May 11, 2023

Remembering Lauree Surrency Hires, grand matriarch of 101


            Mother’s Day will be different this year in the Oglethorpe community.

            The 98-year-old grand matriarch of the Hires family won’t be at the table for Sunday’s traditional celebration.

            If ever there was an obedient servant of God, it was the youngest daughter of Terrell and Bessie Surrency.

            Lauree Surrency took God’s word to heart when He said, in Genesis, “Go forth and multiply.” She and Robie Hires were married for 72 years, until he died in 2015. Together, Lauree and Robie reared seven children. The seven—Jerry, Tootsie, Alma, Robyn, Rita, Fain and Herschell—gave their parents 20 grandchildren. Those twenty presented 44 great-grandchildren. And by the time Lauree left for Heaven to join Robie, she had rocked 30 great-great-grandchildren.

Surely God smiled when He tallied the count: 101.

I’d say that was being obedient.


I knew Lauree’s brothers, Frank, Griffin and Tyler, but I knew the Surrency sisters best. It wasn’t Christmas at my parents’ house unless Carobeth Surrency Highsmith delivered a bounty of her prized divinity. How many meals did she serve hungry patrons at the Kiwi? And then there was Nanelle Surrency Bacon. She and her husband, the Rev. James E., as educators, did all they could—and more—to put me on a solid path from boyhood to manhood. They made sure that I knew that they believed in me. I was honored to be asked to deliver both of their eulogies.

On May 3, I was honored, again, when Lauree’s children asked me to pay a final tribute to their mom as she was laid to rest by their dad. It was a private, family interment, but the crowd wasn’t small. Remember, 101, not counting spouses, cousins, nieces and nephews.

And me.

Why was I there?

You must go back to 1964.

With a brand-new driver’s license and my dad’s brand-new teal-blue Buick, I pulled into the yard of a weathered farmhouse in the Oglethorpe Community. When I knocked, the screen door creaked open. Standing there was a black-haired 2-year-old, who said, “I’m Herschell. What’s your name?” I introduced myself and handed him a pack of Juicy Fruit gum. And for 59 years and umpteen dozen packs of Juicy Fruit, we’ve been buddies.

Oh, yes, a striking blonde joined us on the porch, too. Her birth certificate lists Yolanda as her name, but everyone calls her “Tootsie.” Our courtship was brief. She went off to college, and I had another year of high school. But—as they say—the Hires family “took me in.” And our friendship will endure as long as we live.

Lauree and I had a special connection. She loved the tupelo honey from our swamp. Every time we talked, she never failed to say, “I’m praying for you.” And when Lauree went to UGA, in 2019, to talk about the Surrency sisters’ welding on Liberty ships—in the Brunswick shipyard—during World War II, I’ve never seen her beam so brightly. That night, Lauree received the adoration of a rock star.

Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton sang, “You can’t make old friends.”

No, you can’t.

If you were at Altamaha Baptist Church for Lauree’s service and the meal thereafter, you were served a heaping portion of Americana. You witnessed what is right with this nation of ours. Nephews Ed and Will Bacon, both highly acclaimed ministers, recounted Lauree’s life story to perfection. Their mom and two aunts were real-life Rosie the Riveters of the Greatest Generation. Kevin Maggiore, cinematographer of Golden Isles at War paid acclaim to Lauree and Carobeth for their cameo roles in the documentary. Greg Beck sang and made the grand piano sound its grandest. Singing “It Is Well With My Soul,” great-granddaughter Carson Richey—accompanied by her mother, Dallas Copeland Richey—lifted the congregation’s spirits at the conclusion. And then came the massive spread of country cooking.

Indeed, I was blessed just to be there and witness the loving way to celebrate the 98 years of one of God’s humble servants.

Following my remarks, her seven children gathered around their mother’s grave and sang “I’ll Fly Away.”

Lauree Surrency Hires won’t be at the family’s table on Mother’s Day, but her spirit still reigns in the Oglethorpe community.

And, Tootsie, remember what cousin Ed said?

All generations must move up a row.

That means you are now the grand matriarch of all 101.

And surely more on the way.