March 14, 2024

Connectivity is backbone of community


            Did you grow up singing “Dem Dry Bones?”

            I did.

            “[The] toe bone connected to the foot bone. [The] foot bone connected to the heel bone. …”

            Sitting in the back of Brunswick’s Glyndale Baptist Church, those silly lyrics scrolled through my mind. We were there to celebrate the life of Jan Bennett Oglesby, who had died on Feb. 13 in faraway Erfoud, Morocco. Jan had been married for 57 years to my lifelong friend John Oglesby.


            Yes, Morocco.

            John and Jan were happiest globetrotting. Jan, a certified travel agent, orchestrated the couple’s adventures to 156 countries—at least once—and all seven continents. Morocco was a favorite destination. While John and Jan were dining with friends in Erfoud, she slumped into John’s arms and died.

            Tragic, yes, but as if scripted by Jan. The accomplished and fun-loving businesswoman drew her last breath in the arms of the man she adored and in the desert air of her beloved Morocco.

            So why was I silently humming “Dem Dry Bones?”

            The analogy is connectivity. How were the Bennetts connected to the pews of Brannens in the church? And how was I connected to those families and the Oglesbys? Jan’s mother, Jessie Lee, was a Brannen who married James Cameron Bennett. The NeSmith-Brannen bonds go back to the early days of the Great Depression.

            When my dad’s mother died Dec. 14, 1933, Grandma Brannen (Lydia Brannen) opened her arms and home to the five motherless NeSmith children. Friendships were forged between the families, and the relationships have carried forth for generations. Grandma Brannen’s nephew, Carey, was my first banker. In 2011 I gave his eulogy.

Thelma (Mrs. Arnie) Brannen was a godsend helping with our children, Alan, Emily and Eric. They called her “Branny” Brannen. We couldn’t have loved “Branny” more if she had been family. Her three daughters, Vivian, Janice and Susan, were at Jan’s funeral.

Janice married Randall Aspinwall, whose parents—Sine and Vada—owned The Pig restaurant. Randall and I were high school football teammates, along with his wife’s cousin, Larry Brannen. Before the funeral, I visited with Gary Priester. His mother—Gussie Brannen Priester—served me barbecue sandwiches on the counter in front of The Pig’s open pit.

“[The] knee bone connected to the thigh bone. …”

            Circa 1958, Dink and Margie NeSmith took their brood to Cameron Bennett’s farm. I remember running barefoot and playing with Bennett children. There were eight of them, including John’s future wife, Jan. As the sun was setting, one of the Bennett boys asked my mother, “Mrs. NeSmith, can Henry spend the night with us?”

            “Henry? Who’s Henry?”

            The Bennett lad pointed at me and said, “That little boy over there.”


            Well, the Bennett kids had been stumbling with “Dink,” so I told them, “Just call me Henry.” (That’s my given middle name.)

            The next year, VFW’s Little League coach Ted Oglesby traded with Rayonier’s coach J.B. Smith for a skinny, buzzcut outfielder. Coach Oglesby said, “You look like a catcher.” His son, John, was the pitcher. We became more than teammates.

            And when the coach’s wife, Ruth, began her weekend graduate studies at the University of Georgia, she invited me to tag along with John. Without Mrs. Oglesby, I doubt that I would have discovered Athens.

Thanks to my connection with her, there are 10 UGA degrees among the eight adults in my immediate family. And on the days our eight grandchildren were born, I paid for their lifetime memberships in UGA’s Alumni Association to make sure all 16 of us were Red-and-Black “certified.”

            Near the end of Jan’s service, I slipped out and scooted back to Jesup for another must “connection.” As Joy Bland Kenerly was giving her mother’s eulogy, I eased into the back pew. To say Margie Bland’s life was as bold and colorful as her paintings would be an understatement.

When her late husband, Jim, was a bachelor, he was my first babysitter. David Bland’s wife, Arria (Fender), was a babysitter for our children. Now she’s a grandmother.  

If our ties to the Bland, Kenerly and Fender families were string, they could be rolled into a ball as big as Jim’s swamp-muddied International Scout. Remembrances of Margie deserve more ink, much more, but I’ll save those for another day.

Driving away from the First United Methodist Church, the lyrics of “Dem Bones” resurfaced. Just as the ankle bone is connected to the leg bone, I am connected to countless families and friends in my hometown.

After all, connectivity is the backbone of a community.