Four on the Fourth

BY Emily Colin

The Cape Fear Coast is home to a family that’s beaten the odds — not once but an astounding three times.

They’ve been featured in the newspaper and heralded on the Today Show for an accident of birth that had a 1 in 17.75 billion chance of taking place. Believe it or not in the Williams family four successive generations of males have been born on the Fourth of July.

The gentleman who started it all Ralph Bertram Williams — or Mr. Ralph as he was called — was born in Duplin County on July 4 1876 on the 100th anniversary of our country’s independence. He came to Wilmington to pursue a career. “His office was where Dock Street Oyster Bar is now ” says his grandson R. Bertram Williams III who goes by ‘Bert’ to distinguish himself from previous generations. “He actually died at his desk on a Saturday morning. He was a wholesale merchant.”

In addition to his house in town Mr. Ralph purchased several tracts of land from Banks Channel to the ocean well before the area became a vacation destination. He wanted a small cottage where the family could escape the heat of the summer and that seemed like the perfect spot. Little did he know that his purchase would create a legacy of family members who loved the sea and who would keep returning to the little cottage on the beach well into the 21st century. Though the family has sold a few of the properties they still own two: 731 and 751 South Lumina at the southern end of the island.

“When I was a child Wrightsville Beach was wonderful. We wouldn’t drive there; we’d take the streetcar and hit the island at Station 1. The main cars would go to the right to where Lumina was. The track went down the southern part of the beach ” says R. Bertram Williams Jr. the second Williams to come into the world on July 4. “Before the inlet was walled in the water came up a lot further. When I was a child I remember boards being placed on the sound side of the island to keep the water back.”

Bertram Jr. was raised in Wilmington attended New Hanover High School and served in the medical corps of the 2nd Marine Division in the Pacific theater. Like his son and grandson he received his B.A. from UNC Chapel Hill. He went on to attend medical school at Vanderbilt University where Bert was born.

“That day when the surgical staff was eating together Bert was the talk of the table ” his father says smiling. No one could believe there was another Fourth of July birthday in the family.

When Bert was six months old the family returned to its roots. “They put everything they owned including two children and all their worldly possessions into a little white Pontiac and drove back to Wilmington ” says Bert now an investment broker who has his own practice within Wachovia Securities.

Bertram Williams served as a leading thoracic surgeon in Wilmington for more than 30 years founding Wilmington Surgical Association. “My dad would never tell you this ” Bert says “but 25 percent of his practice he never got paid for. It was the barter system … they’d bring him cake or beans. That’s just the way it was.”

The family took up residence in town but every summer they retreated to their cottage on the beach. “Back then you only lived at Wrightsville Beach in the summertime ” Bert says. “Almost no one lived at the beach all year. From June 1 through Labor Day we’d move out to the cottage at 731 South Lumina and stay there. The day after Labor Day you could walk down the street at 9 p.m. and not see a car.”

Their family cottage was nothing like the towering mansions that occupy the island today. “We called it ‘camping out at the beach ’” says Bert. “It was a little cottage not air conditioned. We played all the time got sand all over. It would stick to you. By the end of the day there would be a real puddle of sand in the bed with you.”

For young Bert fishing was the highlight of his stay. “When I got old enough to fish at Crystal Pier that’s what I did every single day that I could until I got a job in the summer. I remember saving up for a season fishing pass. It was $75 to fish all year long. On July 1 it went down to $37.50. Then I could buy a pass and fish every day for the rest of the summer.”

Three generations of Williams — Bertram Bert and the youngest Tram born on July 4 1982 — still fish together today. “We do everything … salt water fishing inshore fishing for flounder drum trout king mackerel and dolphin ” Bert says. “Tram really likes blue water fishing. We do some tournaments like the King Mackerel.”

They also spend a lot of time getting back to the land thanks to Bertram Williams’ second career. In 1991 when Bertram retired from medicine he knew he wanted to keep busy. “I was used to working 12-hour days ” he says. “Since I like to see things grow I thought why not become a full-time farmer?”

The former surgeon bought a little more than 120 acres near the airport where he alternates growing soybeans and corn as well as apples peaches pears kiwis and grapes. Applying the same dedication to his agricultural career as he’d brought to medicine he utilizes an organic approach and has set yield records for this area. “We grow Silver Queen sweet corn ” he says. “Once a year we have a Corn Day where we invite our friends and family to come out over the course of the day and fill their coolers with fresh homegrown sweet corn.”

Like their charming beach cottage the farm has brought the family together. “I learned a lot of life lessons on the farm ” Tram says. “Simple but lasting lessons. I drove my first car there. And when something broke I’d learn how to fix it. There are so many bluebirds out there … I learned how to appreciate the beauty of the simple stuff.”

How do four generations who share their nation’s birthday celebrate? “The Fourth of July was always a big day because of my father’s birthday ” Bertram says. “It was a big family affair. For the last few years we’ve been meeting down on a pier at the beach and having a cookout with shrimp and corn from the farm.”

“Prior to when we had the pier we’d have a party at the beach cottage a picnic with burgers ” says Bert. “It’s been that way my whole life. We have a big celebration and decorate the house. It’s always been a very patriotic theme.”

“We’d have special homemade ice cream every Fourth of July ” Bertram says. “We used to put salt on top of the drum and make it underneath the house. We’d have peach strawberry or blueberry.”

Today the family’s roots in the Wilmington/Wrightsville community are deep. They are involved in a number of civic organizations from Rotary to the hospital board to First Baptist and First Presbyterian churches. “All of my sons were Eagle Scouts ” says Bert who lost his son Harper in a tragic car accident several years ago.

Tram who graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 2005 with a degree in communications can’t imagine living anyplace else. “My family’s here and a lot of my life revolves around the opportunities that my family’s presented for me ” he says. “But I also love it. There’s the downtown life the busy life the slow life relaxation. It’s a good community.”