Wineka column: Josephine Carpenter nearly a starlette at 5-foot-2, with eyes of blue

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 27, 2012

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — She was a blue-eyed, 5-foot-2 brunette who enjoyed acting in Catawba College dramas.
The thought of going to Hollywood caught her imagination – as it would any young lady – and trying out for a local contest that could lead to a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer screen test came naturally to 20-year-old Josephine Surratt.
It was the summer of 1938.
Through the process, the 198 original applicants were winnowed down to 70, then 14, then the final six, each of whom actually made a screen test, complete with a director and assistant director, makeup man, soundman and, of course, cameraman.
Josephine made the final six, and her screen test was shown with the five others during a week at the Capitol Theatre, which cosponsored the contest with the Salisbury Evening Post.
With much fanfare, news of the winning screen test came via a long-distance telephone call from the New York offices of MGM, followed by a confirming special-delivery letter.
Josephine had come in second.
Today, at 94, Josephine Surratt Carpenter, who most people know as “Mama Jo,” is as lovely as ever.
The screen-test experience came rushing back to her recently when she was going through items at her West Thomas Street home.
“I’ve been cleaning out a bunch of stuff,” Josephine says. “I’m 94, and I can’t live much longer. I came across some things I really forgot I had.”
Newspaper clippings of the 1938 screen test caught the eye of her son, Lonnie Carpenter Jr., who lives with Josephine. As she recalls, there was no great mystery as to why she entered the contest.
“I just enjoyed doing it – that’s all there was to it,” she says.
In those Depression days, Josephine worked in an office and was going to Catawba College part-time.
One of her favorite Catawba instructors was Florence Busby, who thought so highly of Josephine that she encouraged her to attend the same school Busby had in Boston – Emerson College.
But there was no way Josephine could afford going away to a fancy school such as Emerson.
The winner of the local screen-test contest at the Capitol turned out to be Eleanor Newman, a 19-year-old fellow student at Catawba College. Newman went on to compete in Charlotte against local winners from five other Carolina cities.
As far as Josephine knows, Eleanor did not advance from Charlotte. The prize would have been a five-day chaperoned trip to Hollywood at MGM’s expense.
“She was a beautiful girl,” Josephine says of Eleanor, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Harold H. Newman Sr. Catawba College’s Newman Park is named for Dr. Newman.
“Maybe she was like me. I was more interested in the love of my life than I was in Hollywood.”
The love of Josephine Surratt’s life was a newly ordained pastor, Lonnie Carpenter. Within a year, they would marry and Josephine would become the first lady of several United Church of Christ congregations while also raising their three daughters and a son.
“I always felt it was a real privilege to be a minister’s wife,” Josephine says of the calls taking them to Conover and Burlington before they returned to Rowan County in 1960. “I enjoyed it, and all the churches were just so good to us.”
In the last 20 years of his career as a full-time minister, Carpenter served as pastor of Salisbury’s First United Church of Christ.
On his last day at the church, an Easter Sunday in 1980, the congregation presented Josephine and Lonnie a silver Revere bowl and a new cream-colored Chrysler.
Carpenter died in 1987, but Josephine, who had taken a job as an administrative assistant for the Western N.C. Association of the United Church of Christ, kept on working.
In 2002, the Employment Security Commission recognized her as the oldest working senior in Rowan County. She was only 84 then, and going to work from 9 a.m.-1 p.m., as she had done for 28 years.
“Her philosophy of life is every day’s a good day, and some days are better,” Lonnie Carpenter says.
Mama Jo will tell you her eyesight is not so great these days. She also depends, sometimes, on “that little wagon” – her name for a walker. She swears that the tiny fractures in her back, which have made life painful at times, also have conspired to make her shorter and thinner.
But she still does the newspaper’s crossword puzzle every morning and is a devoted Atlanta Braves baseball fan at night. She says she and Lonnie take care of each other, while her daughters, Sally and Julia, also look after her.
“I have good children, and I don’t mind telling them so,” Josephine says.
Her oldest daughter, Joanna, died when she was 29.
As for that old screen test, Josephine read a Joan Crawford scene from the MGM movie “The Last of Mrs. Cheyney.” It was something supplied by the movie studio. Crawford, in her role as Mrs. Cheyney, tears up a blackmail letter for which she had been offered 10,000 pounds.
When asked why she destroyed the letter, Josephine (in Crawford’s role) replied:
“Because I was born with courage. I had my share of dishonest inclinations, but, what shall I say – decency? I’m afraid I was given too much. I don’t know if you’ll understand that. I wanted to improve my social position. I was a shop girl – that’s where Charles found me. I wanted to share the beautiful things of life and, well, I’m not a modern woman. When one is not a modern woman, and one has no money, these are the only two ways of getting it – marry it, or steal it. I preferred stealing it.””I always did a lot of readings,” Josephine says. “I still do a lot of story-telling.”
Because of her eyesight, Lonnie enlarges the things she wants to read 300 to 400 percent, then she memorizes them. She most recently committed to memory a long Christmas story, which she first read at her circle meeting at First United Church of Christ.
She also has read stories for the annual children’s pageant.
Josephine met Lonnie through his brother, Albert, who was attending Catawba College and dating a friend of Josephine’s. One day Albert, Lonnie and one of their friends were in Salisbury, and they were looking for dates for Lonnie and the friend.
They came by Josephine’s house, but she was paired with the friend. Lonnie told his father later he had been matched that night with the wrong girl – it should have been Josephine – and later, of course, he remedied the situation.
“That’s how it all happened,” Josephine says.
By the time of her screen test, Lonnie had graduated from Catawba College in 1935 and the Theological Seminary of Evangelical Reformed Church in Lancaster, Pa., in 1938.
He was ordained by the Southern Synod of the Reformed Church in May 1938 during a ceremony at Grace lower Stone Church in Rockwell.
At first, Lonnie served three churches at one time: Lower Stone, Shiloh United Church of Christ in Faith and Mount Hope United Church of Christ near China Grove.
“So I heard the same sermon several times,” Josephine laughs.
As a bachelor, Carpenter was living in the Faith parsonage, and he always liked to say there was a reason he married Josephine in 1939.
“He said he wasn’t going to spend another cold winter alone,” Josephine says.
The Carpenters divided their time among the three churches until 1944, when they moved to Trinity Church in Conover. While they were in Conover, the Trinity congregation built a new church.
The pastor later moved his family to Burlington and the First United Church of Christ there from 1955 to 1960.
Josephine, who was a 1934 Boyden High graduate, returned to her native Salisbury in 1960. She had grown up in Salisbury as the oldest daughter of Julia and Carl Surratt. She had two sisters, who have passed away, and a brother who is still living.
Her father was an engineer with the railroad.
Lonnie Carpenter Jr. says his mother was a genius at feeding a family of six economically. “But we were never hungry,” he adds.
Josephine says she and Lonnie Sr. were “accumulating children” early in their marriage, and that’s why she took up a strong interest in refinishing furniture. She would go to yard sales and auctions, find old pieces of furniture, fix them up and use them in her homes.
“We couldn’t afford anything new,” she says. “I didn’t buy them for antiques.”
Josephine says she still tries to attend church about once a month, though she doesn’t move around as well as she once did.
Mama Jo depends on her “little wagon” when she does go out, and her friends notice something immediately.
Those blue eyes could still pass a Hollywood screen test.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or