Doris Gwaltney inspired writers with dedication to the craft 

Published 7:00 pm Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Among the diverse people who form the fabric of a community, there are those who influence its course through business, politics, education or other avenues.

And there are also among us very special people who influence those around them simply by their presence and the lives they lead. Doris Rae Gwaltney, who died several months ago at age 89, was one of those.

Mrs. Gwaltney was an Isle of Wight native who, like many young women of her day, attended and graduated from Longwood College. From there she became a music teacher and soon married William Atwill Gwaltney Sr. of Smithfield.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

From the couple’s home on Cypress Creek, she quietly went about influencing all who had the privilege of knowing her.

Her love of music expressed itself through her membership in Trinity United Methodist Church, where she led the choir for 30 years. She also taught Sunday School at Trinity for four decades, and during a memorial service held recently in her memory, her work as a teacher was fondly remembered .

It was in writing, however, that Mrs. Gwaltney found her greatest depth of expression, and it was her love of writing that became her life’s work and the basis of her greatest legacy.

She was a novelist, a poet, a writer of monologues and short plays. If she could imagine it, she would write about it.

Mrs. Gwaltney practiced her craft for more than half a century, though her early efforts didn’t attract publishers. But then she wrote “Shakespeare’s Sister,” using her powers of imagination to conjure a sibling for the famous bard, and further imagining what life would have been like for her. It was a natural topic for Mrs. Gwaltney, who was a longtime member of Smithfield’s Shakespeare Class.

Local history lovers came to appreciate Mrs. Gwaltney’s work more deeply when she published “Duncan Browdie, Gent,” the fictional life of a young man living in newly chartered colonial Smithfield.

She then drew the attention of national publisher Simon & Schuster with her locally based fictional account of young people living here during World War II.

Writers can be reclusive, temperamental and slow to share techniques. Not Doris Gwaltney. She wanted nothing more from life than to be able to encourage more people to write, and to write seriously. For the past half century, if you lived in Isle of Wight County or on the Lower Peninsula and ever attempted to write more than a grocery list, you might well have encountered Mrs. Gwaltney. You certainly would have done so had she found out you were pecking away on a computer.

She was a mainstay in the Isle of Wight Writers Group, a loose organization of serious writers who gather regularly to encourage one another. She was also a founder and the longtime coordinator of the Christopher Newport Writers Conference, which convened for the 40th year this past week.

She prided herself in being totally dedicated to her craft, in constantly wordsmithing her own work by sitting down and writing daily, and she encouraged anyone who is serious about writing to do the same.

Mrs. Gwaltney once told an interviewer, concerning her work ethic:

“If there’s any way you can get your life structured so that you write every day, then I think that’s when success comes to you. Inspiration is real, but it doesn’t come to people who haven’t worked for it.”

And that pretty well sums up, in her own words, the life that Doris Rae Gwaltney chose and wanted to share with others of like mind.

Smithfield has always prided itself in being a culturally enlightened community. To the extent that may be true, it is so because of people like Doris Gwaltney.


A tribute

The Courthouse of 1750 is planning one of its Court Day events for next week, and in doing so will pay tribute to Mrs. Gwaltney.

Combining her love of writing with her love for this community and its history, she wrote “Trial by Jury,” a play that depicts a day in the life of Isle of Wight’s colonial courthouse. She donated the play to the Courthouse of 1750 Board, which operates the historic building, and volunteer actors will perform it in her memory Saturday, May 21, as its Court Day presentation. Performances are set for 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is