Ava Lavinia Gardner was born on December 24, 1922, in a community known as Grabtown near the town of Smithfield, North Carolina. According to Doris Rollins Cannon, author of the Ava Gardner biography Grabtown Girl, the community was called Grabtown because when peddlers came by to sell their wares on wagons, the people would grab at the much-wanted merchandise. It was an act of serenity to get them to calm down and buy their new wares in an orderly manner. The arrival of a wagon was a highly-anticipated event.
Ava’s father, Jonas Gardner, was originally a farmer and later ran a sawmill. Ava’s mother, Mary Elizabeth “Mollie” Gardner, ran a teacherage in the community of Brogden, close to where they lived. In the early 1900s, single, female schoolteachers were compelled by contract to live in a boarding house known as a teacherage.
I did not know Ava as a young girl, but Mr. William R. Ward, who lived in Brogden when Ava was growing up, loved to tell the story of how the local children would get flour sacks, go to the top of the water tower and slide down the guide wires. They put the sacks over the guide wires and as Jackie Gleason said “Away we go!” Mr. Ward said Ava was a real “tomboy,” and she loved the excitement of really testing life to its limits. That was the pattern of her life; she lived life to the fullest.
During the Great Depression, Mr. Gardner’s sawmill burned down, and the teacherage closed. With no other way to make a living, the Gardners moved to Newport News, Virginia, where Mrs. Gardner ran another boarding house. The naval yards there supplied workers who were glad to pay for Mrs. Gardner’s hospitality of room and board. The family lived there until, following a long illness, Mr. Gardner died, leaving Mrs. Gardner and Ava in Virginia without any family or close friends nearby.
Rock Ridge Teacherage
Mrs. Gardner desperately wanted to return to eastern North Carolina to be among her family and friends. A job vacancy arose in the Wilson County community of Rock Ridge. It was located about 10 miles from Wilson, the county seat and the largest town in the county. The Rock Ridge School teacherage needed a housekeeper, cook, and cleaner, all rolled into one. Mrs. Gardner ran the teacherage in a very efficient manner, and she was beloved by all who knew her.
My parents, Dewey Sr. and Emily, had an apartment on one side of the teacherage, and we lived across the hallway from Mrs. Gardner and Ava. Only eight years separated my Mama and Ava, so they were like sisters. There are almost 16 years between Ava and me, and when I was young those years seemed like eons.
Ava with a group of others in front of Rock Ridge Teacherage. The small child in the front center is Dewey Sheffield.
Ava graduated from Rock Ridge High School in 1939. My mother, who had gone to East Carolina Teachers College for only two years, was teaching on a C certificate and being paid much less than a teacher with an A certificate. My father got Mama enrolled at our local college in Wilson, now known as Barton College, but it was known as Atlantic Christian College (ACC) in the 30s and 40s. Ava went to ACC with Mama and took classes toward a secretarial degree. They had to schedule their classes while Daddy was teaching because there was only one car among them, which Daddy used to go see the farmers when school was done for the day.
Mama always said that she and Ava felt real lucky when they had saved enough money to go to the movies on the days that my father did not need his car. When they saw Clark Gable on the screen, they felt like they had seen one of the Greek Gods. Mama and Ava also enjoyed going out for a hot dog once in a while, and they were as pleased with it as if they had a gourmet meal at The Brown Derby.
Ava Gardner holding a young Dewey Sheffield.
One time my much younger sister Mary was having a birthday party, and Ava heard about it. She called Mama to see if it would be all right for her and Jack, Ava’s beloved older brother, to come. Now, Mary’s birthday is August 13, and mine is December 19. I was fussing because I thought I was being ignored at Christmas time. Ava and I had been sitting on the backdoor stoop while she smoked her cigarette, and I told her my woes. Ava got up, took me to the calendar in the kitchen, and pointed to December 24. She said, “This is my birthday, no one knows it is on the calendar.” I never complained about my situation again, and every year, from then on, when I sent her a Christmas card, I always sent her a birthday card too.
Article from the Rocky Mount Telegram reporting a 1942 visit Ava Gardner paid to the Sheffields.
Another time, when I was in high school, our family – Daddy, Mama, Mary, and I – all had the flu. We all felt like “warmed-over death.” Daddy was doing much better than the rest of us and had gone to see a farmer about a sick hog. The doorbell rang, and it was Ava and her nephew, who was driving her that day. She was headed to a tea party being given in her honor in Wilson by her aunt and namesake Ava Virginia Gardner Speight.
My mother was a meticulous housekeeper, but, due to her flu, the house needed a lot of help. When Ava arrived, she called her nephew in and put him to work with the vacuum cleaner. Mama pleaded with Ava to go ahead to the tea party. Ava told Mama those people were mostly strangers, and they could wait, but we were “family and friends.” Ava had the house in A-1 shape, and, after about two hours, she went on to Wilson. I remember it all like yesterday. While Ava washed the dishes that had filled our sink, I dried them, and she told me how good it made her feel to be able to do something for her friends.
One of my favorite memories of Ava occurred in the summer of 1957. Bill Long, a national industrialist from Tarboro, NC, was having a party at the Tarboro Country Club to honor Jack (or Melvin, as Ava called him) and his bride-to-be. Bill was a great enjoyer of life and always had a soft spot in his heart for Ava, but she looked on him as a good friend of her brother and a wonderful host. Ava so wanted Mama and Daddy to go to the party. Daddy was working on his master’s degree from NC State College and could not go, so I was drafted to take Mama. She was thrilled, and Ava was happy, too, because she wanted some of her friends there. I was a 19-year old cadet at Oak Ridge Military Institute at the time, and I had never had alcohol.
An hour and a half after she was supposed to be there, in walked Ava and Walter Chiari. He was an Italian actor who had acted with Ava in the movie The Little Hut, and he was obsessed with her. She had long gotten over him and thought she had seen the last of him, but he kept popping up. I can still picture her when she came into the room, wearing a long white dress and so delighted to see close friends. She made a straight beeline for me and asked me to dance. After a while, she told me I was too stiff and gave me what I thought was ginger ale off a tray. It was the very best ginger ale I had ever tasted and, after three more, I was really loose! Of course, it was not ginger ale but rather some excellent French champagne that Bill had specially ordered for the party. I will never forget going home that night. Mama kept telling me I was driving too slow, as I was trying to keep the car on my side of the white line on the highway.
Walter Chiari followed Ava everywhere and that included Smithfield. On one particular visit, as Jack told me, the Gardner family had finally convinced Chiari to go home, and Jack personally drove him to the airport in Raleigh. Jack had some business to attend to in Raleigh afterward, and when he walked back into his house in Smithfield, there was Walter, sitting in Jack’s chair, telling everyone that he “could not desert his beloved goddess, Ava.” She explained in words that he could understand that he was “persona non grata.” The next day he was taken to the airport again, where he was seen boarding the plane and taking off.
I can’t count how many times the phone rang, and it was Jack, asking me to guess who was in town, and telling me she wanted to know where I was. I always went to wherever she was staying for a visit. Most of the time it was at Jack’s home on Vermont Street in Smithfield, or Inez’s or Elsie Mae’s, her two sisters who also lived in Smithfield.
As a child, I was so disappointed that she did not know my Hollywood heroes, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. I told her that Roy Rogers, who I often saw at the movies, was the King of the Cowboys and everyone knew who he was. She laughed and told me she was not a cowgirl. Ava never seemed to like the Hollywood scene that was all flash and glitter and where reality was actually a dream. She had her friends of long-standing and her studio friends, but she never seemed happier than back in her hometown with her family and friends of many years.
Ava and Dewey at the Rock Ridge Reunion in 1978.
In 1978, the alumni and citizens of the Rock Ridge community wanted to have a “Rock Ridge Day” to celebrate the heritage of Rock Ridge High School. They wanted Ava to come back, give a talk, and let her fellow students and friends enjoy her company one more time. The Governor’s office had invited her to attend, and she accepted. This brought great excitement and anticipation to Rock Ridge and the state of North Carolina that one of its favorite daughters was returning to her roots to salute her fellow students and friends. Ava was without a doubt the most famous person to ever come from North Carolina, and she was known and loved throughout the world.
Before the event, my whole family went to Smithfield to have lunch and spend the day with Ava. Mama told Ava about all of her old friends who were so anxiously waiting to see and talk with her. She told Ava that she had been the center of many conversations. Ava showed Mama the clothes she had brought with her, and they were elegant. What most people did not know is that all of Ava’s clothes were tailored from a dummy and that she went in periodically to make sure the dummy was still her size. I do not remember if they came from Savile Row, but they looked as good as any that I have ever seen from there. Mama and Ava picked out a great look for her to wear.
The morning of the event I was up at 5 a.m., so I could meet with the sheriff’s deputies and some highway patrol officers to discuss what to expect. It did not hurt that I had done advance work with the White House, and I had some idea as to what needed to be done.
I arrived at Jack’s home and got my coffee. Ava was known to have stage fright many times, so I went into her bedroom, and she was practically in tears. The Governor had sent over a proclamation for her to read, and she feared that she would mispronounce “alumni” and people would laugh at her. I took out a pen and wrote the word alumni phonetically and drilled her ten times. She looked at me, smiled, and said, “I got it, baby, let’s go to Rock Ridge.”
As we were going out the door, she looked at me and said, “I don’t know if these slacks make my butt look too big.” I do not know why, but I said, “it looks bite-sized to me.” Ava looked at me and said, “You say the cutest things.” She laughed and off we went. (My mother would not have wanted me to tell that last part, but as Walter Cronkite said, “That’s the way it is.”)
Ava rode with Jack and her sister Myra in Jack’s new Lincoln Continental. Ava's great-niece and namesake, Ava Thompson, and her husband, Tommy, rode with me. As we were talking, Ava said that her aunt had gotten stage fright with David Frost and would not go on. I informed her that if she got over the Wilson County line, she was going to Rock Ridge. As we crossed that line, I blew my horn three times, then three sheriff’s cars and two highway patrol cars surrounded us, and we went forward to Rock Ridge. I blew the horn three times again, and the light and sirens came on as we entered the grounds. Before we got out of the car, several deputy sheriffs formed a wedge around Ava, Jack, Myra, and Ava and Tommy Thompson so they could get to the platform.
Ava did an excellent job reading the proclamation. Afterward, she saw and conversed with many friends and classmates she had not seen in years. Following the event, we had a get-together at Jack’s house, and Ava was on cloud nine. She gushed, sharing her feelings about people and their kindnesses during the day.
Dewey Sheffield and Ava Gardner in 1978.
Later on, she consented, after much urging, to have an interview with local newspaper reporter Doris Rollins Cannon. Years later, Doris wrote a great book about Ava’s younger years and strong connections to home titled Grabtown Girl. Her book had the full story of the “Rock Ridge Day,” including wonderful pictures from the event, and many other stories about Ava’s time in North Carolina.
Ava had a great zest for life, and she was always down to earth. I never saw her as pretty or ugly, she was just Ava, and if she knew you, she liked you. Ava never had any pretense in her behavior, and she was happy with her childhood and upbringing. She was a living example of the motto of her home state of North Carolina, which is “to be rather than to seem.” Comedian Flip Wilson described it as “What you see is what you get.” She had talent that God gives out to only a few, letting them blend in with whomever they are talking to and making them feel comfortable. After her funeral in 1990, her family and close friends got together in Smithfield to share “Ava stories.” Afterward, I realized that a lot of people go through this world and they merely exist; Ava truly lived.
Hear more from Dewey in this 2019 segment from WRAL's Tarheel Traveler.