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COVID-19 took took NC couple, married for 74 years, a week apart
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COVID-19 took took NC couple, married for 74 years, a week apart

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Braxton Culler has seen the letters his parents, who had been high school sweethearts, wrote to each other when Roy Culler was loading bombs onto airplanes during World War II and love of his life Dorothy Pegram worked for the Department of Defense providing clerical support.

Piles of them.

The High Point natives wrote to each other every day about everything and nothing. Roy was in the Pacific as part of the B-29 Squadron on Guam until the war ended. Dorothy worked at times for the Pentagon in Washington, in its Central Division Library, the Demobilized Personnel Record Branch in High Point and the Overseas Replacement Depot in Greensboro.

"She served her country as well," said their son, Braxton Culler.

And when the one-time captain of the High Point High School (now High Point Central) football team and future mayor of his hometown came home, he made the former majorette his wife before enrolling in Wake Forest College, which moved from Wake Forest to Winston-Salem and is now Wake Forest University. She had attended Smith Business College.

"They said that a thousand times in the last five years — how they had a wonderful life," Braxton Culler said.

The soul mates often teased, though remained adamant, that whatever the reason, they didn't want to be the surviving spouse.

Neither wanted to be left behind without the other.

Then came 2020 and COVID-19, as it uprooted lives around the globe, killing nearly 347,000 in the United States and North Carolina so far, including the 95-year-old Roy and Dorothy "Dot" Culler, who, after being married for 74 years, died a week apart.

In neighborhoods all over the city the virus has taken active and retired law enforcement officers, health care workers, teachers. Also mothers and fathers and sons and daughters, Nanas and Paw Paws, a best friend, the person who always got the joke.

Many listed pre-existing conditions. Some had none known. They are forever linked to the worst pandemic in modern U.S. history.

After college, Roy Culler had returned to High Point. He and Dorothy chose to raise their family here.

Roy Culler had come home to join the family furniture business that he had learned as a youngster in the steps of his grandfather and father. He later got involved in politics, serving on the City Council and eventually as mayor of High Point at a critical point in the city's history. Among his achievements, he was credited with shepherding the city through a strong period of growth and a working partnership with then-Greensboro Mayor Jim Melvin.

"He was proud of High Point and wanted to see the city succeed," Braxton Culler said.

Soft-spoken Dorothy, who loved to paint, was also a full-time stay-at-home mom, who got the kids to school and back. That included the baseball, football and basketball practices, the after school clubs and meetings for their four active kids. It was important to her: She wanted a loving and warm home, which is what Braxton Culler remembers, with big Sunday dinners after church. Roy Culler had been a Sunday school teacher.

She also supported her husband and her community, being hands-on in efforts such as the High Point Hospital Guild (the Gray Ladies), the High Point Women's Club and Meals on Wheels.

The good times, said son Braxton, were many. He remembers his dad, who by then had bought an airplane, teaching him how to fly and snipping his shirt tail with scissors — a tradition at the private airport — when the then-16-year-old earned his pilot's license. He was in the stands celebrating all of his children, Braxton Culler said.

They had a beach home and a farm, where Roy Culler kept stallions for riding. Once, as he attempted to mount a stallion that hadn't been ridden in a month, the animal reared straight up and fell back on Roy Culler, breaking his pelvis, which would keep him immobilized in the hospital for six weeks.

"Which drove him crazy," Braxton Culler said.

The elder Culler sustained no permanent damage.

He would go on to take important roles in the future of the state, including helping to train newly-elected mayors as part of the Institute of Government, housed at UNC-Chapel Hill. It would help to earn him the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the most prestigious award for a resident of the state.

Dorothy was the dancer and had encouraged her husband to take lessons.

When he turned 50, he decided that's what he wanted to do. They decided to join a dance club, with dinner and dance to the Tommy Dorsey era of music.

"He almost never sat down," Braxton Culler said.

The two moved to the newly-planned Pennybyrn independent living community when they were in their early 80s. They were both in great health but Roy Culler was tired of looking after such a large house. Dorothy was hesitant about leaving their home, son Braxton remembered.

Roy Culler got her to agree and bought two of the planned units to create one large, single unit and included a dressing room for Dorothy. As it was being built he would often slip on a hard hat to watch the progress up close.

"Once they got there, they loved it," Braxton Culler said.

The two had remained in good health until two years ago. And then in October, they both developed COVID-19, although how they got it is unclear.

They were together in a room at an assisted living site when Roy Culler died.

Dorothy Culler was also in the throes of COVID-19, and would not know. Although their trusted long-term aide, Barbara Greene, would hold the phone to her ear so that she could talk to members of her family, and squeeze the aide's hand to signal she understood who she was talking to on the line, Dorothy Culler never recovered. She died a week after her husband.

Although immensely popular, known and loved, because of the pandemic the two were mourned in private, graveside funerals.

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