He was raised in the old ways. They were good enough for him, and they would be good enough for his children.
Jean Autry Bessent of Charlotte died at home of lung cancer Feb. 2, 2011, at age 70. He retired from Willamette Industries when he was 61 and became disabled.
“He was named for cowboy Gene Autry,” said granddaughter Asha Smith. His mother loved Gene Autry but, “In those days, she never saw the name in print much, so she misspelled his first name.”
Life was slow and cautious in Fair Bluff, his small Columbus County hometown in the southeast corner of North Carolina. Daddies there didn’t let daughters take up with just anybody. If you were interested in a pretty girl, you had to pass her daddy’s careful examination first.
“Back then, they believed in asking mom and dad for courtship,” said Avella “Vel” Edge Bessent, his wife of 51 years. “He started coming around talking to my daddy. Finally, Daddy introduced me to Jean, but I couldn’t go out alone with him.”
10 ‘clock curfew
They could go to a movie if cousin Fred Edge and his girlfriend went along.
“Fred had to promise that I would be home before my 10 o’clock curfew,” Vel recalled. “Jean asked Daddy if he could marry me, and Daddy signed for us to marry when we both were 16. I stayed home, and we kept it from Mama for two months.”
Jean got a job pouring molten iron with Charlotte Pipe & Foundry. He brought Vel in the 1960s to a home he’d found on Cedar Street. The couple was blessed with son Ronald and daughters Marie and Dianne. Two other children died at birth.
The couple moved to Merriman Avenue, where they had lived since 1967.
Jean loved to sit on the porch, and it would be a rare day when Jean wasn’t there to greet neighbors and wave at passersby.
“He was so friendly to everybody and tried to feed anybody who came if they were hungry,” Vel said. “If they were hungry, I cooked a big meal.”
Daughter Dianne Smith said her dad was a “caring-hearted person.”
“If they were hungry, he fed them; if they needed a place to stay, he wouldn’t put them out,” she said. “Once he took in six kids and their mama and they stayed a year. Next, he took in a white family with two kids and they stayed six months. He always said, ‘Help others; you never know when you will need help.’ ”
Stay out of trouble
Daughter Marie Morris remembered her dad as a positive person: “He told us, ‘Do right and stay out of trouble. You can have anything in life you want and do anything you want, but you’ve got to work at it.’ ”
If young Dianne was going to be late, she knew to let someone know.
“He meant for us to be in our house with our chores done by the time he got off work,” she said. “We never sassed him.”
Dianne remembers a lesson in taking responsibility when she got her first job. “He handed me the light bill and told me to pay it. Every month, I ran around cutting off lights because I had to pay the bill,” she said.
“He believed in going to work,” she said. “He said, ‘If you’re not going to college, you need to get a job. Don’t stay out because you don’t feel well. That’s not the way you grew up. Go do your job and do it the way the man asked you.’ ”
Jean Autry Bessent and his life lessons will be missed. So will the friendly wave from the friendly man who once graced his Merriman Avenue porch.
Editor’s note: This is our series called Lives That Matter. Written by Charlotte writer Gerry Hostetler, this weekly feature will profile individuals, recently deceased, who had a positive impact on those around them.