Be tolerant of different opinions, don’t be dependent on each other – and most importantly, support each other every step of the way
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
The Boy and Girl Next Door
Larry Kent Autry, 88, wraps his fingers around his cup of coffee and smiles sweetly at his wife in their Pittsboro kitchen. Avis Mackey Autry, 85, leans against the countertop and answers with her own sly smile.
“It’s a certain kind of grin,” Avis says of her husband of 64 years. The way they look at each other seems akin to telepathic connection. The couple first met in 1948 when Larry’s family moved into the house next door to Avis’ in Perry Point, Maryland. He was 13, and she was 11. They share memories of canoeing the Susquehanna River and playing sports with close friends and neighbors whose fathers worked in nearby Department of Veterans Affairs offices.
“We were the boy next door and the girl across the alley,” Larry says, adding that after school he would walk the three miles back home with Avis. Their childhood friendship blossomed when Larry left to attend the University of Maryland and two years later, Avis went to Madison College, now known as James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
“I think I fell in love with her in ’52,” Larry says. “She came to fraternity parties, and I would go down to Harrisonburg, driving my ’49 Mercury. We dated and stayed good friends for a long time. … Somewhere along the line, I think it was around ’56, I wanted her to marry me, and in ’57 I asked her.”
Decades later, the couple has three daughters, six grandchildren (one of whom was killed in a car accident in 2018) and two great-grandchildren.
Larry credits their deep friendship and complementary personalities for their durable relationship. “Well, I’m kind of laid-back, and she’s very forward and can do all kinds of things,” Larry says. “If you’re alike, it’s a tough road.”
Larry and Avis bought their home on Hadley Mill Road in 1967 when he accepted a job transfer from Houston to North Carolina with Beckman Instruments, a scientific research instrument company in the Triangle. Larry later formed his own company servicing complex instruments and recruited Avis to take on the administrative side of their business. Avis, who has a music degree, previously worked eight years as a cryptographer for the National Security Agency. Though the pair had separate roles at work, they would take advantage of their long commutes between Chatham and Durham to talk about their family, life at home and other matters.
“Every relationship has something that is key to why they’re still together,” Avis says. “I think it’s good for people to look at their relationship. I don’t think people stop and do that enough.”
Avis says she takes time to remind herself of the qualities she loves most about Larry. “He’s a kind, generous and caring man who puts other people before himself,” she says. “And he admires me, I know, because he’s always talking to people about my music.”
Avis was about 9 or 10 years old when she began weekly intensive music studies at the Peabody Institute, which is now part of Johns Hopkins University. “It’s a place for not only developing a specific musical talent, but you take classes the whole day. I did that every Saturday, even in the summer. … We lived about 40 miles outside of Baltimore, and I rode the train every Saturday by myself. I actually wouldn’t do it nowadays, but anyway, I walked down Charles Street and went to class all day and then walked back to the train station. And Larry, of course, was doing his own thing at home. So we’ve learned to be together and be apart.”
Larry remembers hearing the notes drift across the alley between their houses as Avis practiced and played the piano. He remains a devoted fan of her talent to this day as he attends her twice-monthly shows on Wednesday nights at The Mod in downtown Pittsboro.
“Most everything we do, we’ve done together; in some cases, it can be a disaster,” Avis says. “And in some cases, it’s really good.”
One of the special things they do together is to create journey sticks for each family member. They have created 19 sticks so far. Avis researches symbolic meanings relevant to each recipient while Larry carves and decorates limbs he finds somewhere along their 46-acre property, which includes an historic mill.
Larry was born in New Mexico and lived in Utah where his father worked for the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, teaching school on a Ute reservation. Larry still feels deeply connected to Native American beliefs indigenous to the tribe. He believes in the connectedness we have to one another and to the Earth. Objects and carvings on each stick symbolize a memorable event, experience and interest specific to the recipient of each one.
Give and Take
“He encouraged me to go where I want, and I do the same with him,” Avis says. “But it’s just that we always seem to come back and just do it together. … It’s like we’re always taking care of each other. I suppose some people have a moving experience, you know, but we didn’t. If he was busy, I’d go on. If I was doing something, and he needed to do something, he’d go on. But if it was something that we were interested in together, we’d move together.”
Avis offers another factor for success – tolerance for differences in opinion and parenting styles. “People give up too easily, too. I think that’s another thing in relationships. It’s not easy. I mean, anybody who’s been married or is married or hopes to be married, they need to realize it takes a little doing. … what some call work, but it’s not that, it’s tolerance.”
Without pause, she notes, “You know, he’s slow.” Larry chuckles at Avis’ observation. “So I walk in front of him. … I’m the queen walking in front because I walk faster,” she continues.
Larry laughs, “I’m not as slow as my brother.”
When Paul Met Sally
Often, mothers know best, and for Paul S. Messick Jr. his mother was right.
“My mother was the supervisor of nursing in the Duke [University Hospital] emergency room, and one day she said there was this wonderful student nurse and that I should meet her,” says Paul. At the time, he was a 1968 Duke graduate turned UNC law student who spent his nights working at the ER room registering patients as they rolled through the door at all hours of the night. “Anyway, I met Sally. … She was working, and I was interrupting her, and my mother put me up to it and all that sort of thing. But anyway,” he says, trailing off.
Sally Messick smiles across the table at Paul, who was trying not to smile back at her. “And both of us were resistant as all get out,” she says, both laughing. “It was an ‘arranged marriage’ … I think having his mother, who was my supervisor, introduce us was just awkward. You can understand that.”
Still, first impressions of each other were good. “I thought she was wonderful,” says Paul, who grew up Catholic. Sally, who was raised Methodist, says, “He was a smart law student. Quiet. He smiled and was attractive.”
After dating all that first year, they married in Sally’s parents’ home in Leesville, South Carolina, and honeymooned in Williamsburg, Virginia, where they return nearly every year before Christmas. This last visit, the couple celebrated their 51st anniversary on Dec. 19.
Paul’s first (and only) job out of law school landed him in Pittsboro in 1971 working for Robert “Bob” Louis Gunn, whose law practice grew to include Messick in the moniker in 1972. Bob passed away in November 2020. Paul is attorney for the town where he and Sally raised their family. Sally finished her undergraduate degree at Duke and then completed a family nurse practitioner program at UNC.
Their home reflects the evolution of their family of five children and eight grandchildren. The residence was purchased in 1973 from the estate of renowned horticulturist and landscape architect Francis Joseph LeClair, whose designs include the original rose garden at Morehead Planetarium and evergreen plantings across the entire UNC campus. The Messicks didn’t move in for another two years. They remodeled their home over the years, each successive renovation or addition marked by the birth of each child.
“We didn’t move until 1975 when Jennifer was born,” Paul says. “So that was the first renovation.” Their home, like lasting relationships, is a work in progress. “I think that’s the main thing we have shared, all these years, is this place. I think that’s really a part of who we are,” Sally says.
You Do You
She has a theory about the secret to their successful marriage. “People have to be their individual selves in the marriage,” she says. “Neither of us is dependent on the other person for deciding who it is that we are. If that makes any kind of sense.”
For example, Paul says Sally has “a vast propensity for making things” like most of the kids’ clothes, window drapes and table runners. She also has serious hobbies in woodworking, jewelry, fiber arts and pottery. A kiln sits in the room downstairs. A separate workshop outside holds a notable range of power tools and wood materials. Somewhere, there are looms and a Cricut machine.
“Once upon a time, she made a sweater,” Paul says in a low voice.
“You did not like it,” Sally points out gently.
“The button holes were on the wrong side,” Paul says, shaking his head. “Do you realize that men’s button holes are different?”
“I didn’t make you a button-hole sweater,” Sally denies in a soft tone.
“I did not.”
“You did, and the buttons were on the wrong side,” Paul insists.
“It might have been a shirt,” Sally concedes.
“OK, well, after that, no more,” Paul laughs along with Sally.
“We made it to 51 years by arguing with each other just like this,” Sally says, acknowledging how their individual strengths and weaknesses complement each other. They both enjoy gardening. Sally buys the plants, and Paul obliges by planting them for Sally without complaint. “I’m good at tearing up stuff and digging holes,” he adds.
Happy Wife, Happy Life
When their youngest child, Nicholas, was about 6 years old, Sally returned to working as a clinical nurse practitioner. Paul openly supported Sally’s personal and professional ambitions.
“It was not an issue for me,” Paul says, fully aware of the competing priorities so many women still face today between staying at home with the kids and being a working professional.
“I think the house and home suffered while I was not here, but I think I needed to do what it is that I was doing,” Sally says matter-of-factly.
Once again, mothers know best.