Clayton has bid farewell to a woman whose love and service left an indelible mark on the town.
Sybil Champion, who will turn 94 on March 28, has moved 70 miles away to Greenville. For the second time in her long life, she has started over.
This time, she left her friends, her colleagues and her big white house in Clayton for a neat apartment in the sprawling Cypress Glen United Methodist retirement community.
The parting was painful.
“Miss Champion is the tops of the library and the community and everything,” said retired librarian and longtime friend Betty Coats. “The whole community has benefited from her being here. We’re going to miss her.”
Before Champion left town March 3, her house welcomed a stream of visitors. The Woman’s Club of Clayton held a high tea in her honor, complete with hats, gloves, speeches and gifts. The club donated more than $1,000 to the library “in appreciation for her dedicated service” there. Mayor Jody McLeod wrote her a public letter of thanks. The board of Hocutt-Ellington Memorial Library honored her at its most recent meeting for her years of service. First Baptist Church of Clayton dedicated its 200th anniversary commemoration book to “a sweet, delightful and intelligent Christian lady.”
“She could have been born here, as much as she did,” Coats said.
But, in fact, Champion was born in England. She grew up in Winchester with an older brother and sister. Her father transported wares to stores, and her mother kept the house.
In June 1946, at the age of 26, she arrived in the United States a war bride.
“She came to Clayton with the idea that if she didn’t like it, she could go home, and if she did like it, it would be her home,” said her friend, Doris Grissom.
As Champion put it to Grissom, “I had money in my pocket.”
But Champion did like it, and she stayed, taking an active role in promoting the town and preserving its history.
According to a 1971 article in The Smithfield Herald, Champion’s interest in Clayton’s history began when her husband gave her a copy of “The History of Clayton” by John T. Talton.
Champion went on to chair the historical committee during the centennial celebration in 1969, work extensively in the history room at Hocutt-Ellington Memorial Library, write the history of the Women’s Club and put together the 200th year celebration of First Baptist Church.
Her biggest task might have been the fundraising for the new Hocutt-Ellington Memorial Library building. When Champion came to town, the library occupied a tiny space in the old town hall.
“If it hadn’t been for Miss Champion and all her work, we would not be in this building,” Coats said. She added that when Champion went door to door to homes and businesses asking for donations, people could see the passion “beaming out of her.”
Champion developed her love for books in England. When she was 5 or 6, her brother took her to the library in Winchester. She found a book she wanted to read, but the librarian thought it was too mature for her. Instead, the librarian gave her something called “The Blue Fairy.”
Champion didn’t want to read that book so she went and found her brother, who checked the book out for her.
“For some time, that’s what we did,” Champion said. “I’d pick the books, and he’d take them out for me.
“Since then, I always thought you should never tell a child they can’t read a book, because they will find out. It’s better they find out than you tell them.”
It was in England where Champion met her husband, a soldier named B. Wilson Champion. World War II was raging, and he had just arrived from Africa. They met at a party, fell in love and wrote letters across the Atlantic Ocean for three years.
“It took a long time because the American Embassy wouldn’t give you a visa without a plane ticket, and the plane company wouldn’t sell you a ticket without a visa,” Champion said. “I finally said, ‘Something’s got to give.’ ”
Something did give. Champion eventually got her visa and came to Clayton, where she married Wilson. They bought a house, fixed it up and reared three children. He worked in Raleigh, and she kept house while staying active in the community.
“My husband said to me, ‘If you live in a community, you should contribute. I will make a living. You should contribute.’ And that’s what we did for many years,” Champion said.
She contributed to the library, the Women’s Club and more. She was Clayton’s Distinguished Citizen in 1975. She became a mother and grandmother and friend.
Grissom said Champion had been a “great friend.” After their husbands died, Champion and Grissom went everywhere together, from concerts at The Clayton Center to getaways at Grissom’s beach cottage in Kitty Hawk.
“She’s just been somebody I could count on,” Grissom said. “We’ve enjoyed this time, and I’m trying to get adjusted in my mind that she is not going to be here. I’m sure I’ll get to see her again, but it won’t be the same.”
Despite having many friends, Champion lived alone. A stroke a year ago told her she needed to move.
“I recovered from it well, but I thought that was fair warning,” Champion said. “I realized I needed to make a change.”
Nestled in a room on the third floor of the main building of Cypress Glen, Champion said she wants to make the best of her new home. She gestured to her apartment, saying she has all she needs. The people are friendly, the food is good (maybe too good, she said), and “they have something going on every day.”
“Anyway it’s going to be an adventure,” Champion said, adding with a chuckle, “At least that’s the way I’m going to look at it. Otherwise I’ll just look at it that I’m living with a bunch of old people.”
It might be an adventure, but change is hard.
“I miss the people there terribly,” Champion said of Clayton. “Certainly I’ll make new friends, but they’re not like the old ones you knew for years, because there’s no chance to reminisce.”