February 8, 2024

The Possum’s song asks the right question


            Looking for one thing, I found something else.

            And as I leafed through the pages of that “something else,” I could hear someone singing. In his classic country voice, the late George Jones, aka the Possum, was wailing, “Who’s gonna fill their shoes?”

            The something else that I was reading was the historical booklet of Wayne County’s Sesquicentennial (1805-1955) celebration. Thumbing through the 44 pages and seeing the names, I could hear the Possum.

            He was talking about Elvis, Johnny Cash, Waylon, Jerry Lee and other departed Grand Ole Opry legends. I am talking about local legends who have died and taken with them so much historical knowledge about this special place that we call home.

            I was just 7, but I remember Big Dink and his friends who grew beards and moustaches. Seems like you could pay a fee for being clean-shaven. If you didn’t buy and wear a “Brothers of the Brush” button or have facial hair, you’d get fined and locked up in a fake jail. All in fun, of course.

Our family went to the pageant at Westberry’s horse race track behind the WBGR-AM (WIFO today) on the Waycross Highway. Cameron Bennett was general chairman of the 150th anniversary celebration. Fifty-four people were on the committee. I recognized every name, and I recall many of their personalities.

Here is a sampling of the roster:

            Ernest Knight, Joe Thomas, Genell Odum, Sara North, Ralph Grantham, Ronald Adams, Randall Walker, Hubert Howard, Bill Zorn, Stetson Bennett, Hazel Dean Overstreet, June McDaniel, Martha Lee Gibbs, Warner Gibbs, Betty Leaphart, Sarah Few, H.C. Daniel, Vonice Sullivan, Aaron Holland, Lucille Slover, W.P. Riggins and R.T. Littlefield.

            R.T. Littlefield.

            I will never forget the time that Tindall Littlefield took the Jesup Rotary Club on a walking tour of Jesup, circa 1925. The program was in the late 1970s. When Tindall died in 1983, so did an encyclopedia of Wayne County history. His vivid descriptions put us right there, “walking” with him.

            Who’s gonna fill his shoes?

            Think about the members of the Greatest Generation who have left us in recent times. A day doesn’t pass that I don’t think, “I need to call Doc and ask him something.” Then I remember that I can’t. Dr. Lanier Harrell, 96, died on the day after my 75th birthday. Doc’s Google-like recall—in depth and breadth—was phenomenal.

            Who’s gonna fill his shoes?

            How about James R. Bland? My connection to Jim spanned my entire life. When I was just crawling, my parents lived on South East Broad Street in a two-story Victorian house (where Jesup Furniture Outlet was). It had been chopped up into post-war apartments. Jim, a bachelor, lived across the hall. He volunteered to be my first babysitter. Our friendship endured until he died in 2022. I still think of questions that I’d like to ask Jim.

            Who’s gonna fill his shoes?

            I miss the Surrency sisters—Lauree, Carobeth and Nanelle. Each lived into their 90s. I was honored to be asked to eulogize Nanelle Bacon and Lauree Hires. And my family ate at least two washtubs of Carobeth Highsmith’s heavenly divinity. A library shelf couldn’t hold the stories, especially about their World War II Rosie-the-Riveter days. As the saying goes, “They don’t make ’em like they used to.”

            Who’s gonna fill their shoes?

            Sixty-nine years later, the yellowed pages of the sesquicentennial booklet are a reminder that generations are slipping away. And they are taking nuggets of need-to-know history with them.

George Jones asked the right question: Who’s gonna fill their shoes?