Ruth Wilkins Camp:
The Woman Who Outlasted Hospice
Ruth Camp is a woman of remarkable strength who has lived all her life in Cliffside. Almost 50 years ago she developed breast cancer. Surgery followed surgery – followed surgery, as the malignancy seemed determined to recur. But she finally overcame her cancer. Then 24 or so years ago she developed heart problems. As with the cancer, her heart problems hung on and on until late in 2002 she was turned over to hospice – and it is clear what that (usually) means. As she describes what followed, she woke up in early 2004 and wondered “Who is this woman who’s giving me a bath?” She lost almost a year and a half, but hospice is now gone and Ms. Camp is not.
Ruth Wilkins Camp was born September 12, 1926 to John Matthew Wilkins and Mamie Littlejohn Wilkins. She spent her childhood in a house just south of the Haynes Grove Baptist Church, and much of her adult life at 22 West Avenue, the house just at the corner of West Avenue and Railroad Place. Of course, not many who grew up in Cliffside ever knew those streets existed. Together West Avenue and Railroad Place made up the street that we all knew as “White Line.”
Ruth started school in the Haynes Grove Church, where the sanctuary was divided by a curtain on a wire to make an area for school use. She recalls a pot bellied stove that the boys fed with wood they brought in from outside. And she recalls her teacher, Mr. Odell Hamrick, who was also a brick mason. Mr. Hamrick must have commanded great respect for he is never referred to as Odell, or Odell Hamrick, but always Mr. Odell Hamrick. And then in January of 1936 she moved across the railroad and up the hill to the little brick school which at that time was brand new. Again this school was heated by a pot bellied stove but coal was delivered and stored under the school, so the problem of finding fuel was diminished. According to Ms. Camp the school had two classrooms with an auditorium in the middle, and there were two “outhouses” behind the school – one male and one female. This school only accommodated students through 7th grade. Ruth then had to ride a bus everyday to Forest City to attend high school at Grahamtown School.
When Ruth was young the social life of the Black community revolved around the church, the school, and the café, located on the west side of the railroad tracks at West Ave. and Railroad Place, after it was built in the late 1940’s. She recalls that her family was always involved in the church; and she remembers her father being called out to solve someone’s plumbing problems as he was going out the door to church. In particular she recalls that one morning Dr. Radford called to say that his daughter had dropped a contact lens down a sink drain; and off went her dad. (John Wilkins and his brother Hosea were both plumbers. John worked in Cliffside and Hosea in Avondale.)
At the café people would gather and dance. Or if missionaries were visiting the church, a dinner or bazaar might be held in the café. The building housing the café had three rooms. On one end was the café, on the other end was a beauty parlor, and in the middle it was intended there would be a barber shop. But no one ever chose to operate the barber shop so the café expanded into two rooms.
At Grahamtown, as at all schools at that time, there were only 11 grades. But before Ruth completed 11th grade she married Johnnie Lee Camp. Johnnie Camp was born October 1, 1926, a son of Tuther Camp and Delia Diver Camp. Ruth and Johnnie were married on January 21, 1945. Shortly thereafter Johnnie was called into the service.
Ruth recalls a long life of work, and she finds it hard to believe that hard work ever did anyone harm. She was working at the Pruette’s boarding house when she was so young that she needed help to make a bed. After her marriage she began work in Sorgee’s café in the basement of the Haynes Memorial Building. This was the first of many positions as cook that Ruth has held. She cooked with Maudie Littlejohn in the café that was above the garage; she has cooked for the school. And she is quick to say that she is still a great cook. (As part of this information was being gathered she cooked a bread pudding that could easily be the best that has ever been!)
Johnnie Camp died April 6, 1995 but Ruth still has her three daughters, two grandchildren, and extended family. Her three children, in birth order, are: Lendra Ruth whose son Lamar is an electrical engineering student who achieved the rank of Eagle Scout at age 16, Trudy Gail whose daughter Starlyn is an award winning singer, and Angela Renee. Trudy, it is interesting to note, was the first Black majorette at Chase high school. And Angela has her mother’s toughness and tenacity.
Angela lost her eyesight when she was 13. But this slowed her down little, if at all. She served as usher in her church, and insisted on doing so without a cane. A corneal transplant in one eye gave her back some sight, while a second transplant failed. But, determined, she had a third transplant which was successful. She is now sighted and has studied at UNC Asheville and Gardner-Webb, where she obtained her degree. Like mother, like daughter.
Ruth Camp is now retired and living just about where her father’s house stood. John Wilkins moved his house to Caroleen when the “company houses” were being sold or destroyed in the late 1960’s. In 1973 Ruth and Johnnie bought the lot just south of where John Wilkins’ house had previously stood. There they built the comfortable home they shared until Johnnie’s death. Ruth has somehow come full circle in her life.
Update: Shortly after this article was written, Mrs. Camp’s heart problems returned. In early March she once again entered hospice care; she died on April 10 . This obituary appeared in area newspapers:
CLIFFSIDE, NC— Mrs. Ruth Naomi Wilkins Camp, 79, widower of Mr. Johnny Camp, of 177 Hames Grove Church Road, Cliffside, NC, died at her home on Monday morning. She was the daughter of the late Mr. John Matthew Wilkins and Mrs. Mamie Littlejohn Wilkins. Mrs. Camp was a member of the Hames Grove Baptist Church.
Survivors are, three daughters, Lendra (Raymond) Phillips, of Boiling Springs, NC, Trudy (Willie Earl) Moore, of Spartanburg, SC, Angela Phillips, of Knightdale, NC; one brother, John L. Wilkins, of Forest City, NC; four sisters, Mary Frances Gray, of South Floral Park, NY, Idile (Ulysses) Williams, of Spartanburg, SC, Jenella Bowditch, of Avondale, NC, Patricia (James) Wright, of Mount Vernon, NY, and two grandchildren, Starlyn (Jeton) Hughes, of the home, and Raymond Lamar Phillips, of Concord, NC.
After Mrs. Camp’s death this item appeared in Remember Cliffside’s Guest Book:
This past Sunday I found out one of the greatest ladies that ever lived in Cliffside has passed. She was a dear friend and I didn’t even know in time to go to her funeral. She was a saint of Cliffside who gave of herself and has at some time touched the lives of all the children who passed through Cliffside school. Her name is Ruth Camp, a true lady and saint of this small town. She will surely be missed but remembered so fondly by us all.