By Connie Leinbach
Ocracoke once had a “Godmother.”
That was Blanche O’Neal Styron, mother of David Styron Jr., and kin to others on the island, including Cindy Gaskins, who was a niece.
“She ran the island from her recliner,” Gaskins said about her aunt whom she visited every summer. “She was like ‘The Godmother.’ Anything anyone wanted, she could get. If anybody needed a cake, she’d pick up the phone and call someone to do this. Sometimes she told them what kind of cake they should make.”
Sue Pentz, co-owner of the Harborside Inn with her husband Corky, agreed.
Blanche wasn’t someone a person could say no to easily.
“She knew how busy I was with running a business,” Pentz said recently, but Pentz recalled a time when Blanche called her with just such a request. “Blanche said, ‘I know you have time to bake a cake,’” Pentz said.
Corky added that Blanche knew every piece of gossip on the island.
“That phone was hot,” he said, laughing.
Once, Gaskins said, she left the house in the morning while Blanche was on the phone and when she came back a few hours later, Blanche was still on the phone with the same person.
During the 1939 July 4th holiday week, when Blanche was 17, she won the first “Miss Ocracoke” competition, sponsored by the Hyde County Chamber of Commerce weeklong convention. According to the program, the convention was in honor of Lindsay C. Warren, “the greatest Congressman in these United States.”
There were boat races, a boat parade, an “old fashion (sic) fiddler’s contest,” a fishing contest, wild pony penning, a parade, a banquet, fireworks, a ball and a “bathing beauty contest on the beach.”
In addition to “Miss Ocracoke,” prizes “to the most beautiful ladies in bathing costume” included winners from the other Hyde County districts—Swan Quarter, Fairfield, Engelhard and Scranton—and one “Miss Hyde County” selected from those winners.
In a copy of the program provided by David Styron, in a hand-written note, Blanche also was selected as “Miss Hyde County.”
Blanche was born in 1922.
She and her husband David Sr. moved north after they were married when she was 20, but returned to their island home in the early 1960s, according to Philip Howard’s blog at villagecraftsmen.blogspot.com.
For many years, Blanche was the driving force behind the Methodist Church and the Ocracoke School, where she was president of the PTA for 25 years.
To quote from Howard’s blog post after Blanche’s funeral on April 29, 2008: “As so many people said during the funeral, she was a delight to be around, because she always tempered her opinions with good humor. After the funeral, Ernest Cutler, former school principal, remarked that he often heard this from Blanche when she was president of the PTA: ‘I’ll need three volunteers . . . you, you, and you!’”
Howard’s blog continues: “We all agreed that a building at the school or the church should be named after Blanche. So much that was accomplished here on the island in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s we owe to Blanche.”
Ruth Toth, retired owner of the Café Atlantic and former teacher at Ocracoke School, concurred with Cutler’s assessment. Toth said Blanche knew people’s strengths and would sometimes decline someone’s offer to volunteer.
“What was wonderful about Blanche was that she was firm, but she was very welcoming to us newcomers,” she said.
“She pointed her fingers at us, too,” David said in an interview about his mother.
Starting as a teenager, he tagged along frequently to her activities and learned about leadership, eventually becoming a leader himself, most notably a Hyde County commissioner.
“She was involved with everything,” David said. “Before I graduated high school, I had been on every board of the church.”
An undated photo David has of his mother shows her at a desk working, and someone had written “Mayor Blanche” on it.
“She touched a lot of people,” David said.
“I miss her every day,” Gaskins added.