vietnam.

Doug Drury’s father as a Green Beret

“I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps,” Doug recalled. “When I realized that college wasn’t for me, I joined the military and went into the 82nd Airborne, as a paratrooper. One night after we were flown to one of those drop zones at Fort Bragg, then hiked all night, I told myself, ‘You know, I’m really tired of walking.’

“About that time some helicopters flew over, low level, and I decided then and there that no matter what it took I was going to figure out how to fly helicopters. That was the beginning of my journey into aviation. I was tired of carrying around 90 lbs. of extra equipment and walking all night long just to get to our destination. I wanted to fly.”

Doug went to flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

“I had to go through the process,” he explained. “You had to apply, take a pretty rigorous physical, and be tested in math and physics.  They had to make sure I wasn’t a low-level candidate because it is quite expensive to put someone through flight school. During my time at Fort Rucker my mother, Skip Drury, passed away and my training was interrupted for a short while. Mom was a special lady in Blowing Rock. She and Hayden Pitts started the Blowing Rock Rescue Squad.”

After eventually completing flight school at Fort Rucker, Drury’s professional path took off.

“I got stationed in Hawaii,” he said, “then after we had just completed three months in Korea, I had an opportunity to go to Australia, in 1985. I was only supposed to be there three weeks and I ended up staying four months.”

When Drury got out of the Army, he started flying Apache helicopter gunships for the North Carolina National Guard, as well as flying commercially for U.S. Air Express, out of Charlotte.

U.S. Air was in bankruptcy

Doug was very close to his sister. When she was battling cancer, he once flew an Apache helicopter from Raleigh to Blowing Rock. Once he got to Blowing Rock, he flew treetop level to greet his sister, who was living in Blowing Rock.

That’s Doug on the left.

“I worked for U.S. Air and the National Guard for a number of years, but then one day decided I wanted to go back to school,” he remembered. “U.S. Air was in bankruptcy and there was a lot of uncertainty as to their survival as a going concern.  I enrolled at UNC-Charlotte and did a double major: management information systems and industrial operations management, with a minor in Japanese.  I really enjoyed going back to school.

“About the time I was getting my degree, a friend of mine started an emergency aviation program in Pikeville, Kentucky, at the hospital up there,” Doug recalled. “He asked me to join him and become one of their pilots, which I did.

“It was all trauma work. Then one night while I was at the hospital, I turned to get out of the doctors’ and nurses’ way and my knee popped — and I fell to the ground.

On the tarmac, ready to go.

“I blew an ACL,” he explained. “In helicopter work, you need to have strong knees to push the pedals and work the equipment. They couldn’t hold my position open. It was during the Gulf War and there was a shortage of helicopter pilots. They had to fill that spot quickly. So I decided to go back to school, which led me to get a Master’s degree in higher education at Appalachian State.”

Drury’s professional ambitions by this time included getting into curriculum design, in aviation. As part of his master’s studies, he undertook an internship, which he thought he could do in Australia with Qantas Airlines, thanks to his many contacts there.

“The internship didn’t happen at Qantas,” Doug noted, “but with Virgin Australia, which was then called Virgin Blue. With Virgin, I had a chance to use my 20+ years in aviation, as well as my studies in education.  They asked me to look at human factors, such as how and why pilots work well together – and when they don’t work well together.”

I was looking at pilots — these highly trained guys — and how and why they get along.

The study commissioned by Virgin Blue led Drury to meet a faculty member at the University of South Australia, who ultimately invited the Blowing Rock native to pursue a PhD.

A white New Year’s Eve wedding in Blowing Rock…And a nice ride…PERFECT!

“I gave it a go in my field of human factors in aviation,” concluded Drury, some of the “Down Under” lingo slipping into his recollection. “At the University of South Australia, I was looking at pilots – these highly trained guys – and how and why they get along. Everyone is interested in air crash investigations and that was basically my PhD. When I was done, the University asked me to consider staying in Australia and joining their faculty.”

CATHY: All’s Well That Ends Well

As a child, Cathy initially had misgivings about Blowing Rock.

“My family moved to Blowing Rock in the summer of 1972, from Miami Beach,” she recalled. “It was traumatic for me having to go back to elementary school after being in ‘junior high’ in Miami. Luckily, I met Darcy Williamsen, who had just moved to Blowing Rock, too, from Beijing, because her father had gotten a job at App State as a history professor.

“We stuck together like glue,” Cathy added, “and, ironically, now Darcy’s husband is Doug’s best man, Luis Hernandez. Darcy remains a good friend of mine to this day, which is pretty cool after all these years.”

Asked whether she and Doug were friends back in those days, Cathy replied, “Well, we were all friends to an extent because Blowing Rock was so small and when we went to Watauga High School we were ‘the Blowing Rock gang.’ But Doug and I never dated and never ran with the same people, not really. Especially in high school, I was more of an athlete and Doug was more of a musician, although involved in some sports.”

8th grade basketball at blowing rock
#23 is Cathy, #19 is Darcy, and #27 (next to coach) is Lynn Jenkins. Can anyone name the others? Photographic image provided by Cathy Drury.

To the extent that Blowing Rock School had sports back then, both Cathy and Doug played basketball for the Rockets.

“I played basketball in the 8th grade,” she laughed. “Norman Pitts was the male tetherball champion and I was the female champion! Tetherball was a big thing in the 8th grade. That, and dodgeball.”

Doug arrived in Blowing Rock before Cathy.

“Doug got to Blowing Rock a few years ahead of me,” said Cathy. “After his family came back stateside from Okinawa they moved to Fayetteville – his father was in the Army and was one of the original Green Berets. Sadly, his father passed away when Doug was nine. After that, his mom moved the family to Blowing Rock and joined Doug’s grandparents, the Allens, who lived in Laurel Park.”

After graduating from Watauga High School in 1977, both Cathy and Doug enrolled at Appalachian State University, but only Cathy stayed, graduating in 1982. Doug’s passion for education would come later.

It’s been hard to find a parking spot on Main Street, like, forever.

“My last semester at ASU was in 1982,” remembered Cathy. “That summer I managed the Blowing Rock Park (now Memorial Park) and was a lifeguard, which was a blast. Managing the activities of the summer programs were amazing for me, including the opportunity to take Blowing Rock residents to the World’s Fair in Knoxville.

Cathy has served in executive positions with the LPGA for 24 years.

“There was an article about me that summer in the Blowing Rocket, about my internship in managing the park, getting my degree in recreation management, and being from Blowing Rock. I recall that Stacy McClendon was the author of that.  She was a young girl but wrote some articles.”

Cathy said that on one of her trips to Blowing Rock in recent years she drove by the new Robbins Pool.

“It was raining, so we didn’t go in,” she admitted. “But it looks fabulous. I can only imagine how many visitors they get, especially on big weekends like the 4th of July.”

Parking in Blowing Rock was limited back in those days, Cathy said, but there weren’t nearly as many people.

“It’s been hard to find a parking spot on Main Street like, forever,” she chuckled.

Key issues facing the town have changed, Cathy suggested.

“Getting groceries was a challenge, growing up,” she said. “The Variety Store and Craig’s were the only places you could get groceries in Blowing Rock, but you could only get the basics.  Craig’s had a certain family loyalty. The Variety Store was more of a convenience store, next door to what is now the Speckled Trout. Hartley’s Interior Design is where the variety store used to be. There really wasn’t much around.

Hangin’ out at Storie’s Soda Shop.

“But as far as key issues,” she continued, “it was such a simpler life back then. After school got out we would go to Coman’s (Storie’s Soda Shop), which was located on the corner of Sunset and Main. We’d play cards or games, then go to the Park and mess around.

“Coman Storie cared about the kids,” Cathy added. “Often, he even let us make our own shakes, floats and other soda drinks. But the amazing thing about Coman is that he did this year after year, even generations after Doug and me. One of my best memories is of the card games we would play, sitting in the booths. It was our hangout, where we were safe – back in a time when you didn’t even think about having to feel safe.”

Cathy’s family owned Roaring River Chalets, between Boone and Blowing Rock, which they operated for more than 25 years.

“One of the interesting things about our two families, Doug and I, was that there were five kids in each one, two boys and three girls, so both relatively large families.

It was our hangout, where we were safe — back in a time when you didn’t even think about having to feel safe.

“This was just such a wonderful place to grow up in. Kids would ride bicycles. Doug’s friends, Rick Rupert and Mike Clawson, owned a horse and kept it out at the Blowing Rock stables, and the three of them would go after school, take care of the horse, and sometimes ride. Other horses needed to be exercised.

“Where can you do that now?  It was such a tight-knit community. Everybody knew and helped each other. Coming from Miami it was culture shock, but in time I got to appreciate what the town had to offer. You felt like you were part of something.”

Revisiting the haunts of their youth…

While talking about life as a youngster in Blowing Rock, Cathy described the town swimming pool in the summer as the source of entertainment and, from time to time, making new friends.

“There didn’t seem to be a lot of new kids because this was really an older demographic of people coming up to their second home for the summer,” she recalled. “Occasionally, we would meet someone’s grandkids, of course, but they usually didn’t stay for very long. I did meet a lot of kids whose families were staying at Roaring River Chalets. It was always an adventure, no matter what we did.”

“We had to create a lot of our own entertainment,” Doug interjected. “We went to Tweetsie and Mystery Hill, but you couldn’t do that every day. Yonahlosse Theatre on Main Street provided many hours of entertainment. Movies were under a dollar. There were fishing and camping, but not much else that was affordable without going off the mountain. This was well before smartphones, PCs, and the Internet.”

Reminisces and Realizations

As Cathy has grown in her sports marketing career, she learned just how small the world seems to be at times.

“When I moved from Atlanta to Daytona after graduating from App State,” she said, “I met this circle of people and it turns out that one of their parents were friends with the Hiltons in Blowing Rock, and they used to bring singers from Stetson University to the Farm House. So that is a small world story, for sure.”

World travels and advanced education have not dulled either Doug’s or Cathy’s fondness for their early years in Blowing Rock. It is an affection that bubbles to the surface in every story they share.

First flowers from Doug…

An iconic eatery in Blowing Rock’s history was The Sunshine Inn, which early on was owned by the Burns family.  Over the years, other businesses evolved in that location under different ownership.  For several years it was Crippens, but currently it is home to New Public House.

The Burns family retired from The Sunshine Inn in 1970, and the woman who bought it from them was Kathryn Lawrence.

“She was a sweet little lady,” Cathy recalled. “But another funny thing about this story is that Doug told me all these years later that he worked there, too.  Darcy and I were out in the dining room part of the restaurant. Doug said he was back in the kitchen.  I just don’t remember him working there.”

“Cathy was out front, hosting,” Doug recalled, laughing. “I was in the back, washing dishes and cleaning up.”

A New Year’s Wedding – in Blowing Rock, Of Course

Neither realized at the time that they would eventually be a major part of each other’s lives. They were simply on separate growth and career paths in their adolescent, teen, young adult, and even middle adult years.

Featured players in the wedding party — Darcy, Cathy, Doug, Luis

So, with 10,092 miles and a few time zones between them, how does this late-in-life courtship even get started?

About 11 years ago, both attended a Watauga High School class reunion.  After the larger group function, the “Blowing Rock Gang,” as Cathy calls it, kept the night alive with a “post-party” party.

“It was probably the first reunion I had been back to,” Doug recalled, “because I had been stationed overseas in the military and missed them, all the way to the 30th. In that first one that I went to, all of us from Blowing Rock sort of gravitated together again. I hadn’t seen them all since high school.

“This was up at the old Broyhill Center at Appalachian State. We had a wonderful time, so we got together again the next night and the night after that as a group. We just all really enjoyed catching up with each other. There were probably 15 of us.  The Blowing Rock kids had a special relationship.”

First date!

Several years went by before Doug called Cathy on one of his frequent U.S. trips to Daytona Beach where he would meet and collaborate with officials at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.  He had some free time and asked her to dinner.  At this point, both had been divorced for several years from earlier marriages.  They enjoyed each other’s company, which often included conversations about growing up in Blowing Rock.

“He would call me every time he flew in to work at Embry Riddle,” Cathy said. “After the third year of these periodic dinner dates, we just clicked.”

A long-distance romance seemed challenging but, somehow, they have made it work.

On December 31st, New Year’s Eve, the couple started the new year by embarking on a new life adventure, together, as Mr. and Mrs. Doug Drury.  In front of family and friends, they repeated their vows at St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church, in Blowing Rock, the same church Doug had attended as a youngster.

Steve Gragg officiated the Levering-Drury wedding ceremonies, a friend of the couple with strong ties to Blowing Rock and the High Country.

“Steve is a retired Navy chaplain,” explained Levering. “His grandparents had a house on Skyland Drive. His grandfather was a caretaker for a lot of the residents who lived along the gorge. Some of them were famous and came from well-to-do backgrounds.

An image of Cathy hugging this red maple tree in Memorial Park — collector’s item?

“Funny,” Cathy continued, “I didn’t meet Steve until five years ago. I was flying out to Colorado where we, the LPGA Tour, were having our Solheim Cup competition, the USA vs. Europe. I was sitting on an airplane in Atlanta and we were waiting for one more passenger.  That last passenger was Steve and he ended up sitting next to me.

“You know how you often strike up a quick conversation with the passenger sitting beside you? Well, within the first two minutes we had established that we had Blowing Rock in common and then we talked the whole time after that. We became good friends. Steve has had a lot of family written about them in Blowing Rock history books.”

“Steve came to Blowing Rock every summer,” Cathy shared. “His great uncle, Will, had Craig’s Grocery. (Laughing) I recall that at some point in time Craig’s Grocery was a place you could buy a live chicken and take it down the street to where there were some ladies who would dress it for you.  But that was way before my time.

“To get married in Blowing Rock is perfect,” concluded Cathy. “That’s the connection that brought us together and where we grew up.  Add to that: Blowing Rock is just such a special place.”

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