If visiting Virginia Cary at her home, you would be welcomed by the subtle ticking of clocks, a slightly shaggy, small statured dog named Samson and, of course, an offer of coffee–all before making a few steps through the door. This was my experience on more than one occasion. Virginia is a seasoned conversationalist. If anything else, her walls are full of conservation starters. Her mostly wooden clock collection, books, interesting antiques and of primary importance, her family photos are all proudly on display. Included in this collection is a plaque honoring Virginia Cary for 50 years of service to the Lumbermen’s Club of Memphis.
Virginia’s career in lumber began in 1952 where she served as an inventory clerk for Cole Manufacturing Company. Whether intentional or not, Virginia broke the male dominated norms in the lumber industry. Learning the hardwood lumber sales trade while working for Craft Dewey, in 1968, she became one of only two women, at the time, selling hardwood lumber. Virginia then went on to work for Frank A. Conkling Company in 1974, where she eventually became manager for their accounting department. Here she was as well known for her prompt, courteous, problem solving skills, as she was for her quick wit. By 1992, after serving 25 years as Assistant Secretary-Treasurer for the Lumbermen’s Club of Memphis, she became the first female to be honored as a LCM member. For a club, which, at that time, was 94 years old, that’s quite a breakthrough!
Over the course of 65 years, Virginia has been a participant in the lumber industry from many angles. With a sense of humor and positive outlook, she has navigated professional and personal challenges with panache. She held her own in a male dominated business world, circled the dance floor at the LCM annual Woodchoppers Ball, steered clear of corrupt business deals, all while single-handedly raising four children. She recalls the highs and lows of the industry–the bottoming out in the early 80’s when 12,000 saw mills closed in the West Coast. In all her recollections, one thing is clear to Virginia, “When you enjoy something it’s not a job.”
I have heard Virginia talk about wood products. “They’re everywhere, from toilet paper to pencils to furniture. We use wood products everyday.” Her appreciation is obvious. And yet, her personal fondness towards the lumber industry is rooted in the opportunity it allowed her to provide for her family as a single mom of four. “My first job paid enough to cover one month’s rent, however, I was so grateful for the lumber industry for giving me a job.”
Virginia’s pride is her family. It would be difficult to have a conversation with her without a mention of her 4 children, 6 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. All who enjoy Nana’s yummy holiday food (famous dressing & gravy), her laid back, comical nature and trustworthy ways to either give or receive information. Upon a visit to Virginia’s house, you can hear stories about each child while observing photo collages and her son’s carpentry skills.
Virginia is not only good for a laugh, she is loyal to the core. Her friendships last a lifetime. Virginia recalls her best friend from freshman year of high school. “She sat behind me in several classes but we never met. So, I placed a black piece of paper over my teeth, turned around and smiled real big.” The laugh began a friendship that remains to this day. “Oh yea, we’re still friends. She drove 6 hours to visit last Thanksgiving.”
A little known secret about Virginia is that she is not only a comedian but also a poet. Her poetry exists in the form of small manual typed up prose on half page, now yellowed, lined paper. All hole punched and perfectly housed in a little black three ring binder–Virginia’s personal pandora box of word puns and thought snippets. These lines express quirks of country living, relationships, mom, dad, childhood and the splendor of another era. “I’m not schooled in writing, they’re not fancy words, just some things I get in the middle of the night or early in the morning,” she says.
Among the hobbies Virginia has enjoyed over the years are buying, selling, refinishing and collecting antiques. In fact, she spent several years in business doing just that. She eventually folded the business in 1976 due to problems with her business partner. Virginia recalls purchasing old cotton gin scales from around the country, transporting and reselling them to restaurants and museums all over. “It was so much fun, we made a killing and it was gratifying to know we were helping to preserve and display history all over.”
In a world where things change so fast, people move around and the past becomes quickly forgotten, it is refreshing to observe one who stays the course. Virginia can tell you about a time when the LCM had 400 members and when manual typewriters and handwriting were the main form of documentation in the business world. She can tell you first hand about the Club transitions over the past 50 years, and yet, Virginia herself is a constant. She keeps track of important news and updates of club members, handles finances and logistics for club events and remains THE go to for each new LCM president.
Virginia is a staple in the Lumbermen’s club, a time capsule of news and information on the industry, a safe place for friends and family and a picture of loyalty and life. And if you have the chance to stop by for a visit, you will be sure to leave with a smile on your face and a few interesting stories tucked in your pocket.