|"This is a very beautiful place," Joe wrote in 1919. "Look|
and the trees along the street. " Courtesy Robert Ander.
One of the fascinating things about writing in this space is that occasionally someone turns up a dusty cache of letters in a basement or attic – with no indication of what became of the letter writers. It’s puzzling and intriguing. Whatever happened to them? And why were the letters abandoned?
Here begins a curious story, pieced together from several dozen letters and postcards found in a basement on Colonial Avenue in Norfolk: A tall, dark-haired young man from Washington, N.C., Joseph F. Warren, comes to Norfolk to work as railroad clerk; and a vivacious, curly-haired young woman from Camden, N.C., Rubye E. Koontz, takes a job with a Portsmouth wood products company.
World War I comes along and Joe becomes a soldier. But apparently before going overseas, he meets Rubye and they fall in love. Soon after his arrival in France, a torrent of letters and postcards begins. Her letters are long and full of endearments. His postcards are full of wonder at being abroad for the first time.
“This is a very beautiful place,” he writes from Paris
She writes about a frightening outbreak of Spanish flue, part of a worldwide epidemic, but assures him she’ll be all right. “Don’t worry about me, sweetheart. . . .” And there’s news of a wild rampage by inebriated sailors in Portsmouth that included gunshots and arrests.
Fortunately for Joe, the war is almost over. Soon after he lands in France, this newspaper banners a headline: GERMAN ARMIES IN FULL FLIGHT. By November the armistice is signed and “Jo-Jo,” is coming home to his “Snooks.” There’s a telegram showing how anxious she is to see him but uncertain when he’ll arrive.
But then there’s this: “Mr. and Mrs. W.L. Koontz announce the marriage of their daughter Rubye Elizabeth to Mr. Joseph F. Warren on June the twenty-third, nineteen hundred and twenty, Elizabeth City, N.C.” The couple would be at home after July 5 on Webster Avenue in Portsmouth.
Now a gap of several years. Then in 1929 the letters resume, but this time she’s writing to him from Portsmouth, where she works for the D.H. Gowing Veneer Co. They’re addressed to him on Boush Street in Norfolk, then Colonial Avenue. One is to the Atlantic Coast Line R.R. Hospital in South Rocky Mount, N.C.
Rubye tries calling Joe from where she lives in Cradock, but it isn’t easy because she has to walk several blocks to reach a phone. One letter, full of sorrow, is signed “Your brokenhearted Snooks.”
Then the trail almost vanishes. A search of census reports fails to disclose their status, although one in 1930 finds Rubye K. Warren living as a single lodger along with several others in an apartment in Norfolk. Now the record falls silent.
Happily, last Sunday, while reading this column, Bud Dalby called to his wife, Patsy, “You won’t believe this; I’m reading about your aunt.” She contacted me and here are some of the missing gaps.
Rubye went from being a bookkeeper in Portsmouth to a successful businesswoman in Detroit. She was gone most of the year, returning home briefly at Easter and Christmas – and showering her many nieces and nephews with presents. “I adored her,” Patsy Dalby says.
“All the kids in the neighborhood would come down to see what Aunt Rubye gave us,” she adds. Among the gifts were the latest Madam Alexander dolls.
At the time, Joe and Rubye had a home on the water in Wilhoughby, Patsy says. But she was rarely there.
“All my life, until I got older, I didn’t understand why a woman would be away from her husband that much,” says her niece.
Social Security death notices show that Joe died in 1967 at age 71. She took it hard. “When he died, she just went all to pieces,” says Dalby.
She outlived him by almost 30 years, passing away at a nursing home in Richmond in 1995 at the age of 97. The Richmond Public Library found an obituary in the Times-Dispatch that shows she was survived by a sister, two nieces and three nephews. Graveside services were to be held at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Norfolk.
Lastly, from an unusual source, findagrave.com, there’s a photo of a grave marker at Forest Lawn. Joe and Rubye are buried side by side.