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Dorothy Almetta Houston Torrence (or “Dot” as she was affectionately called by many) was born in Cleveland, North Carolina, the 8th of 12 children of Eugene Nathaniel and Ella Chambers Houston. The Houston family owned its own farm in Rowan County, North Carolina, and while Dorothy, during her childhood, did work in the fields along side her siblings, she had a primary role assisting her mother with preparation of the family’s meals. Theirs was a large and closely knit family, and the children’s warm and strong bonds of affection for each other only grew stronger throughout their adult lives. At the time of her death, Dorothy was the last surviving – and, by many years, was the longest lived – child of the Houston-Chambers family.
Dorothy attended and was graduated from Joseph C. Price High School in Salisbury, North Carolina. She then attended North Carolina A&T University for a time, studying home economics, before moving to New Jersey to live and work around 1940. It was during her time at Price High School that she first met a fellow student named Haywood Torrence – a boy whose repeated efforts to win her attention and affection she characterized at the time as unwanted “pestering.” Undeterred by these initial and repeated rebuffs, Haywood, through years of persistence and patience, eventually won Dorothy’s heart. Completely and permanently. In 1946, the couple married and began their life together, taking up residence in Newport News’ Newsome Park public housing project. During their early years together, Haywood worked to support his family while completing his bachelor’s degree at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), while Dorothy began and pursued a career as a homemaker and housewife.
Dorothy and Haywood’s “temporary” residency in Newsome Park eventually lasted some 15 years. During this time, Dorothy gave birth to her three children: Gloria Yvonne, Haywood, Jr., and Cheryl Anita Torrence. In the mid-1950s, while living in Newsome Park, the couple purchased several adjoining tracts of undeveloped land in Hampton, Virginia where they aspired one day to build a home for themselves. They finally achieved their dream when, on January 1, 1962, they moved into a custom-built house for their family that Haywood, Sr. designed himself. This house, on Oakland Avenue, remained Dorothy’s home for the next 55 years, until an injury caused by a fall required her to move to an assisted living facility in 2017. Their house was quickly joined by three others, and the four families that established this (at the time) isolated enclave in the woods in 1962 would all remain in those houses, as trusted neighbors and good friends, for more than five decades.
Haywood’s time in their home on Oakland Avenue, however, would be cut tragically short due to his death from cancer in 1968. This event dramatically altered the trajectory of Dorothy’s work life. She had not held an income producing job in almost a quarter of a century, but with a home to maintain and a young daughter to support, in 1969, Dorothy resolutely re-entered the job market. Building on her love of working with young children, she quickly found a vocation in elementary education, and obtained a position a teacher’s aide in the Hampton Public Schools. For many years she worked at Booker Elementary School, where the warmth of her personality and her dedication to her work quickly endeared her to colleagues and to students alike. The bonds of affection she established with her professional colleagues continued even after her 1987 retirement from the school system, maintained, among other ways, through her regular participation in lunches with other Booker Elementary retirees.
“Family,” “food” and “faith” are three words that were very closely associated with Dorothy. She loved her family, and treasured visits with her siblings. Over the years, visitors to her home began to include her many nieces and nephews, and in later years, their children – especially those that pursued higher education at area universities. None ever visited her without being fed. She was renowned for her broccoli, rice and cheese casserole; for her pound cake; her apple pie; her meat loaf; and for her rolls. For her, preparing food for others – and especially for family – was a way of showing and sharing her love for them.
However important food and family were to Dorothy, nothing was more important to her nor had deeper roots in the core of her being than her Christian faith. The seeds of that faith were planted by her parents during her childhood, and they were nurtured at Third Creek A.M.E.Z. Church in Cleveland, a church very much anchored by the Houston family. Her faith informed her choice of a spouse, and in picking Haywood, she chose a man the strength of whose faith mirrored her own. Inside her own family, by precept and by example, she sought to transmit her faith to her children, and later to her grandchildren. Outside of the home, her faith manifested itself through service to her church community, first at St. Paul A.M.E. Church in Newport News where she and Haywood were members through 1967, and for the remainder of her life, at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Hampton. At St. Paul, Dorothy especially involved herself with many of the church’s youth activities. These involvements included being a Cub Scout den mother, teaching Sunday School and Vacation Bible School classes, and serving as a drama coach and director for innumerable Sunday School Christmas and Easter pageants. After joining Bethel in December 1967, Dorothy served for many years as a Class Leader, as a member of the Senior Choir, a member of the Women’s Missionary Society (where, in particular, she was a stalwart worker in the church’s soup kitchen ministry), and as a member of the Steward Board. She also served on the Stewardship and Finance Committee of the Church, and was very active in the church’s and the Conference’s lay organization.
Throughout her life, Dorothy experienced and overcame many exceptional challenges. As a young girl, a congenital leg infirmity caused both physical discomfort and social difficulty for her. Surgery during her teenage years was only partially successful in correcting the problem, a problem she lived with and successfully managed throughout her entire life. Trauma of a different kind occurred on January 1, 1953. While they were attending a New Year’s Eve dance, fire destroyed Dorothy and Haywood’s home and everything that they owned; only her children, Gloria and Haywood, Jr., survived the conflagration, rescued from the flames by their babysitter. Cancer also delivered her repeated crushing blows during her life, first in 1968 when it caused the protracted illness and ultimately the death of her husband, Haywood, at the age of 49, and again in 2008 when it felled her first born child, Gloria. Nonetheless, buoyed by her unshakable faith in Jesus Christ, and supported and sustained by her family and many loving friends, Dorothy soldiered on and surmounted these trials.
Dorothy always set for herself exceptionally high standards for integrity, for service to others, for self-sacrifice and for decorum. She actively encouraged her children and grandchildren to strive for those same standards. Even more effectively, however, by her example she inspired them to want to measure up to those standards. That legacy, along with the memory of her warmth, her compassion, her discipline and her love, will forever be cherished by her surviving children Haywood Torrence, Jr. (John) and Cheryl Torrence Farrior (Jerry), and her grandchildren, Whitney R. Farrior and Cheri N. Farrior. That same appreciation, affection and respect is also felt in the hearts of dozens of nieces and nephews and their spouses and children for whom, as the last surviving child of their Eugene and Ella Houston, “Aunt Dot” had become, by the time of her death, the Houston-Chambers family’s beloved matriarch. And it is also shared by the Oakland Avenue “children” (all of whom are now adults) whom she loved and who loved her; by her many friends – most especially the friends that were part of her Bethel Church family; and in particular by Rebecca Johnson, with whom she developed an especially close, almost mother-daughter relationship.
As we lay her to rest, we rejoice in Dorothy’s life, secure in the knowledge that her soul, like the souls of all the righteous, is in the hand of God where no torment can ever touch it.
If you wish to make a donation in memory of Dorothy H. Torrence in lieu of flowers, please contribute to the American Cancer Society or to Bethel A.M.E. Church in Hampton VA.