On May, 3, 2007, Queen Elizabeth II of England was in Jamestown, Virginia helping to commemorate the 400th anniversary what many news reports incorrectly called the first English settlement in America. Actually, the first English settlement in America occurred over twenty years earlier at Roanoke Island in northeastern North Carolina. After a failed attempt to colonize in 1584, another group of settlers returned to Roanoke Island in 1587.
After a homestead had been built, the Governor of the Roanoke Colony, John White, had to return to England for supplies for the 117 settlers he left behind. War was simmering with Spain, and his return was delayed until 1590. Upon his return the settlers had left two signs of their destination: “Croatan” was carved on a gate to Fort Raleigh and “CRO” was carved on a tree. The settlers had disappeared; presumably some went to live amongst the Croatan tribe of Native Americans, as the agreed upon sign of danger – a Maltese cross – was no where to be found.
Over 100 years later, in the early to mid 1700’s, English and Scot settlers began to swarm into southeastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina, coming up the Cape Fear and Pee Dee Rivers. As the settlers moved eastward from the coast and southward from Campbell Town (now Fayetteville) they surrounded a tribe of Native Americans in what is now Robeson County; a land of rich farm soil, mild winters, and abundant water.
This tribe spoke brilliant “King’s English,” had the surnames of 41 of the 117 Roanoke settlers, and some – as Jerry Lowry – had blue eyes.
300 years after the failed or “Lost Colony,” the State of North Carolina established the Croatan Normal School in Pembroke, North Carolina to provide education to the natives of Robeson County. Today, the school is known as the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
It was this heritage that helped define Jerry Lowry. Born October 31, 1948 to the Rev. Harvey and Myrtle Locklear Lowry, Jerry was the youngest of their four sons. Raised on a farm between Rowland and Pembroke, they were taught the love of God, family, and taught the perseverance of hard work.
Jerry went on to graduate from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in only 3 years with a B. A. in Spanish in 1970. That same year he married his high school sweetheart, Doreen, established the first elementary school foreign language department in North Carolina, and joined the North Carolina National Guard. Needless to say, Jerry’s unique ability to juggle multi-tasking and do it well served him well in life. He soon went to work with the US Department of Agriculture, and later bought his parent’s small grocery and small engine sales and repair business in nearby Maxton. It was there, at Lowry’s Chain Saw shop, in 1976 that we first met.
At the time I was Explorer Advisor of Explorer Post 447 at the First United Methodist Church in nearby Laurinburg. Canoeing, camping, and backpacking along with appreciation and protection of our environment were the goals for our coed group of high school students. To raise funds for our adventures we planned to cut and deliver select firewood. The two Poulan chain saws we bought from Jerry along with his trusty and frequent maintenance on them insured that we not only funded our activities, but had enough funds to honor a selected Explorer with a college scholarship.
Jerry was a personable and intelligent man. Behind the counter of his store and hanging on the wall was a portrait of Christ Jesus. Departing from his store, he would always tell a customer: “Thank you and God bless.”
After two robberies, Jerry closed his shop in 1980 and entered Duke Divinity School, graduating with honors in 1985. While in Divinity School and afterwards, he preached in several Native American churches, even founding West Robeson United Methodist Church with sixty members. In 1993, he was called to serve Seaside United Methodist Church in Sunset Beach, a predominately white church with 200 members. When he left in 2000 to serve the First United Methodist Church in Laurinburg, the membership at Seaside had grown to almost 1,000. Besides serving his church, Jerry also found time to serve on the Board of Trustees at three colleges and Chairman of the Board of Trustees and UNC-P.
Before he arrived in Laurinburg, our paths crossed once more. We were serving a family of a former member of Seaside, and Jerry came to Laurinburg to officiate the memorial service. It was a delightful reunion, as we caught up on the past twenty years.
Jerry’s arrival in Laurinburg was more than a coincidence. His training, intellect, and spirituality proved to be the medicine I needed during a major crisis in my personal life. Jerry was never about condemning, only about love and concern for others. He often said, “Wherever there is a hell we must bring heaven to it, for we are part of the Kingdom of love and salvation (deliverance) not destruction and condemnation. We are called to usher in a Kingdom of Love.” In one visit with him he stated: “Funeral service is not your business; it is your ministry. You have an open mind, communicate well, and serve with your heart.”
Jerry was a unique “preacher.” He wrote his sermons on small pieces of paper, read over them three times, and then faultlessly delivered moving sermons while moving about freely near the pulpit, but never hiding behind it. Along with his wife, Doreen, other family members and friends, we were often ministered with the most beautiful and spiritual music.
In 2003, Jerry was promoted to be the District Superintendent of the Sanford District of the United Methodist Church near the center of North Carolina. His departure was heart breaking, but we kept in touch. In addition to his regular administrative duties, Jerry continued to write a sermon every week and most times delivered them in various churches.
Cancer is a word that strikes fear in even the bravest soul. It was early 2006 when Jerry was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and underwent surgery. His faith never wavered, nor did his positive attitude falter.
Chemo and radiation came next. Despite the pain and anguish, Jerry kept smiling. On a visit in February, 2007, Jerry knew his fate.
“I’ve told Doreen to call you when my time comes and she won’t have to worry about anything.”
It was at this time that I remembered that God never answered “why” for his servant Job, so that was not a fair question. Accepting Jerry’s fate would come from faith, keeping his days free of pain would come from hope, and lifting him up in praise would come from love. I took Jerry’s hands; and for the first time led him in a prayer.
I returned to visit the following month, and Jerry shared some basic details of his memorial services. Because of his weakness, our visit was only 15 minutes.
In April, Jerry called and asked for my wife, Lynn, and myself to come up and with Doreen present; we will organize his memorial service. Once more we departed as I led in prayer that “Thy, not my will be done.”
At home was some long leaf pine boards that had been harvested when a home built in 1790 had been torn down years ago. The wood would have been growing in our area when his ancestors were the only ones in the area. What more could be more suitable for his urn? Fourteen symbols taken from the Holy Bible that describe Christ Jesus were engraved on the sides of the urn, and a fifteenth symbol – a rock – was attached to one side. Pictures were sent to Jerry and Doreen for their approval.
On the evening of Friday, May 4, 2007 Jerry’s family gathered around his bed and began to serenade him with their beautiful music. Shortly after 6:30 he finished his course in faith.
As we arrived at the home about nine o’clock, it would have been easy to imagine that we had stepped into heaven. Everyone was still singing some of the most beautiful hymns and spiritual music. With a voice that can barely carry a tune, I felt compelled to join in. All was well until I was able to get close enough to the bed to see Jerry. Fortunately, the Rev. David Wade was there to comfort me.
Jerry’s earthen vessel was taken the sixty mile trip to Laurinburg.
Saturday morning Jerry’s family drove the 80 miles to the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Prior to graduation, Jerry was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University. Returning to Sanford on Saturday, Doreen, her daughters, Ana and Elena, and I closed the door and sat in the living room to finalize the service details and the obituary. The three Lowry ladies proved to be a formidable committee of three: Discussing every detail until an agreement was reached.
Sunday afternoon, Jerry’s extended family came to Laurinburg for their time of viewing at the funeral home. Dressed in his suit, sporting a Duke University tie, Jerry’s body showed none of the suffering of the
previous months. It was indeed a comfort for everyone.
Following their visit, his body was cremated and placed in the pine urn.
Early Monday morning, Thomas Locklear and I left with two limousines for the Lowry residence and Kelvin Cooper and Lynn left for St. Luke United Methodist Church to prepare for the 11 a.m. service. As I had done in my previous visits with Jerry, I lead a short prayer with his family.
In my limousine were Doreen, Ana, Elena; Jerry’s brother, Harvey; Harvey’s wife, Linda; and their daughter, Jamie. A few minutes from the church they began to sing in a most beautiful harmony.
Jerry’s memorial services: 11 a.m. at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Sanford and 6 p.m. at Prospect United Methodist Church between Maxton and Pembroke were appropriately named by him as “A Service of Life, Death, and Resurrection.” Placed on the altar table with his clergy stole surrounding was Jerry’s urn. The entire services were uplifting with ministers participating that were White, Black, Native American, Korean, men and women. His wife and two daughters even sang a lively spiritual for the service.
Following the St. Luke service between five and six hundred people greeted the family in a room near the sanctuary. A wonderful meal of barbecue, fried chicken, and vegetables followed in the church fellowship hall.
Before long it was time to begin the hour and a half drive to Prospect. About 15 miles from Prospect, the Lowry family once more began to sing. I’ve always thought that in “O Brother, Where Art Thou” Alison Kraus sang the most spiritual version of “I’ll Fly Away.” She couldn’t hold a candle to the Lowrys. Tears of joy filled my eyes as the perfect, beautiful harmony of the Lowrys filled the limousine. “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” followed and two more songs, before we arrived (too soon for this music lover) at Prospect United Methodist Church.
After a short rest in the fellowship hall, it was time for the 6 o’clock memorial service to begin.
Another five to six hundred people crowded into the predominately Native American Prospect United Methodist Church in Robeson County to witness the evening service. The format was the same as the earlier service with the exception of one minister, and a service involving a cremated body is as rare among Native Americans as collard sandwiches are to Yankees. Truthfully, the service was more spiritual in its planned format.
As in the previous service, Bishop Al Gwinn let Jerry’s writings tell most of his story. In an earlier meeting of his cabinet of District Superintendents, Jerry had written them eight pages of spiritual challenges, and they were read as if Jerry were speaking to us. The minister at Prospect, the Rev. Herbert Lowry, entered the ministry under Jerry’s guidance, and humored the congregation by giving surreal demonstrations of Jerry’s mannerism and voice.
Once more Doreen, Ana, and Elena placed roses by Jerry’s urn and serenaded everyone with a spiritual hymn. A final congregational hymn, “When We All Get to Heaven” followed and then the benediction.
Once more in the church fellowship hall, the Lowry family received friends as they filed by. Visible on one wall were a projected presentation of photos detailing Jerry’s life.
As nine o’clock neared, the family was able to depart. We drove over to Laurinburg and enjoyed a meal at Arby’s before departing for Sanford. Once more, the Lowry family sang . . . for the full hour it took to get back to their home. Once more, the music made the time pass quickly, as we arrived back in Sanford by 11:30 p.m.
Grief has never been made clearer than upon Jerry’s death. We grieve, not for him, but for ourselves. As a faithful Christian who is prone to failure as nearly everyone else, I know that Jerry has obtained the ultimate goal, but we grieve because we have lost him, we will miss his presence, and we will miss his love and guidance. Jerry truly left the world a better place for those fortunate enough to have known him. The greatest tribute to him would be to share what he gave us with others. “Wherever there is a hell on earth we must bring . . . Love.”
Crowell's limited edition Gibson Mastertone in Laurinburg Presbyterian Church. At the upper end of the neck is an antique banjo head that also serves as his urn.
Lynn woke me Friday morning about 4:30 with the news. It was forthcoming, yet it is tragic. A wonderful life, a wonderful husband, a wonderful father, a wonderful friend to many, and a blessed and talented musician has finished his course in faith much too soon.
Arriving at his home I tried to collect my composure, but reality was staring me down. To one side and to the foot of his bed were two Gibson Mastertone banjos. Like him, they too were silent, but I truly thought I heard a string picked. It was the high “G.”
His face radiated content and satisfaction, mine was swollen with tears.
As we departed I could hear – with the banjo playing lead - “Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away. . .”
* * *
When many people think of banjo pickers they first picture the social misfit, evolutionary degenerate portrayed in the 1972 movie, “Deliverance.” That is a fairly accurate portrayal, and we pickers accept it.
Picking a banjo is an exercise in spirituality, relaxation, and personal transformation. You have to be a banjo picker to understand that.
I first met Crowell after he and Debby moved to Laurinburg in the late 1980’s. It was a memorable time. He was a banjo picker, and I had played bluegrass banjo from 1972 until 1987. I stopped pllaying due to our adoption of two children in 1987. Crowell, meanwhile, didn’t let his kids stop him; he just took his banjo into the bathroom and closed the door.
You could call our friendship as a meeting of souls. Only banjo pickers would understand that statement. You see, when you’re watching a bluegrass band, the guitar player may be singing, the mandolin player may be singing, the bass player may be singing, and the fiddle player may drop his or her fiddle and sing, but mostly the banjo player is silent except for the beautiful and upbeat notes coming from within.
To truly properly pick a banjo the picker must become one with the instrument. His mind, body, and soul must merge. The left fingers and the right fingers must act as the conduits and the music created and released comes directly from the picker’s heart.
You can’t speak banjo until you have reached that plateau.
Crowell reached that plateau and became a fixture in the McFarland Road Bluegrass Band. They played nearly every Thursday evening at Uncle Danny’s Pickin’ Shed on McFarland Road and just about anywhere else they were requested.
Crowell and Debby came by to visit back in the spring. He had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone what everyone hoped would be routine surgery that would eventually lead to his becoming cancer free. It didn’t happen that way. The cancer had spread.
As we discussed his life it became apparent that he was content and at peace with his faith, his family, his friends, and in general his life. He accepted his fate head-on. My admiration for him grew in bounds over his last few months.
Wanting to do something that reflected upon our common love of the banjo, I asked him if I could make him an urn out of antique heart pine and have it laser-engraved engraved with a banjo. That met his approval and Debby’s approval. Later, I found an antique banjo that was badly in need of repair. In fact you could say that it was totally destroyed except for the intact head. Removing the neck I could visualize the head and flange being made into an urn, but the heart pine urn was also ready.
* * *
A few hours following his passing, I returned to his home to meet with Debby, Chris, and Jessica. With me were the heart pine urn and the banjo head. As I expected they selected the banjo head. I would find time during the weekend to transform a banjo head into a cremation urn.
Sunday morning I returned to their home to collect his limited edition, curly maple, gold plated Gibson Mastertone banjo. As he once said, “It is not my best sounding banjo, but it is the prettiest.” The banjo and the banjo head urn would be used as visuals in his memorial service.
The same Sunday afternoon as his memorial service was also the same date as the scheduled Bluegrass Jam at the Storytelling and Arts Center in downtown. In keeping with Crowell’s expected wishes, the bluegrass musicians still gathered to pick downtown, but the usual crowd was diminished.
Many were remembering Crowell and supporting his family at a meaningful memorial service and reception.
“. . . to that land on God’s celestial shore; I’ll fly away. I’ll fly away, O glory, I’ll fly away. When I die – hallelujah by and by – I’ll fly away.”
I last spoke with Emily back in December. She was “back home” for the memorial service of her grandmother, Loma. Although I had known of her all of her young life, our generation gap kept us from truly knowing each other. This day was different.
Standing in her grandmother’s kitchen, Emily approached me with a broad smile and a cheerful greeting. We hugged, she began asking me about my family, and then it was my turn to ask about her life. She was in New Orleans and working at Tulane University where she helped rehabilitate athletes. She also introduced me to her little daughter, Greta, and her partner, Kara. They were a happy couple with a happy and beautiful daughter.
Emily left a lasting impression upon me that day. She could befriend anyone! She was one of those rare people that could make anyone feel like they were the most important person in the world.
On August 21, 2012 I was checking out messages on Facebook when I spotted a notice from my niece, and Emily’s childhood friend, Jamie who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. The message was simply a notice that Emily had just passed away in a New Orleans hospital. I knew that Emily had MS, but how could this be? That post was followed by: “Don’t cry because it is over, smile because it happened -Dr. Seuss.”
I picked up my phone and called the Rev. Neal Carter, pastor at Emily’s church in Laurinburg – Laurinburg Presbyterian Church – to confirm what I had just read. To my disdain it was true.
A short time later I received a call from Emily’s father, Jim. He stated that he simply wanted me to get Emily’s obituary in several newspapers. There would be a reception and memorial service at the Tulane University President’s home on Thursday evening, and following they planned to drive back to Laurinburg – arriving on Saturday. I could feel and understand the loss and confusion in his voice. I was in his place just over 9 months earlier when we lost our 28 year old son. Total confusion is acceptable.
Emily’s father had retired after serving many years as a local pediatrician, and her mother had recently retired as the founder and director of our local hospice. They were well known and well respected in our community, but I became concerned about how our community would receive Emily due to her lifestyle. The same could be said for her brother, Jason and his partner, Forrest.
It is a fact that those who have an alternative lifestyle cannot usually find peace and acceptance in a small, rural, southern community. As a result, most move to metropolitan areas where their unique abilities and creative talents help those areas grow and prosper.
We were going to have a memorial service for Emily back in her hometown, and I asked God that it would be an event that would be truly memorable and healing. It was.
As Rev. Carter began the service: “If you wish to know about someone today, just dial up that person’s Facebook page and you will get a pretty good picture of who she/he is.”
From Emily: It is official . . . I am going to try out for the Big Easy Roller Girls . . . no joke. It is on . . . others beware . . . I am fast and scrappy. I may be small, but I can handle my own . . . and Greta will think I am the coolest mom on the planet. Wish me luck.
Laurinburg Presbyterian Church was full of people who had traveled from New Orleans, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, and from her alma mater, Wake Forest University. Kara was from Alabama, and as Kara’s father shared with me: “Emily got to know more of my neighbors, and family, than I ever did. She was one remarkable young lady!”
From another Facebook post: “Emily had an article on her Facebook page (about Wake Forest University): “Top Ten Universities for gorgeous Men.” Her post following it was: “Not the reason I went there, but it is good to know.”
More from Facebook from August 15th: “Happy Anniversary to my best friend, partner, soul-mate. I adore you. Thank you for the best 11 years of my life and our Greta. I will marry you one day.”
Dr Carter continued: “Emily had apparently had some encounter with someone who in some way employed scripture more as a club to beat, hurt other people, rather than encourage, build up, and offer grace to them.”
“Emily made some snarky comment on her Facebook toward God, reflecting her negative feelings about this negative view of faith.”
“I shared with her our Galatians passage: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
“All of the labels that we place on each other . . . place on ourselves.”
“All of the labels and value judgments we ascribe to each other melt away in Christ . . . in our baptism.”
“All of those labels dissolve and we are one in Christ.”
To that I could only think: “WOW!!” I’m never too old to learn something new.
As Dr. Carter so clearly illustrated, we are one in Christ, and only God is our judge.
His illustrations went on to assure us that baptism does not protect us from disease, complications, or the dark, for it is often in the dark and blood that we find life.
As Emily’s memorial service concluded, I led Kara and her father, followed by Emily’s family to the fellowship hall where they spent nearly two hours greeting the hundreds who had come. Greeting many of them, I could sense a common thread from the memorial service: “Neal Carter opened my eyes . . . It was a most beautiful and appropriate service . . . Emily is smiling.”
On the other side of the fellowship hall, lunch was prepared and catered, and once again well over a hundred took advantage to eat, share and fellowship before departing. Large photos of a happy Emily kept watch, and were a reminder to a truly extraordinary life.
” . . . there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
It is difficult but not impossible to imagine his early life. Born as one of several children to a traveling African Methodist Episcopal minister in Wilmington, Delaware and his wife, Chester soon found himself living in rural, southern North Carolina. What brought them to Laurinburg during his teen-age years unclear to me, but Laurinburg is richer for his ancient decision.
Chester grew up in the years of the Great Depression where even the middle class whites in the segregated South had little, and the blacks had even less. Regardless, he got an education. In 1942 he graduated from Laurinburg Normal and Industrial Institute, a school that was founded in 1904 by Emmanuel Monty and Tinny McDuffie at the request of Booker T. Washington.
Upon graduation Chester wanted to attend Tuskegee Institute, but a war was raging in Europe and the Pacific, and his services were needed by the US Navy. Chester served in the Pacific theatre during World War II.
Prior to departing for military service Chester married his sweetheart, Willie Ruth.
Returning from the war, Chester began working as a brick mason. Many of the finer structures in Scotland County, North Carolina are lasting testaments to his work.
Chester and Willie took up residence in the forks of Stewartsville Road and Caledonia Road in the Washington Park section of Laurinburg where they raised their family of two boys and five daughters.
When he wasn’t busy working he was active in Joseph Temple AME Church and not only helped found Mount Scottish Lodge #188, but also built their building and served as a Past Master. He was their last surviving charter member.
Chester and Willie raised their children in the church and surround by family love and a deep desire to open their doors with education. They all completed high school, continued into college, and have had successful careers.
His children recalled when they read their Sunday school lessons their father would then ask them what it meant to them. He already knew the moral of the various stories, but his test was to be sure that his children understood as well.
I first met Chester over thirty years ago when he and his long term partner, Eddie Pankey, assisted by Leon and Nelson, were a formidable working crew laying bricks for a ramp at the funeral home. Later they did all of the brick masonry when my mother-in-law and my father-in-law built their new house. Within a year they were laying bricks once more when we build a new funeral home, and a couple of years later they did the same for our new house.
I watched and was so extremely amazed at their high degree of skill that I took some photographs. Chester saw what I was doing, and said: “Here, you take the trowel and let me take a photo of you laying a brick.”
I looked at him and smiled: “You’re laying the foundation, and there is no room for amateur work in that.”
We all laughed.
Chester didn’t talk much about himself. When he did speak it was to ask me about my family or perhaps to talk about his family. I came to know him as a very humble person; or one of few words and much action.
About 20 years ago Chester and Willie were struck by a severe personal tragedy. The home burned and was a total loss. For sentimental or whatever reason, Chester and Willie rebuilt their new home on the same site.
Chester and Eddie completed several more tasks for us in the following years in their ever reliable manner, and I was always amazed at their work ethic and his knowledge of the Holy Bible. The last job I asked them to do I was saddened to hear that Chester had retired completely, but Eddie was still working.
Coming to work every day and going home I would pass by the Purnell home. If Chester was working in the yard or his garden I would sometimes stop just to see how they were doing. He was always delighted to see me, and the feeling was mutual.
Chester’s time in his yard became less and less and I began to worry about him. Meeting him at Wal-Mart one day I learned that Willie was “under the weather” and not expected to live. Willie passed about 3 years ago, and with her went a big part of Chester’s life. Visiting with his family, I saw his wall full of plaques and honors that I had never before seen, nor had Chester ever mentioned. Once more his humble nature meant that life was not about him.
Chester was blessed by a loving and supporting family. Seeing his house I could tell when they were visiting for holidays and family gatherings.
About three weeks ago Chester’s son, George, came by to talk with me. Chester was very sick and they wanted me to serve them at the time of need. I was humbled!
Whilst Chester was undergoing treatments for his fatal illness, there is little doubt that he was physically uncomfortable. Yet, in his own humble way he cheered up the medical staff that was serving him.
Chester finished his course in faith on July 19. I met with some of his family and they explained that they had a family reunion that weekend, so it would be Sunday or Monday before they could decide on the funeral arrangements. His life will be celebrated on July 26.
The Bible teaches us that: “He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Chester is in the latter group.
Meanwhile back home we can look at a tall firm foundation and two chimneys reaching for the skies as a continued memorial to this true man of wisdom and knowledge.
Earl would be easy to know but hard to describe. He was as plain as his name and as complex as one of Einstein’s theories. In the South we would know him as a “good old boy.” Hard working, Christian, simple, complex, devoted to his family, and able to seize the best from any opportunity: That’s Earl.
When Hospice called to tell us that his six year battle with liver cancer was over – yes, six-years – I felt relief and sadness. Rumors of his death started a week before, but when it didn’t happen we remembered what he always said: “I want my funeral to be on Saturday.”
I visited with him Wednesday, stopping by to say good-bye and asking God to comfort him. He did not reply, but Thursday was different. When the call came, I immediate drove to his home in my car, ahead of the Paul, who would bring the hearse. Driving the ten mile route, a song came on the radio that brought early tears, and a few miles later a waterfall of emotions. I felt Earl was speaking to me:
“Bad news on the doorstep; I couldn’t take one more step. . . But something touched me deep inside The day the music died. . . Did you write the book of love, And do you have faith in God above if the Bible tells you so? . . .And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye Singin’, “this’ll be the day that I die. “this’ll be the day that I die.” . . .
I did not hear all of the words to Don McLean’s American Pie, but a word or phase every now and then were words that Earl was speaking to me.
* * *
Jason, Earl, and Josh Byrd
When he was seventeen, Earl took his sweetheart, Vonnie, across the state line to South Carolina for a quick wedding. Unlike most teenage marriages, this union thrived. Earl worked for a trucking company and Vonnie went to college, studying to be an elementary school teacher. Along the way they raised two sons.
Earl was a part-time helper at the funeral home over 20 years ago. Helping out when he was able. Between his job, his volunteer fireman’s duties, and his family; free time for Earl was at a premium.
Over ten years ago, Earl purchased a backhoe and began contract cemetery work for area funeral homes and cemeteries. His sons, Jason and Josh, soon were right there with him. This operation expanded to include a swimming pool installation and maintenance company.
In the late summer of 2000 Earl was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was being treated for indigestion by his physician, but a second physician discovered that colon cancer had then spread to his liver. The normal life expectancy for the average person with liver cancer would be measured in weeks. At the same time my wife, Lynn, was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She and Earl supported each other during their joint battles, bonding as only true survivors would.
Earl was a fighter and he became part of an experimental program at the renowned Duke University Medical Center. Extensive surgeries and hospital stays were to follow, but Earl never complained about his health. His only complaint came after losing weight while at the hospital. “I want to get home to Vonnie’s cooking.” Before long, he was on his backhoe and fighting fires once more.
The rollercoaster ride had just begun. His cancer appeared to be in remission, but it flared up once more. In one surgery lasting 23 hours, 80% of his liver was removed. Earl rebounded once more.
By the summer of 2005, Earl was told that there were no more that medicine could do for him. Vonnie took a year off from teaching, and they lived that year to the absolute fullest: Alaskan cruises, the Bahamas, the NASCAR circuit, the nearby beaches and mountains became their life as well as the cancer survivors support groups. Earl and Vonnie even had a formal church wedding, something they could not afford earlier.
Surprisingly, Earl did not die that year.
In September 2006 he walked the survivors’ lap at the local Relay for Life, and in October he rented a recreational vehicle and took a trip to the mountains to enjoy the fall colors.
* * *
Earl and Vonnie preplanned Earl’s funeral in the summer of 2005. He wanted a fireman’s funeral and selected a plain, dignified walnut casket. Earl was told that he would not get the walnut casket he was looking at, but rather one made from a walnut tree that we would plant in the fall.
We can reflect upon many services that we’ve performed in the past: The one in the worst weather, the one of a small child, the one for a dignified public servant, and so on, but Earl’s funeral was our most difficult. We were serving his family and friends, yet wanting someone to serve us. Funeral professionals are also humans. We grieve and hurt when a friend dies, but we are also thrust into the role as a caregiver to the family.
Vonnie lay in bed with Earl until it was time for us to move him. Paul, James (Earl’s friend) and I moved his body to the cot. As we left the house firemen from all six fire departments in Scotland County had been notified of Earl’s passing and stood at attention as the cot was rolled toward the hearse. Parked by the road were fire trucks from each department. Earl’s son, Jason, drove the first fire truck that lead the hearse to the funeral home. Earl’s friend, Archie, drove a Harley-Davidson bearing the fire department flag, Vonnie and Sue (the hospice nurse) rode in the hearse, and the other fire trucks followed for the ten mile trip. At the funeral home the firemen gathered in a circle for a prayer.
Rural Scotland County, North Carolina is served by five totally volunteer fire departments. Each department is a cohesive group of men and women who meet monthly for meetings and training, and they gather together for competition and other social events. Now they were together once more to bury an honorable and dedicated member of their extended family.
* * *
Paul had earlier promised Earl that he would embalm his body. As I checked into the preparation room, Paul’s face was beet red with swollen eyes as he began to shave Earl’s face. An hour later Paul’s grief was still evident, but he was going to do what he had promised. The tone for our most difficult service was just being set.
Earlier in the week we suggested to Vonnie, Jason, and Josh that they ask some of Earl’s special friends to write down their thoughts on Earl. These stories from eight friends were compiled into a memorial folder that would be given to people attending his visitation. They had also collected over two hundred photographs of Earl that would be shown by projection and on TV during his visitation. Over six hundred friends attended the evening visitation at the funeral home.
The firefighters were not the only group that Earl touched. He was also a member of a motorcycle club and loved taking trips on his Harley. Both groups were set to be an important part of Earl’s funeral.
Saturday began as a warm November day and was to set an all time high temperature record for the date by mid afternoon. Some firemen were dressed in their formal uniforms while many on the trucks were in their more uncomfortable heavy turnout gear. Truck Number 45 would be the hearse and was suitably attired with black cloth covering the highly reflective safety features. A token number of the motorcycle club members were present and would carry the fire department flag, flying from a Harley, ahead of the fire trucks. The firemen were content not only to present their best appearance for the service, but they also greatly assisted us with parking arrangements at the church.
As Earl’s casket arrived at the church, the firemen, with military precision, gently lowered it to the pallbearers who carried it between lines of firemen and motorcycle club members to the porch of St. John United Methodist Church.
Most of us have attended funerals or memorial services that were quite forgetful. They followed a strict protocol, religious guidelines, or perhaps were extravagant without any meaningful reason. Earl’s funeral was neither. The first minister was the regional firefighter chaplain. He shared Earl’s devotion to the fire department. The second minister was Earl’s pastor 20 years ago. He took us back in time; describing the young and vibrant man he once was. The third minister was his current pastor. Earl had been fighting cancer for the duration of his relationship. He shared Earl’s unselfish nature and his unwillingness to seek pity. The final song as requested by Earl was George Harrison’s, My Sweet Lord.
As the funeral procession arrived at the cemetery, two ladder trucks formed an arch over the cemetery gate. Connecting at the peak of the arch was a waving American flag.
A lone bagpiper played a melody of airs as the procession of over 400 people made their way to the graveside. Once more the firemen performed their solemn duty as they placed his fireman’s draped casket over the grave. Parked beside the grave was Earl’s Harley-Davidson. As they stood back, every fireman turned on his pager. Loud and clear for the hundreds to hear was:
“Attention all Scotland County Fire, Rescue and EMS Personnel, This is the final call for Station 4, Gibson Assistant Fire Chief Earl Byrd, Radio call number 401. Goodbye faithful friend. You have served us well. Rest in peace. Scotland Central Fire Dispatch clear at 1230 hours, November 11, 2006.” Not a dry eye was to be seen.
The lone piper played two verses of “Amazing Grace,” turning and fading into the horizon as the music faded from the ear.
In life, Earl taught us how to live. In death, he taught us how to die and planned a service that reflected upon those things he held so dear: God, family, friends, and voluntary service to others.
We buried Mutt yesterday afternoon under a clear blue Carolina sky on a perfect spring day. He was laid to rest beside his beloved wife, Mary Franklin, and under the watchful eyes of his children, grandchildren, and other family members. Thus ended the life of a great man whose deeds touched many; from the movers and shakers of society to the salt of the earth.
On January 9, 1916, Reginald Frederick “Mutt” McCoy was born in the small town of Laurinburg, North Carolina to Clarence Latimer and Lutie Walker McCoy. As a small child he was walking along with his father when he found a nickel. That simple discovery became a lesson of a lifetime. Mr. McCoy told his son that his finding was not his nickel: “You must find who that nickel belongs to or else put it in the collection plate at church on Sunday morning.”
Mutt attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and left school following the death of his father to help his mother and family. World War II called, he served in Europe and Africa, and was awaiting transfer to the Pacific Theatre when the war ended.
After the war he returned to the University, married, began raising his family, and worked his way up in the businesses operated by the McNair family. Along the way Mutt was elected to political offices, served on the University Board of Governors, was instrumental in transferring Scotland County from an agricultural area to one rich in an industrial base, and a laundry list of other accomplishments. The laundry list truly defined him.
I was fortunate to have known Mutt all of my life. He sat behind my family at the First Methodist Church, on the back pew, in an area commonly known as the “Mule Pen.” He was sitting there a month before his passing at the age of 94.
Some of my clear memories of Mutt go back to my freshman year at East Carolina University. A telephone call came to my dorm and I was asked to come to the Administration Building. Thoughts of code violations or worse came through my head as I walked across campus and appeared at the designated room in the designated building. Mutt was in town for a Board meeting and wanted to say “hello” and wish me the best in my educational endeavors.
He was caring.
Along about this same time his son, Frederick, got into a little teen-age mischief. He and another friend went around town, opened up and turned on a few fire hydrants. They were caught by the police and taken to the police station. The police chief called their fathers and released them to go home. Frederick remembered getting home and being told by his mother to go to his father’s office and wait on him. Mutt’s office door was closed and Frederick had to wait on an uncomfortable hard seat for several minutes. Finally, entering his office Frederick took his seat across the desk from his father. Mutt bowed his head, removed his glasses, and while rubbing his eyes inquired: “Tell me – in one syllable words, so I’ll understand – what you did.” Frederick spent the next four Saturdays going to the fire station and washing the fire trucks.
Mutt was a responsible father.
When his beloved wife, Mary Franklin McCoy, died suddenly in 1986 a middle aged Black man came into the funeral home to pay his respects. I chanced to meet him and heard his story.
“My parents were share croppers and their work was hard. I wanted a better life and studied in school to get ahead. In high school I realized that I did not have the clothes nor the money to get into college, so I gave up. My teacher noticed my dropping grades and discovered the reasons. She went to Mr. McCoy. I then met with Mr. McCoy and promised him that I would succeed. At Mr. McCoy’s request, I later went to McNair’s Department Store and got the new clothes that he had purchased for me. My four years of college were also paid for by Mr. McCoy. He did not have to do that.”
Mutt was a quiet philanthropist.
There were countless stories as this that could be told similar to the above by people in this area – regardless of their race or economic background.
Mutt believed: “We are all God’s children.
In 1993 my aunt, Matt, lay dying of cancer in a hospital 130 miles away when my father, his sister, Ruth, and friend, Jewell Peacock went to visit her for what was to be the last time. They arrived to find her old classmate, Mutt, already there.
Mutt never forgot his friends.
A few years ago Mutt’s sister, Rosemary, passed out at church. EMS was called as the congregation anxiously prayed for her wellbeing. She was taken to the hospital and church was dismissed. As I was leaving church Mutt stopped me in the Narthex: “We’ve got to have a talk with the preacher. You should never dismiss church without passing the collection plate.”
Mutt could diffuse a serious situation.
Over the later years Mutt was a frequent visitor to visitations held at the funeral home. Upon leaving he would seek me out, and aware of his advanced age, would tell me: “Martha (his daughter) told me when I left the house not to let you keep me.” I would always tell him that it wasn’t his night. He had to return home.
Visiting Mutt at Scotia Village just about a week before his passing, I was getting up to leave when he stated: “You’ll be keeping me very soon.”
Mutt was a realist.
We were taking a family day off and enjoying Carowinds when the call came that Mutt had died. We drove the 100 miles back home, and still dressed in shorts and a sports shirt, I went to visit his family. We sat on the porch and reminisced.
The following day all of his family entered through the garage and backdoor of the funeral home to complete his funeral arrangements. We gathered into the sun porch and discussed the service details; everything came up from having the family enter the church about 15 minutes early, to getting the right casket with a Carolina blue interior, to bringing Mutt’s casket into the church five minutes late. After all, he was notoriously late for nearly every meeting; so why break the tradition now? As they left, Frederick noticed the 1922 hearse in our garage and asked us to use it for the funeral.
A large crowd turned out for the 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. visitation for Mutt held Sunday night at the funeral home. The following morning we placed his casket into the antique hearse and drove to the First United Methodist Church. I then drove over to his home – just 3 blocks away – to get the family together and bring them to the church for a meal beforehand.
Just before departing Martha sat down at the grand piano in the music room and played an old favorite hymn while the remainder of the family sang along. It was followed by a family prayer before their departure to lunch at the church.
About 75 family and friends gathered in the church fellowship hall for a delicious meal and fellowship prior to the funeral. Each table had been decorated in cotton, flowers, and one of Mutt’s neck ties. Each tie appeared to reflect a different scene: The Tar Heel tie for his university, the Irish Setter tie for his late, yet famous dog – O’Malley, the tartan tie for his Scottish connections, and so on. Afterwards, we entered the church sanctuary, which by that time had filled with friends. Then as planned, the pallbearers brought Mutt’s body into the church at 2:05 p.m.
Mutt’s son, Frederick, delivered a reflective eulogy – sharing stories of his family and the forces that shaped them.
Afterwards, as Mutt’s body was placed into the 1922 hearse, one of the eight pallbearers remarked: “Martha wanted eight of us, in case we have to push you to the cemetery.” Fortunately, that was not the case.
We arrived in the old portion of Hillside Cemetery to the sound of bagpipes playing a medley of airs as the family and friends gathered around the graveside for the committal. It concluded with the pipes playing “Amazing Grace,” and the family meeting the hundreds of friends for renewed times of fellowship.
As the crowd began to thin, Mutt’s eldest daughter, Mary Jane, had her partner, Grace, deliver a message that they wanted to remain at the graveside until the casket and vault were lowered into the grave. Afterwards, the buggies holding the soil were brought up beside the grave and family members took turns placing a shovel of soil into the opened grave. It was a badge of honor that I was asked to do the same.
The lesson of finding a lost nickel almost a century ago set the stage in life for a truly unique individual.
In the 1850’s a southern tobacco farmer completed his home in south-central Scotland County, North Carolina. Using virgin growth long-leaf pine from the surrounding land and primitive tools, the builders constructed massive beams held together with mortise and tendon joints and wooden pegs to create a Greek Revival, nine room mansion. Located just about five miles from South Carolina, the location proved to be most fortunate a few years later.
General William T. Sherman had just finished punishing South Carolina in the War Between the States. The stories of burning buildings, homes, plunder, and pillage under Sherman’s guidance became legendary. After all, South Carolina started the War by firing upon Fort Sumter in 1861, and the sentiment was to make them pay.
As the Union army moved into North Carolina the orders from General Sherman to his troops were for them to tread lighter. North Carolina was one of the last states to join the Confederacy, and possibly only did so because they were surrounded by Confederate states.
If the beautiful plantation known as Oaklawn were in South Carolina it would have been left burning. Instead, it was plundered and the Union soldiers moved on.
In 1881 Hector McLean purchased Oaklawn from the McNair family.
Mr. McLean raised his family at Oaklawn, and upon his death the home was left to his unmarried daughter. Upon her death Oaklawn had fallen into hard times and was later purchased by Hector’s grandson, Jonathan or “Jonnie” and his wife Mary Faith Rogers McLean. They began a restoration and improvement program that continued for years.
Jonnie had served with the US Army in World War II, and was described by a fellow soldier as one to the politest men he ever knew. “Red (as Jonnie was then called) and I were trapped in a fox hole during the Battle of the Bulge. German shells and bullets were flying overhead when I heard Red say, ‘Excuse me!’ ‘Excuse you for what?’ ‘I farted.’”
Mary Faith was from Marlboro County, South Carolina, and her ancestors owned a plantation there as far back as colonial America. Much of the furniture from that plantation was used to furnish Oaklawn. Even the original jury deliberation table from the old Marlborough courthouse is still being used at Oaklawn – but not by juries.
They added a tennis court, gardening, a pond with a cabin, and a vineyard to the former plantation.
Mary Faith unfortunately died of cancer in the mid 1980’s. In the words of Jonnie’s grandson, Jonnie became one of the most eligible bachelors in North and South Carolina.
It was during this time that one of Jonnie’s cousins and a friend of the actress Elizabeth Taylor tried to play matchmaker with the pair. Miss Taylor reported told Jonnie’s cousin that “such a wonderful man cannot exist!” The planned meeting never happened, but having heard so much about Jonnie, Miss Taylor sent Jonnie an autographed photo to commemorate what could have been.
Johnnie could best be described as educated, well read, happy-go-lucky, an intellectual, and a man who never met a stranger. His favorite pastimes ranged from canoeing rivers and conservation efforts to drinking Scotch with his close friends.
* * *
On June 16, 2009 a late afternoon storm blew a centuries old hickory tree onto the north side of Oaklawn. The roof and walls in an upstairs bedroom were punctured by the massive limbs, as well as the roof of the lattice room on the first floor. The massive framework onto which Oaklawn was built was not compromised: A point Jonnie was more than happy to acknowledge. The remaining tree was removed from the house and grounds and a tarp was placed over the roof to prevent further damage.
Jonnie did not live to see Oaklawn restored. He was admitted to the hospital on June 25 and passed suddenly on Sunday, June 28.
Sunday afternoon I met with Mary and Mike, Jonnie’s daughter and son-in-law, at Oaklawn. Mary shared her desire for a celebration of Jonnie’s life. Jonnie was a Presbyterian, but not regular in his church attendance. His favorite blessing and prayer was brief and simple: “Much obliged, Jesus!” Mary wanted the service to truly reflect on Jonnie’s life, and she was uncertain about having a minister or not. Later, realizing that Jonnie was friends with the associate pastor at the local Presbyterian church, Elizabeth Forester; Mary asked her to officiate the service.
We walked into the backyard to the tennis court to survey the proposed location for his service. Two large pecan trees were on the side of the tennis court and an adjacent area was opened and in full sunlight. That would be the ideal location.
The service was scheduled for noon on Wednesday, July 1.
The large white tent should be placed in the open area and the service would be conducted there. A caterer would also be hired to feed everyone after the service, and the tables would be set up under the pecan trees.
On Monday we contacted a rental company to get the tent, chairs, and tables while Mary called the caterer.
We returned to Oaklawn on Tuesday to further study the logistics. There were some ideal parking areas near the tennis court, so we got some parking signs with arrows to keep cars from parking further down the long drive at Oaklawn.
The weather is always a concern when planning any outdoor activity, and fortunately Wednesday’s forecast was for temperatures in the low 90’s with low humidity. That is perfect July weather in the North Carolina sandhills..
Wednesday, we arrived at Oaklawn around 9 a.m. The rental company arrived at the same time and set up the tent, tables and chairs. Shortly after eleven, friends began to arrive and park in the designated areas. The caterer also arrived and set up at the far end of the tennis courts in the shade of one of the pecan trees.
By noon about 150 family and friends had arrived and the Rev. Elizabeth Forester began the service. Just as the service began a black cloud suddenly appeared overhead and a cooling breeze blew from the west, and that was followed by a few raindrops for about 30 seconds. A few minutes later an Air Force jet flew loudly overhead, to which I heard someone remark, “For God’s sake, Jonnie. Quit trying to interrupt your funeral!”
Celebration of Jonnie
Keeping with Jonnie’s musical tastes, a jazz rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” was played, and that was followed by some real and humorous stories of Jonnie’s life given by a friend and cousin, the Hon. J. Dickson Phillips, his daughter, Mary, and his grandson, Lee.
“I see trees of green . . . red roses too
I see ‘um bloom . . . for me and for you
And I think to myself . . . what a wonderful world . . .”
The last musical selection was Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” The words seemed to touch upon everyone that knew Jonnie and his love of the outdoors, and the first tears of the service flowed freely.
Rev. Forester then concluded with William Sloane Coffin’s famous benediction:
May the Lord bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short; grace to risk something big for something good; grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.
So, may God take your minds and think through them; may God take your lips and speak through them; may God take your hearts and set them on fire. Amen
After that benediction grandson, Lee McLean led in the closing benediction. “Much obliged, Jesus!”
Only one person was known to have left after the celebration of Jonnie’s life, and that was a physician who had to get back to his office. The remainder stayed for a meal under the trees or tent. Smoked roast beef, smoked filet chicken breasts, potato salad, cole slaw, string beans, yeast rolls, cake, and gallons of sweet and unsweetened ice tea and water were prepared for the lunch.
During the meal countless people complimented on its relevance and organization, and some even began to discuss something similar for themselves.
By 2:30 most people had departed, and we arrived back at the funeral home by 3:00.
Jonnie’s body was cremated and a cousin is making his urn of bird’s-eye maple. When it is complete, his earthly remains will be buried beside his beloved Mary Faith.
In this world there are memorable people that have forgettable final services, and there are memorable people that have truly memorable services. Jonnie’s service was the latter. Personally, I will never forget him nor the final service to celebrate his life.
In our journeys through this life we sometimes meet some very unique people. In most cases people seek peace through riches and fame, but in one particular situation all of that was absent.
Ann Groves was raised by a truly blessed couple. Adopted at the age of four following the deaths of her birth parents, most would say she was not only blessed but rich. Her new family had a rich heritage and were prominent farmers and land owners. However, that was not her accomplishment.
Ann Groves was an educator by profession, and from my observations of her life she was an educator in life.
She married and became a mother to a truly blessed daughter. She traveled, not only in a physical sense, but also in her mind. She unselfishly reached out to help others, not out of pity, but out of love.
Then her life fell apart. Some bad business deals by her husband cost her all of her possessions and her marriage. Gone was the 100 plus year old family home place, the farms, and the money. Not lost was her ability to find peace in the depths of despair.
She took some very special young people under her wings, and seeing their untapped potentials, she tutored them and encouraged their educational endeavors in any way possible. Her “son,” Jeremiah, is proof and sat on the front row of her memorial service with her “family.”
Ann Groves fought a gallant battle with cancer. If a positive attitude and faith could defeat cancer, then she would be cured. In her case it didn’t.
Sixteen days before she passed I paid a brief visit to her at her room in a Hospice facility. I just wanted to tell her how her life or coming up from ruins had been an inspiration to me. I didn’t get the chance.
“Beacham! How nice of you to drop by! You know, I really appreciate all of the work you have done for our communities. From reconnecting us with Scotland, helping young people, and writing such true and interesting stories; you have been one of my inspirations.”
I cried as I bent down to hug her, and told her how much she meant to me.
Ann Groves passed on June 10.
With an immediate family that included only a daughter – her real support family at her memorial service numbered over seventy! Those were the ones who sat together as “family” in addition to the countless friends who were present.
Without fame and without riches, Ann Groves found peace on this earth and beyond.
In February 1911, railroad engineer Hewitt Beacham pulled his west-bound steam engine into the Laurinburg station. As passengers debarked, climbed on; the water was also replenished in the engine. As the engine surged slowly forward Dan McDougald shouted a warning: “There is another engine just a few minutes ahead, going to Laurel Hill.”
Hewitt replied: “My log tells me there is a clear track all the way to Hamlet.”
Laurel Hill was just 6 miles up the rail and Hamlet was just 16 miles. Since getting a job on the railroad, Hewitt now made his home in Hamlet along with the railroad headquarters.
The train gained speed in what was then the longest and straightest section of rail in the world. From a point just west of Wilmington to another just east of Hamlet, the rail was as straight as a light beam. Old Hundred, a community just west of Laurel Hill was so named because that was the 100th mile of the straight rail.
Hewitt did not make it to Hamlet or even Old Hundred that day. The “phantom train” did indeed exist and it was stopped in Laurel Hill. Despite his best efforts to stop the train, Hewitt was only able to slow its progress and save passenger lives before plowing into the caboose and suffering fatal injuries.
Five months later, on July 24 Hewitt’s sister – Ila Beacham McDougald – gave birth to her fifth child: Hewitt Beacham McDougald – so named in memory of her heroic brother.
Hewitt eventually became the middle child of the nine children born to Ila and John McDougald. He also became to only one to become stricken with the incurable disease of polio. When he was just 18 months old and learning to walk and run, he became crippled for life.
When he was four years old he was sent alone by railroad transportation to Johns-Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment. Tendons in his left leg were severed, and other operations were performed in a primitive attempt to give him more mobility. The treatments were a limited success. He returned to Laurinburg a year later and reportedly did not remember his mother. Despite having 9 other children (a cousin came to live with them following the deaths of her parents) in the house ranging from 13 years old to a few months old, Ila was able to assist Hewitt with the proper therapy to strengthen his leg control its mobility.
46 year-old Ila died suddenly of a heart attack in 1925, leaving a home of 10 children from ages 21 to 6 in the sole care of her husband. The oldest, Ruth, left East Carolina Teachers College in Greenville and returned to Laurinburg to raise her siblings and cousin who had come to live with the family following the deaths of her parents.
13 year-old Hewitt began to work at the M. A. McDougald store and like many of the others, continued his public education.
Life at the McDougald home was never short of its adventurous stories. They had the only tennis court in town in their back yard, and in some ways it was the center of recreation. According to brothers, Robert and Robah, Hewitt – despite being crippled – was a better than average tennis player. He didn’t move as fast at the others, but he could shift the tennis racket from his right to left hand without any loss of accuracy. While on the subject of tennis: One ageless story of the tennis court involves their friend Alexander Gregg.
Finding about 100 feet of steel cable, the McDougald boys arrived at the brilliant idea to connect one end to a large pecan tree, bull it across the tennis court, and connect it to one of the posts supporting the backdrop on the tennis court. The next order of business was to put an iron pipe on the cable from whence someone could grip and ride the cable across the tennis courts.
Hewitt recalled that the pipe was too slow and got too hot to hold for the duration of the ride. Axle grease was liberally applied to the cable and little Alexander Gregg, the youngest of the bunch, was elected to be the test pilot.
Alex later reported that he was breaking the sound barrier when his bare feet came in contact with the clay surface. He quickly raised his legs only to find his posterior becoming the next victim of the clay court. Observing Alexander’s feet and buttocks, the cable ride was dismounted, but not before the inventors were disciplined. Alexander earned the eternal nickname from the McDougalds: “Greasy.”
The Great Depression hit the M. A. McDougald business with a devastating blow. The family was forced to close and liquidate the furniture business, sell the building, and move the funeral business to a smaller building. Hewitt and his sister, Christine (Tina), continued to assist their father. Hewitt, despite being crippled, strived to become a funeral director and embalmer, and Tina, with some business college education became the bookkeeper and secretary. In 1935, Hewtt left for Nashville, TN and a six month course at Gupton-Jones Embalming School.
After his formal education he returned to his sweetheart, Priscilla Louise Sanderson of Bennettsville, SC. A short time later they married in her house in Bennettsville and moved to a home on East Vance Street in Laurinburg – about 3 blocks from the funeral home. Their first child, Priscilla (aka Lulla) was born there.
Finally, on Hewitt’s 40th birthday Priscilla gave birth to a son – me (aka Hewitt Beacham McDougald, Jr.) He was on a funeral at the time and two nurses from the hospital found him in Hillside Cemetery to deliver the news.
I have faint memories of getting a Lionel electric train for Christmas when I was 17 months old. Pa had a great time playing with it.
Pa, Papa, Gene, Tina, and Trush worked at the funeral home when I was born. Gene left shortly afterward and Sam McInnis joined the “team.” Sam and Trush were in charge of putting up tents and digging graves, so some of my early memories are riding in the 1948 Chevrolet van to cemeteries all over Scotland County. Pa stayed at the office, ran an ambulance service (remember he is crippled), embalmed all of the bodies, made all of the funeral arrangements, and worked on all of the funerals.
Pa was the breakfast cook at our home. He would arise as exactly the same time every morning, shave, shower, and dress while the rest of us slept. . . or pretended to. My bedroom door was directly across from the kitchen door and Pa would always sing while preparing breakfast. “Blessed Assurance,” “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” and dozens of other old hymns were his favorite. It should not be a wonder that I knew their words long before I could read.
Growing up in Laurinburg in the 1950′s and 60′s was pretty much as shown on the “Andy Griffith Show.” Windows were opened in the summer, doors were never locked, and we were fortunate to have electric fans to stir the hot and humid air. Of course we always had the evening thunder storms that would knock out the electricity. Pa’s lap was the safest place to be following a loud clap of thunder.
On the opposite end of the weather, we did get snow in the winter. One year we had a good 4-6 inch snow fall. Pa went down in the basement of the funeral home and using some old tools, he quickly made me a sled. Since Laurinburg is pretty much void of hills, the favorite sledding place was the front steps of the old Laurinburg High School.
During my years of growing up we had only one family vacation. That occurred when I was 11 and we went to the Outer Banks. While just starting our vacation, Pa read an obituary from Laurinburg in a newspaper, and we returned home. I did get to visit the Ocracoke lighthouse and see a few Outer Banks sites before our departure.
Despite his workaholic nature; he made sure that his children received a college education and paid all of our expenses.
When Ma became ill at the age of 56, and she had to have a heart valve replacement surgery, we had no health insurance. The cashier at UNC Hospitals explained that they could not proceed without payment. Pa’s reply was pretty abrupt: “My tax dollars built this hospital, so you just tell me now how much I owe you for the full amount, and I’ll give you a check, RIGHT NOW.”
Of course they couldn’t, but upon her discharge in January 1974 he gave UNC Hospitals a personal check for over $26,000! He always kept his word.
I finished mortuary college in 1975 and returned to work for Pa. He was still having trouble adjusting to the loss of Ma a year earlier, and I was suddenly much like a greenhorn with no true direction in life. Ma had always been my guidance.
We coexisted and gradually felt each other out as we worked alongside each other. The generation gap was there, but we kept chipping away at it. Slowly, but surely, I got to know him a little better. Somehow, I felt that I had more education and was smarter than him. What I didn’t realize – at first – was that he had WISDOM. Wisdom is much more important than knowledge.
In 1977, his sister and co-owner of the funeral home, Tina, died suddenly. Tina did all of the books and billings at the funeral home, and immediately it was all dumped into my lap.
Thousands of questions had to be answered quickly, and Pa was there to help wherever possible. By 1981, we bought out the 2/3 interest in the funeral home then held by his sister, Ruth.
Lynn and I got married in July, 1980 and Pa was the best man. I could not have made a better choice.
I had learned that any NEW ideas that I had concerning business improvements were opposed by Pa as “needlessly spending money.” To move forward, I just went ahead and did what I thought was best. On November 3, 1982 he resigned to the fact, and told me: “You’re in charge.”
Shortly afterwards construction workers entered the funeral home carrying their tools and sledge hammers. As they walked past the office door, all of them spoke to him: “Good morning, Mr. McDougald . . . Good morning, Mr. McDougald . . . Good morning, Mr. McDougald.”
“What’s going on here?” was his response.
“Just a wee bit of remodeling,” was my response.
The job was successfully completed and he appeared pleased, but never said it.
Pa was for the first time in his life using a cane to walk. Despite having polio, he managed on his own until he was in his early 70′s.
He always had some friends who would stop by just to visit and talk about the recent happenings and what happened years ago. I politely sat in and listened, never realizing until later that I had heard some interesting facts of Laurinburg’s history. Sometimes I would press him for more information on a subject, and he would simply say: “Papa knew about that, but I don’t remember . . .” Call that statement fuel for my desire to write.
By the early 1990′s Pa’s health was notably declining. He would drop off asleep while sitting in his office, and became ever slower to awakening. Despite numerous suggestions, he would not go to his physician, David Williams.
Rufus McDougald, an elderly black may who was our grave digger was also ageing fast and had to retire. Sam McInnis, my mentor was coming down with dementia. Changes were in the wind, and I wasn’t ready.
December 24, 1994 I arrived at the office at my usual time: 7:30 a.m. Pa always arose, fixed breakfast for himself, drove through town, drove by Ma’s grave at Hillside Cemetery, and arrived at the funeral home at 7:00 a.m. – sharp. He would read the Bible for 30 minutes and then I would arrive with the two newspapers. We would then sit in the office with him reading The Fayetteville Times and I reading The News & Observer and discuss the news of the previous day. This day was different. He wasn’t there.
I quickly drove to his home and found him fully dressed, sitting in his favorite chair, and unable to move.
Pa was taken to the hospital where his irregular heart-beat was detected, and he was placed in a room for further observation. On Christmas Day at pacemaker was implanted.
His health gradually improved, and in February he dressed in a suit and asked to be taken back to the office. I did, and he sat at the desk for half a day and answered the phone. Afterwards, he returned home and never again to return.
During his illness, I was the only one who could get him out of the house. I’d drive up to his front door in our car, carry him down the steps, place him in the passenger seat, and drive him to his favorite places around Laurinburg and Scotland County. Every trip included visiting Ma’s grave.
By September his health had truly regressed. Despite Hospice help and verbal realization, I could not believe that he was anything but immortal. My sister, Lulla, moved into his house to help care for him. Sallie McDonald, who cared for Ma over 20 years earlier, also came in the day to help with Pa. Sallie’s advanced age proved to limit her, so another lady was found to day sit with him.
Visiting him on September 18, the day care lady asked: “Was your mother’s name ‘Priscilla?’ He’s been talking to Priscilla quite a bit.”
Ma was of course “Priscilla.”
A couple of days later Lulla was awaken at night and she reported seeing Ma beside her bed. Ma spoke and told her that if she would let go of Pa, then he would be okay.
On Friday, September 22, 1995 I paid Pa a visit after work. We talked about the business and other happenings. As I left, I gave my typical farewell followed by “I love you, Pa.” Expecting his typical response of “Same here,” instead I got: “I love you, too!” For the first time in my life Pa had told me he loved me.
Those were the last words he ever spoke to me.
The next morning he was in a coma.
The early evening of Monday, September 25, we were all gathered in his home. I was standing by his bed with my two sisters when I saw – as clear as any real object – Ma was standing in the room by her dresser. Her look was peaceful, but I was overwhelmed. I ran from the room, crying, into the living room and buried my face in my hands.
A couple of minutes later my sister, Ila, came out of the room screaming: “She’s in there! Mama’s in there!”
All of us had seen Ma.
Pa left us a few minutes later, and we know he went with to be with Ma. Heaven has another resident.
As Father’s Day approaches, I have time to reflect upon the GREAT father that I had.
Six years ago when we gained legal custody of our granddaughter, Elizabeth, we were discussing what I wanted her to call me. She already had a “Granddaddy,” “Daddy.” and “Papa,” so my choices were slim. I thought about how the late Jerry Lowry’s grandchildren called him “Pe-paw,” and suggested that. It never happened. From her mouth came “Pa!” My emotions were overwhelming. “Pa” is sacred; it gives me a big name and person to live up to.
This Sunday I’ll be remembering Hewitt Beacham McDougald, aka, “Pa.”
Think back. When was your first love experience? Your memories at that time were vague, but without a doubt it was your first experience with your mother’s love. There is and was something about a true mother’s love that places it above all else. My mother was no different.
My mother, Priscilla Sanderson McDougald, was born in Duplin County, North Carolina on March 25, 1917. Her father was working for Carolina Power and Light Company, and later they moved to Bennettsville, South Carolina. My father was six years older when his best friend and cousin, William D. Tucker, Jr., invited him to a party in Bennettsville. Priscilla was just 17 at the time and it was love at first sight. They were married when she was 20.
In 1951 I became the third child and first son born of this union. “Mommy” was a stay-at-home mother and “Daddy” literally worked all of the time at the funeral home where his sister, Tina, and father, John, also worked.
Like all babies or small children, I had my fair share of accidents. “Mommy” was always there to hug and console me. I can remember that nearly every day and every night she read stories to me. The nighttime stories were either from the Bible or a Walt Disney book. The stories of the Old Testament and stories of Jesus were ingrained in me early in life. I also knew Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Chip and Dale, Pluto, and Goofy like I knew my best friends.
Occasionally, “Mommy” had to go to a church function or some other event where I had to stay behind. That is where “Daddy,” Tina, and “Papa” came in handy and kept me at the funeral home. Papa was a special grandfather, and I spent many naps in his lap at the funeral home. Papa died when I was four, and according to “Mommy”, that is when I quit calling them “Mommy” and “Daddy.” They simply became “Ma” and “Pa.”
We moved into a larger three bedroom house about this same time. Beside my bed was my ever-present lamb lamp – or a lamp that was shaped like a lamb. Ma thought that it was time that I move on to a bigger lamp, so she held me and explained – what seemed like a major change to me – this would be one of life’s growing up moves.
Ma kept her home spotless; beds were all made every morning, dishes were washed and put up, floors were swept and moped, and bathrooms were spotless. She was also the world’s greatest cook, as we rarely ate a meal outside of the home.
I remember countless shopping trips with Ma to buy clothes for her “growing boy.” The knees to my blue jeans never lasted long, but she was there with her sewing machine to insure that they were patched. A new pair was bought only when the old pair was too small.
When our backyard proved to be the best location for all of the neighborhood kids to play softball, Ma dug and installed permanent bases for us.
Our first dog was a cocker spaniel, Taffy. I loved Taffy. On Christmas we celebrated and opened presents at home and then went over to Aunts Tina and Ruth home to celebrate with the larger family. When we returned home we found that Taffy had been hit and killed by a car. Ma proved that grief is lessened by love with her loving consolation. She was like that on many, many other experiences.
Like many children raised in the 1950’s I had my share of “childhood diseases;” measles, mumps, German fever, chicken pox, etc. The feeling of getting well was a mixed blessing: It was great to get back to school, but the constant love and care from Ma during my illness was so special.
I was spoiled rotten by a loving mother!
When I started college, Ma’s health soon began to fail. I now know what was thought to be back pains that could be cured by a chiropractor was actually rheumatic heart disease. For the first time in my life I realized that Ma was not Superwoman.
As I started to return to my final year at East Carolina University, Pa asked me if I would stay home, and serve my apprenticeship at the funeral home because he did not know what the future held for us. For the first time the seriousness of Ma’s situation set in. We made it through Christmas with a weak Ma, and in January she went to the hospital for heart valve replacement surgery.
I clearly remember the long hours of surgery and the pessimistic reports that came from the operating room. Somehow, Ma survived, but suffered enough brain damage to alter her personality. She went from being an outgoing, loving, community volunteer to a depressed woman living in my mother’s body.
As a few months rolled on her psychological health began to improve. I could feel the love that she still had for her family.
Late August came quickly, and it was my time to leave for Atlanta and mortuary college. Ma helped me pack, and I could see her positive, outgoing self emerging.
Once I got to Atlanta, we would write letters once or twice a week and talk on the telephone at least once a week.
October 9 arrived and my plans were to leave the following morning after class for a long weekend at home. I called home that night and she talked to me about getting some winter clothes out to take back with me. She also promised to get some stewed Silver Queen corn, field peas, and butter beans out of the freezer and cook them for dinner on Saturday. That along with her cornbread was my favorite meal. As we hung up, she said, “I love you, Beacham.” I replied, “I love you, Ma.”
The next morning I was up early, showered, and packed ready to head home. I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth when one of my roommates called me to the telephone. It was my brother-in-law, Jim.
“Beacham, your mother died suddenly this morning.” I remember his breaking voice and my reply: “I’m on the way home.”
Driving Interstate 20 East out of Atlanta in a VW Beetle, I could barely see the road for my tears. I floored the accelerator and paid the price in Augusta. The engine blew. After a wait of about 3 hours, I rented a car and made it home. Sallie McDonald, the black lady who cared for Ma, was the first to meet me. She hugged me and we cried together. Once again, my grief was diminished by love.
Entering our home started a completely new flood of emotions as the home was full of family and friends, but the key person was missing.
Opening the refrigerator to get a Coke, I could not help by focus on the containers of frozen vegetables that Ma had removed from the freezer the previous night. The complete interior of the refrigerator also reflected Ma’s doings: It was clean, neat, and everything was properly arranged. Entering my bedroom, I found my winter clothes neatly stacked and ready for packing for the return trip to Atlanta. My emotions once more got the best of me.
Time has brought much change, but one thing remains constant: Mothers share the greatest love that anyone can ever experience.
My mother loved me for 23 years; in rough times, in good times, and when I was selfish – her love was unconditional.
Unfortunately, there are millions of young men and women who become parents, but they never know the real meanings of being a father or a mother. Children of these unions are often raised void of the Greatest Love that could shape their lives. Being a mother is not a physical event. Rather, being a mother is a loving, emotional, and caring sense of being.
If you have or had a mother, then you know that you also had this great love shown to you. Never forget that special bond. If you are a mother, you should be honored.
Six years after I lost Ma I found another very much like her and married her. Lynn is now a mother and shares her love in the same manner. Michael, Hannah, and Lizi are fortunate beyond comprehension. I only hope that they grow to realize it. I realize it more than ever. Lynn is my Greatest Love.
Like my mother for 23 years, Lynn has been with me for 30 years; in rough times and in good times, and in times where I was selfish – her love, too, has been unconditional. I’ve been truly blessed by two “mothers.”
There are millions of mothers with unconditional love in America. If you’re one of the millions of children and husbands, COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS!
305 E. Church St., PO Box 187
Laurinburg, NC 28352
Phone: 910-276-2200 | Toll Free: 1-800-414-0466
With an excellent staff, a positive attitude, and increased emphasis on flexibility in service options, McDougald Funeral Home plans to remain as North Carolina's oldest independent, family owned funeral home.