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EDITOR’S NOTE _ Photographer Laura Noel, while on anoth

February 14, 1995

EDITOR’S NOTE _ Photographer Laura Noel, while on another assignment, encountered Gene Willoughby on the streets of Iva, S.C. Intrigued by this town character, always accompanied by his tiny dog, Noel started up a conversation, became a friend and photographed him on and off over a period of two years.


IVA, S.C. (AP) _ An old plaque tacked to the wall in Gene Willoughby’s trailer in this rural South Carolina town reads, ``Lord, I’ll be busy today. If I forget you, please don’t forget me.″

For 40 years, Willoughby was busy. Busy forgetting his family, busy losing work, busy damaging his body. He did one thing exceedingly well _ he drank.

He sat in his rented trailer on the edge of town lifting glasses of whiskey before the dim light of the television. His companion, a dog named Jojo, often slept under his wheelchair. Willoughby’s legs were amputated above the knees after vascular disease ravaged his body.

Willoughby’s life seemed destined to self-destruct.

Nowadays, something else keeps him busy: sobriety. Eighteen months ago, Willoughby graduated from the substance abuse program at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Augusta, Ga. He has remained alcohol free ever since; he attributes his sober success to his new faith in Christ.

Before arriving at the safe haven of the church, Willoughby traveled a hard road. He came from a poor family of 10 children. He attended school only as far as the fifth grade. By age 16 he was working in a textile mill. ``Got to where I wanted to run around with the big boys, and got to drinking heavy,″ he said.

Later he hitch-hiked to Texas and back to South Carolina doing odd jobs along the way. He worked for a while selling phony magazine subscriptions.

``I sold magazines to a man who couldn’t even read,″ he said. During this time he had various jobs, including welder, roofer, caterer on an off-shore oil rig and soldier in the U.S. Army. ``Finally I got down to drinking so bad, I could not hold a job,″ Willoughby said.

In 1981, while working as a roofer, his right leg began going numb. This hint of trouble ushered in a decade of hospitals, medical procedures and pain, After several operations, Willoughby was left with both legs amputated.

By 1993, Willoughby regularly binged on two pints of whiskey a day. Dehydrated and very ill, he was admitted to the VA hospital in Augusta. This time, he promised himself things would be different.

Enter the church.

``God has taken the desire away from me,″ Willoughby says now. And he has remained sober despite the loss of his beloved dog, who was run over on a nearby highway.

``It took quite a while to get over it,″ he said. ``I thought more of him than anybody I knew.″

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