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Charlotte's web: Popular local storyteller shares tales collected over decades in her memoir
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Charlotte's web: Popular local storyteller shares tales collected over decades in her memoir

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GREENSBORO — A young Charlotte Hamlin began improvising stories in the conversations with her parents and siblings around their potbelly stove.

Each time her military family changed addresses, her material expanded, and her storytelling abilities grew.

But Hamlin didn’t have a name for her storytelling personas, including the female sea captain, until she took early retirement as a Guilford College administrator and one of her young fans demanded it.

"What is your name?" a second grader asked as she spoke to their classroom in 2002.

"Charlotte Hamlin," she repeated.

"No,” Hamlin recalled the boy asking, "What is your storytelling name?"

So Hamlin asked the class what it should be and several students shouted "Charlotte's Web," as in the beloved story.

Because spiders are iconic figures — both foolish and wise — in folktales around the world, she said, she went with "Charlotte Webspinner."

Remembering the moment and the students' excitement brings a smile to the face of the 82-year-old barrier-breaking former teacher, college administrator, human relations trainer and educational researcher who has collected lore and vivid images from her travels and experiences.

All those stories — many jotted down over time — are part of a memoir that includes the popular storyteller's years as a world traveler and later, in hospice, where the extrovert and optimist is now fighting stage four cancer.

In "Charlotte Webspinner: A Life of Interconnecting Circles," the former board member of the North Carolina Storytelling Guild includes the aunt who worked in the "lost and found" department at the D.C. Transit Company and always had funny stories to tell about items people lost on a bus and did not return to claim, including all the umbrellas she gave to her extended family. Also included is Othelia McDowell, who cleaned their home two days a week when the family moved from California to Durham.

"For decades, she worked for my parents and knew more of my mother’s inner thoughts than anyone, but I doubt they ever ate at the same table," wrote Hamlin of the African American woman.

The women, Hamlin wrote, would have otherwise been considered best friends. Hamlin revered her.

A small first printing sold out.

"So many great stories," daughter Susan Jacobsen said of the book and her mom.

'A woman of few words and many paragraphs'

Hamlin tires easily most days but not in this moment.

Draped in a blue-hued afghan knitted for her mom by a friend, Hamlin is on the other side of a window in the Friends Homes Guilford community out of precaution against COVID-19.

She came to the sprawling community years ago as part of her retirement, and has gone from a cottage at Friends Homes filled with the pirate hat and other storytelling props to the skilled care wing with those she calls her extended family.

For nearly two decades, she has been a professional storyteller in the N.C. Storytelling Guild and the Triad Storytelling Exchange, the latter of which she founded.

Using a headset and lapel microphone this day, and with oxygen to help her speak, she is still very much a storyteller.

Born in 1939, when women’s roles and leadership opportunities were limited, she was able to break major barriers with the support of family and colleagues.

Back in preschool, she not only loved hearing stories but also performing songs, stories and rhymes for others. Later in her career, she performed stories of courage, many of them created to empower women.

"A colleague once introduced me as 'a woman of few words and many paragraphs,'" Hamlin recalled.

Writing the book brought back memories of people and adventure, but also what she describes as her misdirection, regret and life lessons.

The family's nomadic military lifestyle stateside during World War II forced her to constantly make new friends. She'd pull out her toys on the steps of their apartment and ask other children passing by if they wanted to play.

The Red Flyer wagon her parents sacrificed to buy her one Christmas, she said, worked "like a charm."

She was also adventurous and later engaged the other children in a talent show.

Hamlin has lots of personal stories to share.

Like the time she nearly drowned when the family traveled to Indiana to visit friends. The children had been dropped off at the pool, and she would disappear among the children playing tag in the shallow end. No one noticed the 9-year-old who couldn't swim had been accidentally pushed into deep water.

"I clearly recall a great sense of calmness as I repeatedly sank to the 8-foot bottom, pushed up to the sky, gasping for air and waving my arms before sinking to the bottom, again and again," Hamlin said.

She recalls losing consciousness. Another kid pointed out her motionless body floating face down to the lifeguard, who put down his comic book and raced to get to her.

Her parents were told that she had come within 50 seconds of death.

"My pool angel," she calls the lifeguard who performed CPR.

Her father's last assignment was at the Pentagon. Soon after, the family moved to California, with her father accepting a position with his old company, BC, the makers of BC Powder, as West Coast sales manager to expand the product's reach. Her father was later promoted and moved the family to Durham, where he became national sales manager.

For the first time, she had young relatives nearby, but she chafed under segregation. She was warned not to speak out or it could affect her father's career.

She had attended integrated schools in California and had friends from diverse ethnic groups and rejected prejudice against Black people.

"However, I was told that expressing such 'radical' thoughts in Durham might endanger my father’s job," Hamlin said. "So I kept my egalitarian thoughts to a small circle of friends and lived through the gradual desegregation process."

She became more of a social activist after returning to North Carolina in the 1970s, when court-ordered busing began to desegregate schools.

Later, as an educator, she chose to work in integrated schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system and for the Model Cities program, which launched her later work as a cultural diversity trainer, promoting inclusion and social justice.

She traces her interest in cultural diversity and social justice, which became part of her professional career in later years, to her teen years in the segregated South.

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"It was freeing to finally be able to speak up," Hamlin said.

Hamlin met her future husband, Gilbert Jacobsen, while in college on a study abroad program in France. Years later they would marry and stay abroad in places like Denmark and London before moving to Charlotte.

The two, who had unsuccessfully tried having children with the help of a fertility clinic, decided to adopt. Soon, a months-old smiling, chubby, blue-eyed Erik arrived.

"He won our hearts from the first moment," she recalled.

Susan came a few years later.

Eventually, Jacobsen's job transferred him to Philadelphia, but the marriage wouldn't survive. Shortly after their 25th anniversary the two divorced. Hamlin later met and married her second husband, Jim Weddle, and in 1991 they moved to Greensboro, which had been her mother's hometown.

Hamlin later went to work at Guilford College, first as dean of students and later director of the Center for Continuing Education at the college.

Hamlin had already completed the postgraduate certificate in education at the University of London, which stressed experiential learning with an emphasis on drama and storytelling. She often used this technique for several years while teaching a mixed age and ability class in a village school in the 1960s.

She has a bachelor's degree in English from Duke University, a master's degree in counseling from Villanova University, and a doctorate in human development and counseling from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

Hamlin also used an interactive teaching style and lots of storytelling during her career in higher education as chief student affairs officer at several colleges and universities.

In the 1990s, Hamlin oversaw a program at Guilford College to develop a diversity dramatists training program to teach community volunteers to provide human relations and cultural diversity awareness programs throughout Guilford County.The objective was to have an active role in reducing interpersonal conflict and building a stronger sense of community.

Her experiences led to her being asked to create programs for companies and programs.

Hamlin and Weddle divorced in 1996.

As a single woman, she traveled by RV and airplanes.

And then came the diagnosis in 2010.

Just a small lump in her breast. But it was cancerous.

Treatment required one week of radiation and no chemotherapy.

"The unexpected diagnosis reminded me that every day is a gift not to be wasted," Hamlin said.

Big red London bus

When Hamlin later retired from administrative work at Guilford College, she was looking for something to do that would be challenging and fun

A friend suggested she become a professional storyteller and storytelling coach.

She had already led team-building workshops with a number of agencies, including the Charlotte district office of N.C. Small Business Administration, while specializing in diverse cultures, people and times.

"At the age of 76 years old, I was amazed to receive a call from the professional development director of the U.S. Geological Survey inviting me to lead a half-day workshop for senior managers on 'Storytelling as a Leadership Skill!'” Hamlin wrote.

"Story slams" followed at Scuppernong Books and even the Greensboro Public Library.

She began writing portions of her memoirs.

Hamlin was nearly finished with it last year when she flew to Rhode Island to spend Christmas with her daughter, Susan.

She had been extremely tired and breathing irregularly for several weeks.

When her daughter noticed Hamlin's loud wheezing and unsteady movement she insisted her mother go to the emergency room. Tests showed cancer cells in a fluid buildup around her lungs. The cancer was back and spreading.

It pushed her to finish the book, just as COVID-19 was making headlines.

"She knew that if she was going to do it, she was going to have to do it now," said her friend, Dr. Rita Layson, a hospice and palliative care medicine specialist who she met singing in the choir at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro.

Treatment had little effect.

"She's very optimistic ... but she's not a denier — if this is the way it is, this is the way it is," Layson said. "She was never back to the Charlotte of old, the Energizer Bunny that just kept going."

As she began to tire while talking to visitors on the other side of the window at Friends Home, she is reminded of a story her father once told her about a near-death experience during surgery for varicose veins while she traveled abroad. 

After the routine surgery, he did not wake up in the recovery room, she said. He described to her an out-of-body experience, even seeing the doctors working to revive him. 

He told her he felt very peaceful — as his spirit rose up and floated away above them, down a long dark tunnel where he saw his life flash before him.

He told her he felt the welcoming presence of his parents and wartime friends who greeted him, she wrote.

"He did not call the presence God or Jesus, just 'the Light,'" Hamlin said. "He told me his life passed before his eyes, and he felt affirmed by the Light for the good he had done and forgiven for things he had not done well. "

He wanted to stay in that place, she said, but was told by the "Light" that his work was not done and he must return to his family.

"He told me that his 'near-death' journey to the Light had completely removed his fear of death and given him a deep sense of peace," she said.

He told her he was not in any hurry to take the next bus to eternity, but he would be waiting for her. They then joked about bus schedules and rides they wanted to take together.

"In my imagination, Daddy’s bus resembles a big red London bus, where departing souls enter at the front and from the back door small souls on wings fly to earth to be born," Hamlin wrote.

He said he never told anyone else for fear they would think he had lost his mind. But it's a story Hamlin likes to share, especially now.

"I know my time is limited," Hamlin said, clear-eyed. "I know the bus is going to pick me up."

Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.

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