March 7, 2018

What a blessing to grow up in a small town

     Our family’s conference room was the kitchen.  Three steps from the stove, we sat around the oval oak table and talked through topics.  If it was “paper day,” the just-off-the-press edition usually entered into the discussions. 
     Even as children, Alan, Emily and Eric were interested in the news, including the obituary page.  One night, 10-year-old Emily dropped her head. Looking up, her misty blue eyes spoke before words. Brushing back a tear, she asked, “Is everyone we know going to die?”
     “Yes, Miss Em, in time, we are all going to die,” I said.  “There’s great joy in living in a small town, but the sad part is that you know just about everyone who dies.” 
     Decades have passed since those supper-table conversations.  Today, as I read The Press-Sentinel’s obituaries, Emily’s words still echo. There have been so many people who have helped to weave the sense-of-place fabric and personality of our community.  I’ll use three recent obituaries to illustrate why I love my hometown.
Alvin Leaphart Jr.
     His daddy’s hands delivered me into this world at the Ritch-Leaphart Hospital on the corner of Cherry and Macon streets.  Alvin, 12 years ahead of me at Jesup High School, married a classmate of mine, Beverly Westberry.  I enjoyed their company.  Once, they rode with me to Savannah.  I had asked attorney Sonny Seiler to arrange a special meeting.
     Besides being known to tote a pistol in his pocket, Alvin also packed a million words.  The glib lawyer spilled many of those words before juries. He was a regular with his letters to the editor. And countless other words he penned in a stack of unpublished novels.  That’s why I drove the Leapharts to Johnny Harris’ Restaurant to meet podiatrist William C. Harris, author of Delirium of the Brave.  
     Alvin’s language could be as salty as the waters he relished sailing, but he was always primed for a spirited conversation.  Even though our politics were often polar opposite, we never had a cross word.  In these days of quick discord, that says something.  And that’s just one reason I will miss Alvin.
Kendall Keith
     Some of us who pulled on a Friday-night gold helmet won’t be remembered as gridiron greats.  Kendall Keith will be more than remembered.  He became a legendary lineman for the Wayne County Yellow Jackets.  And when The Press-Sentinel organized the Wayne County Sports Hall of Fame, Kendall was in its charter class.  Kendall caught the eye of Coach Vince Dooley.  As Georgia’s offensive captain, the former Yellow Jacket became a Bulldog stalwart who earned All-SEC honors. 
     I sighed when I read Kendall’s obituary.  He was two years younger than me. We go back to boyhood.  I shopped with his parents—Elmo and Sue—at Ware’s Auto, across from the railroad depot on South West Broad Street.  Years later, Kendall and Kathy’s children—Katie, Kasey and Kristi—grew up with our three in First Baptist Church.
     Football star, coach, teacher, administrator and school superintendent were just a few of his career distinctions.  Knowing that Kendall and I shared the same hometown, his old Georgia teammates would ask:  “How’s Kendall?”  Now, I’ll have to say, “He was a ‘bulldog’—even in his failing health—but today, he’s resting in peace.”    
Dot Cowart
     When you thought of Jack, you thought of his wife, Dot.  The Cowarts were a mainstay in First Baptist Church.  Jack died first.  Dot, 94, joined him in heaven last week.  Their son, Carl, was a gifted halfback/quarterback for the Yellow Jackets, earning a scholarship to the University of South Carolina.
     In high school, Carl was in the church’s youth program, so Dot and Jack were active, too.  As chaperones on hayrides and such, they were forever young at heart.  Jack made a name for himself managing Brooks Auto Parts.  Across Cherry Street, Dot drew a crowd at American National Bank’s counter. Her charisma made Dot a magnet. 
     Bankers Carey Brannen, Lonnie O’Quinn and Linton Lewis would watch and shake their heads.  Customers would form a line—waiting for Dot—while other teller stations were open.  When I joined the bank’s board in Brunswick, I learned Dot was heralded as the gold standard of customer service in the entire organization.
     A few years ago, we visited Dot in her Orange Street apartment.  You would have never known the classy lady was 90.  And now, it’s as if I can hear Dot, Jack, Margie and Big Dink laughing and having a grand heavenly reunion.
     Yes, Em. 
     One day, we’re all going to die.
     But in the meantime, life is grand—especially when you grow up among so many friends.