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Mary Harrison Lister

(Founder of the Etowah Historical Society)

Memories of a Gracious Lady

by Elbert L. Watson

Huntsville, Alabama

January 1973

 

 

Mrs. Mary Harrison Lister

  

   "I have thought about you folk a great deal the past week, and particularly so yesterday since that marked the day when we laid your mother to rest. I can understand that your Christmas season had overtones of somberness since it was during this season that she was taken away. Ramona and I have felt this lost as well, since Mrs. Lister represented much more to us than a friend or neighbor. I do want you to know that I cherish her memory as much today as I did yesterday or the day before, and will always count myself fortunate to have had the privilege of crossing her path. There is much more that I could say at this point, but you know the deep feeling of my heart where your mother is concerned. Suffice it to say that those of us who knew her so well, will always have a touch of her great spirit upon our lives. "

 

   Those words, written by me to Margaret MacDonald on December 31, 1963, still express my feelings tonight as I recall the memory of Mrs. Mary Harrison Lister. Indeed, after ten years it is difficult to think that she is gone. Though the years have intervened, other relationships formed, and new directions charted, my recollection of her remains undiminished. Even tonight I do not think of her as belonging to the past like some historical figure who made his mark, then passed into the pages of time where he yet remains. In memory's sacred chamber, which God has given to all of us to use productively, I have seen her too many times carrying on her customary activities, speaking words of encouragement to those who were distressed, and always touching humanity whenever human need existed. Paraphrasing the words of James Whitcomb Riley, "I cannot say, and I will not say that she is dead. She is just away! With a cheery smile and a wave of the hand, she has wandered into an unknown land. And left us dreaming how very fair it needs must be, since she lingers there. “And so tonight, as we journey briefly back over the pathways of time together, let us think of her as just being away.

 

   The summer of 1954 was an eventful one for me. It was during that time that I married Ramona Bennett, received my master's degree in history from the University of Oklahoma, and began a pastoral ministry for a struggling little Nazarene congregation in East Gadsden. The term "struggling" here is actually a misnomer. What was left of the congregation was hardly more than a prostrate form stretched out in a fragile white frame building on Park Avenue. The preceding pastor reported no attendance in Sunday school during the month prior to my arrival, because the two or three families which did attend were away on vacation. But, looking back, I honestly don't feel that we started at the bottom; we started down in the subterranean sub-basement !

 

 

ONE NEVER FORGETS THE FIRST TIME

    Actually I was looking forward to coming to Gadsden. My only visit here had occurred in 1945 as a freshman member of the varsity track team of Birmingham's Ensley High School. The occasion was a triangular track meet with Gadsden High and Emma Samson at Murphy Stadium, Although a dash man, I was entered in the 880 on this occasion and with little trouble, managed to bring up the rear by about thirty or forty yards. You can readily see that this was quite a blow to my burgeoning athletic career. Someone, I thought, had to be last, but why did I have to do it in such a dramatic fashion? Aside from the impression which the cinder track at Murphy Stadium made on me, I always recalled seeing the impressive statue of the city's heroine, Emma Samson, looking west from the Broad Street Bridge. I hoped to return to Gadsden someday and learn more about this intriguing place, but that privilege was not granted me until nine years later.

 

   At the inception of my residence here, I made two moves which were of great benefit to me in my future ministerial and civic relationship to the community. Very early I formed a friendship with one of the truly great men of the Christian ministry, Dr. Denson Franklin, who was pastor at that time of the First Methodist Church. There were numerous times in that fledgling period when I turned to him for counsel and guidance when the road got a little rough. Dr. Franklin was a man with a great spirit and warm heart, and his peerless Christian life made a deep impression on me.

  My other significant move was a visit on a warm Saturday night in late July to the Gadsden Public Library which stood at that time on Broad Street across from the Reich Hotel. There I became engaged in a lengthy conversation with Miss Lena Martin, the librarian, whom I remember quite vividly sitting at her large desk in the older, or rear, portion of the building. I use the word "conversation" here rather advisedly, because in the course of an hour and a half, Miss Martin conversed while I listened. It was a profitable visit, however, for had my visit not been prolonged, my introduction to the Etowah County Historical Society quite likely would have been considerably delayed. As I was diplomatically trying to make my exit, Mr. Rodney Copeland, president of the Society, walked in about closing time to return some books. Miss Martin immediately cornered him, and proceeded to enumerate my qualifications for membership in the new organization. I will never forget the look of consternation upon Mr. Copeland's face, as he tried to explain that entrance into the Society was entirely in the hands of the Membership Committee. Quite naturally, I interpreted this to mean that I was dealing with an exclusive, high brow group though he assured me that he would present my name to the Committee. I vaguely recall hearing Miss Martin give a muffled expression about the Committee having only one member.

  Thinking that the County Historical Society was a lost cause, I went back to trying to locate a congregation to preach to on Sundays. About the middle of September, a group of the men from the church and I met one Saturday afternoon at the church to cut the grass and brighten up the general appearance of the property. I wore a straw hat that day and was hoeing the grass along the sidewalk in front of the building, when suddenly Mr. Copeland drove up. I felt that this was not the time when I wanted to talk with the distinguished president of the exclusive Historical Society, but he was extremely cordial and wore that engaging smile which was his trademark. He told me that the Committee had met and that the chairman would contact me shortly with an invitation to join the Society. I was completely flabbergasted at this sudden turn of events, and tried to act as educated as possible despite my informal attire.

  The call soon came from Mrs. Mary Harrison Lister. Her voice over the telephone carried warmth and hospitality which I thought typified the grace and charm of the Old South. Her high degree of culture, intelligence, and sharpness of thought were certainly apparent. I knew that I would like this lovely person once I met her personally at the October meeting scheduled at Lloyd and Rebecca Mc Mahan' s.

 

   My defenses, however, were still up when Ramona and I arrived for our first meeting with the Society. I wanted to succeed with this group, because the association would identify us with a segment of the civic and social life of the city. I felt, too, that I needed the organization to provide an outlet for my own historical interests. The few people who arrived at the McMahan's ahead of us were giving rapt attention to a lovable, irascible gentleman, Mr. Marvin Small, who sat near a corner spinning off in his inimitable style a personal recollection from the past. Hazel Oliver, particularly, responded as though she were in a trance. We, of course, took our places with the group and listened intently to Mr. Small's discourse, since he seemed to be intoning the wisdom of the ages. Other members soon trickled in and joined our little circle, This placid scene, however, was abruptly changed upon the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Copeland, her mother, and Mrs. Lister. Almost immediately the group's attention turned from Mr. Small's story to the unassuming Membership Chairman. My friends, Mrs. Lister took charge of that meeting and remained the focal point of interest throughout the evening. When Bill Tolbert almost fainted while reading his paper on "Gallant John Pelham,” it was she who completed it. It was apparent to me that she was a lady who commanded attention whether she sought it or not. My memory thereafter is rather hazy, but I do recall a brief conversation with Hazel. When the exciting evening was aver, I left feeling that I had found my group and that my work in Gadsden would be happy and rewarding.

My next direct contact with the Society was at the Christmas gathering held at Mrs. Lister's beloved Aloha Lodge on Harts Avenue. It was bracing cold outside that night, but inside there was a blazing fire in her log-filled fireplace. By a pre-determined plan of Mrs. Lister's I am sure, Ramona and I were quickly separated and oriented to various groups, whose purpose it was to help us overcome our inhibitions. There was a brief business meeting that night but no paper. It was a gay and relaxing evening in keeping with the season of the year. This was as she wanted it. I was overwhelmed with the friendliness of the people. Mrs. Russell Hooks, in her sweet little manner, provided me with a long and delightful visit. Mr. George Floyd sat with me throughout the latter part of the meeting, his hand on my leg and patting me occasionally as he talked. When we took our places with the others for the group picture, Mr. Floyd was by my side with his hand on my arm.

 

 

BUILDING A FRIENDSHIP

    The opportunity to know Mrs. Lister better was not long delayed. One Sunday afternoon in January, 1955, she called on us in the unpretentious parsonage in which we lived at that time. She possessed an innate ability to identify herself with people and their inner needs.  This is what she did with us on that brisk, sunny afternoon. By that time things were looking up    for us in our church work. I even had people to preach to on both sides of the aisle which ran down the middle of the sanctuary. But the task ahead still seemed extremely difficult to me. Mrs. Lister, to lift my spirit, told us of the struggle through which her own congregation, the First Christian Church had gone, since it began in a tent meeting at Eighth and Forrest in July, 1917. She herself was a charter member and the first teacher of the Young 8 People's Sunday School Class. She knew and understood what we were up-against, but she was confident that in time tangible results would become apparent.

 

  Through her visit Mrs. Lister had opened wide the door of friendship, so a few weeks later I made an afternoon call myself on her. Mrs. Tom Sansom was leaving just as I stepped upon the porch, and I was afraid that I had interrupted an important committee meeting. Mrs. Lister quickly put my mind at ease and a long and rewarding visit ensued with her and Margaret in front of their imposing fireplace. As you know, she loved to talk and on this day she found an avid listener as she told me of the exhaustive research she had done into the life of Emma Samson. She enthralled me as she recounted her quest to locate Mary Blair, the little girl who was with Emma on that memorable day when the young heroine guided General Forrest across Black Creek in pursuit of the Federal raider, Streight. When I departed almost two hours later I went directly to Black Creek to see the marker erected by the Society in 1953 in front of Samson High School. Then I visited the Sansom family burial site, upon which the United Daughters of the Confederacy, years earlier, had erected an impressive monument. As the evening shadows chased away the receding sunset, I left for home, my thoughts completely interwoven with the brilliant history of a wonderful community.

  I was with Mrs. Lister on many happy occasions during 1955, I well remember the time when we located the long forgotten grave site s of Judge and Mrs. Lemuel Standifer, who came to Gadsden shortly after the Civil War. Then we visited another ancient cemetery overlooking the Coosa River near the Holy Name of Jesus Hospital. Through excursions such as these, I acquired a depth of historical knowledge about Gadsden and Etowah County. Although she was careful not to reveal her age, I surmised that some of the information which I was getting came from firsthand experiences. I also learned that she was no novice when it came to under standing politic s and politicians. Here, too, she spoke from personal experiences, and her convictions and prejudices were well defined and easily understood. One never had much trouble finding out where “Miss Mary, " as many affectionately called her, stood on either the issues or the personalities, and astute office- seekers rarely failed to consider her influence during a campaign.

   In April Mrs. Lister attended one of our services during a youth revival meeting held by a young man, who in 1947 had been a star pitcher for the Gadsden Pilots of the old Class B Southeastern League. As a speaker, he was not particularly effective, but he was obviously a person of deep sincerity and Mrs. Lister recognized this characteristic in him. She seemed to be as greatly impressed with him as though his tongue were sending forth golden orations, and often inquired of him following that one visit. This was another mark of her gracious life. She could detect insincerity as have few people I have known. I would never have dared been anything less than completely honest and forthright with her, knowing full well that another course would have incurred her enmity and lost for me a friendship of priceless treasure.

 

UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCES

   We all know that the Etowah County Historical Society is here tonight because Mary Harrison Lister was determined that such an organization should exist. It was her own creation and she guarded its interests jealously. No "joiners" or opportunists were eligible for Society privileges. Mrs. Lister, of course, tried to stay as much in the background as possible, but if she detected that something was contrary to the procedures she felt were in the best interest of the Society, her nature would not permit her to remain uninvolved. She knew how to straighten out the situation, and I don't recall anyone waging extended warfare with her. I certainly did not!

 

  I still smile, even laugh, over the discomfort she gave me with regard to the Society's project to erect the John Wisdom marker on the lawn of the Recreation Center overlooking the Coosa River at the Broad Street Bridge. I was appointed chairman of the Marker Committee with Mr. Small and Hazel as members. We proceeded with alacrity and garnered in a good deal of information from the Alabama Historical Association about its marker program. The Committee agreed that the highway type marker would be suitable for our local purposes. Accordingly, I read the Committee's report and recommendation to the membership which met in March, 1957, at the Claude Manderson's. No one spoke out against our recommendation, so I assumed that we were in complete harmony with the wishes of the Society. Throughout the evening everyone seemed to be in an unusually festive mood in the Manderson's spacious recreation room. I know that I was! Perhaps my pre-occupation with Hazel over the ping pong table made me oblivious to Mrs. Lister's facial expression. Had I been very smart I would have checked on it from time to time.

  Several days passed before the gathering storm of indignation swept across the Coosa River to the East Gadsden hinterlands. The new "Committee Report," given to me by Mrs. Lister over the telephone, called for the erection of a sandstone type marker with a marble inset honoring Wisdom. In a not so subtle manner, she got the message through to me that our recommendation belonged down the drain, insofar as the majority of the disappointed members were concerned. Who was I to buck public opinion? I do not recall what became of the Committee, but a few days later Mrs. Lister and I went to Oneonta to order the slab of sandstone from a stone quarry. It made a beautiful monument to the memory of a great Etowah Countian, and I was proud to be the master of ceremonies the following June at the dedicatory service.

  It was during this same year that Glen Sedam served as president of the Society and I as vice-president. I am sure that if Glenn were here tonight he would not mind my telling about this incident of his personal distress, because we all know that he and Mrs. Lister were devoted to each other. The only problem of communication seemed to be that she did not quite understand or accept certain of his Yankee proclivities. At any rate, Glenn entered upon his presidency with ambitious ideas of his own as to the future course of the Society. He soon ran into an immovable object! The Society year was about three months old when Glenn asked me to stop by the Gadsden Times one afternoon to talk with him about a matter pertaining to the organization. Glenn went into detail a bout his plans but indicated that there was some problem which he could not overcome. At this point I asked him if the Society's Constitution could not help him out. To this suggestion he replied with a broad smile: "Elbert, didn't you know that the Constitution lives at 218 Harts Avenue?"

  Mr. Leslie King also served as president of the Society during the 1958-59 year. I had many wonderful, fun-filled experiences with Mr. King, and esteemed him as a gifted, rhetorical speaker who could charm anyone, particularly those members of the feminine sex. Only once did I know of Mr. King fumbling with his speaking ability. That was in the early months of his administration when he made the unfortunate slip of mentioning to Mrs. Lister that it might be advisable to pattern some of the Society's operation after that of the downtown Lion's Club. Fortunately, Mr. King was also a careful student of human nature, and he made his comeback by keeping a watchful eye on that handsome Aloha Lodge fireplace, so that it would not go lacking for want of healthy logs.

 

   The year 1958 was both a happy and uncomfortable one for Mrs. Lister. By now the Society was etching an important mark for itself on the affairs of the community. A high-point of the year for the members was to host the annual meeting of the Alabama Historical Association that April. Mrs. Lister never sought, nor did she favor, aligning the Society with the state organization, because she did not want the group to be subordinate to a higher authority which might impose certain policies incongruous with local interests. But she did consider it a signal honor for the state organization to meet here, and she left few stones unturned in putting into motion a near perfect piece of organization and planning. I can still see the lovely manikins, statuesque Princess Noccalula, and pensive Emma Samson, greeting us as we entered and departed the ballroom of the Reich Hotel. To Emma's flowing skirt Mrs. Lister attached these lines from a poem written by the late John Trotwood Moore, former Tennessee State Librarian:

 

"She stood at the General's stirrup and this was all she said: 'I'll lead the way to the ford today-I'm a girl; but I'm not afraid."'

 

 

Members of the Etowah County Historical Society gather at Mrs. Lister's for the festive Christmas Party in 1954. Seated, front row: Mrs. Lister; Miss Lena Martin, R.H. Copeland, president: Mrs. Copeland, Mrs. W. O. Briscoe; Mrs. Hazel Oliver, secretary and treasurer; Mrs. W. A. Leach; Mrs. Frances Underwood. Standing: Mrs. Pete Butler; Mrs. Tom Sansom; Mrs. Russell Hooks, Mrs. Elbert Watson, George Floyd, the Rev. Elbert Watson, W. O. Briscoe, vice president; Mrs. William C. Tolbert (Glencoe),Mrs. C. L. Mander son, and 'Mr s. Glenn Sedam. Back row: Marvin Small, Tom Sansom, Russell Hooks, Glenn Sedam, Pete Butler, C. L. Manderson, and William C. Tolbert. Notice Mr. Floyd's hand on my arm.

 

 

 

   At the meeting I read a paper entitled "Gadsden from Teepees to Steamboats," which gave a running historical sketch of the city. Mrs. Lister, along with most of the other Gadsdenites present, attended this session, but she left immediately after I spoke and, thus, missed one of her grandest moments. During the question and answer period, Mr. James Bragg, who sat near the rear of the room, abruptly attacked the Emma Samson story as a myth. I had never heard of such heresy as this before, particularly since it came from a man, who at that time was a Gadsden resident. I recovered and proceeded to cite various sources, one of which was the Mary Blair account which Mrs. Lister had recorded and notarized. Mr. Bragg, with his resonate, staccato voice was persistent, however, and cited an account from A. C. Roach's book, Prisoner of War. Roach, a member of Streight's raiding party, insisted that it was Rufus Samson who led Forrest to the forgotten ford. He also claimed that young Samson had been one of Streight's prisoners, but was released that morning by pledging that he would not assist the Confederates. Fortunately, I had read the book myself, and tried to tell Mr. Bragg that in my opinion it was a biased record, written in 1864 when those hardy raiders were still blushing a bright red over their capture. To this Mr. Bragg rejoined: "Are you disputing the word of an officer who served in the United States Army?" My reply was: "So far as I am concerned, he was still a Yankee." With that everyone laughed, except Mr. Bragg, and the session broke up. When I ran into Mrs. Lister later in the day, she had already heard of the verbal exchange and was moving her big guns into action. If Mr. Bragg had accosted her during that meeting, she would have leveled him with one mighty blow in the mismatch of the year. Fortunately, for him, as he told me later, someone else got to him first and, on this point at least, he withdrew into his entrenchments for the remainder of the meeting.

Miss Mary was a peerless organizer who spared no effort in succeeding in her projects. Whether she overdid herself on this occasion or not, I cannot say, but it was only a few days later that she noticed an uncomfortable sensation in her throat. At first she passed it off as indigestion, but the condition persisted so she finally went to her physician, Dr. John B. Bass, for a thorough physical examination. The report confirmed that her heart was causing the problem. Although the condition varied from time to time, it grew increasingly severe thereafter and by the time of her death, as we shall note later, she was plagued with pain night and day.

 

   But despite her declining physical condition, it was not Mrs. Lister's disposition to burden other people with her problems. To the contrary, she invited the rest of us to share our perplexities with her. People were her life and she delighted when they brought their joys and sorrows to her. And if she felt they had been wronged in any degree, she vigorously went to their defense. I have known of local political figures whom she admired turn to her when it appeared their darkest hour was near. She walked the rest of the way with them until the light reappeared, or else there was nothing left that she could do.

  The year 1959 was a momentous one for me. By now our congregation had outgrown its old facilities, so we sold our property and began construction of a handsome new edifice on the Piedmont cutoff. Mrs. Lister showed genuine interest in this project which got underway during the fall of 1958. Of necessity, my long visits with her were curtailed during this period, because I spent a good deal of time myself working at the church. The roof, especially, absorbed my attention and literally glued me to it one time when I suddenly discovered that I had a problem with acrophobia. I reported to Mrs. Lister regularly, of course, about the building's progress, and brought her over several times to watch as the edifice neared completion.

   Dedication Day, February 22, 1959, was a proud moment for me. Sitting on the platform in the new sanctuary, I could not help but think that we were only four and one-half years removed from the time when we had little standing in the community. Now, seated before me were over 200 people who had come from allover Gadsden to share in the happiness of this moment. Many fine civic and religious leaders attended, among them Mayor Hugh Patterson and Dr. Denson Franklin who both made appropriate remarks. I was gratified to see many of my Historical Society and Civitan Club friends. Mr. King slipped in late. But to my right, seated about three-fourths of the way back at the end of her pew, was the lady whom I knew would not have missed this occasion for the world. The happiness which Mrs. Lister radiated told me full well what this day meant to her.

   Another high moment for Mrs. Lister and the Historical Society occurred in the following spring when Mr. M. M. Johnson, one of Emma Samson’s surviving sons, came to Gadsden for a short visit. Miss Mary regarded his visit as an opportunity to honor both him and the memory of his renowned mother, with a public program in the new Emma Samson High School. As usual she made elaborate preparations to insure an unforgettable evening. I was flushed with pride over being selected a s the master of ceremonies. As I sat on the platform that night listening to the Rebel band play those stirring marches, that May morning of 1863 came surging out of the past and into my reflective mood. I thought of what one simple act of courage had meant to this great city, the lives it had touched and the institutions it had built. And a young maiden's life was forever enshrined in the hearts of succeeding generations! This emotional moment apparently made me careless in noticing the program which Mrs. Lister had penciled for me, Thus, as she had written, I introduced Samson’s Goldentone Acappella Choir as being from Gadsden High School. What a shocker for that proud group of youngsters on that notable night. Before they presented their selections, the director, in a kind way, I think, straightened me out on their identity. I made a weak recovery later by telling a joke. Mrs. Lister and I never mentioned that frustrating moment, so I don't know if she felt sorry for me for "my" boner, or thought that perhaps she may have played a small role in the mishap and didn't want to admit it.

 

FAREWELLS AND RETURNS

    In February, 1960, I resigned from the pastorate of the East Gadsden Church of the Nazarene. The following day, was over cast and biting cold and seemed to match the atmosphere in Mrs. Lister's living room when I broke the news to her. She insisted that my work in Gadsden was not completed and that I must stay. You can be sure that I did not relish the idea of leaving the city, but my decision was made and there was no turning back. During the three months until the end of the church year when the pastoral changes were made, I tried to envisage what a day or a week would be like without talking to her. At the May meeting of the Society, I read my last paper as a Gadsden resident and dedicated it to her with these words: "Even though we are leaving her with you, she will ever remain in our hearts as the inspiring, gracious lady that she is.” Two weeks later Ramona and I loaded up the new addition to our family, Lisa Jennelle, and moved to Montgomery.

It was always a happy experience to receive a letter from Miss Mary. Her newsy missives kept me apprised of local events and citizens. Each was filed carefully away, so that ten year s after her passing I can still read them and feel that bubbling, effervescent personality emanating from their contents. In the first one which she wrote after our departure, she enclosed a picture of the Society members on an outing, and this was her comment: "The picture with Mr. King, Mrs. Chalmers, and I so conspicuous. We did not even know had been made--hence the unposed appearance of each---note Mrs. Dick, especially! And I am meditating upon "Will Mr. King catch a fish?' He didn't." Her report on her physical condition was encouraging. "I continue to grow a bit stronger each day," she wrote, "and, strictly obeying Dr.'s orders---" I hoped that both statements were true. But several weeks later I was disappointed to open another letter and read: "Please note the 'six o'clock'.. .I have be en awake since before four---but did not get up for fear of arousing the household...these days when I am playing the invalid and have longer 'rest' periods, the days and nights seem very much alike. "

   In December the great Civil War centennial got underway in various Alabama communities. Mrs. Lister, though inwardly reluctant to accept additional responsibilities, soon became deeply involved in promoting local projects. Her letter of December 5 indicated that her participation would be limited:

 

  "I, as usual, (have) a few 'off' days sprinkled along with the good ones... All in all, there have been few hours to call my own in recent weeks---and I just have to take the 'rest periods' (Woe is me!) Now comes Judge Hickman who declares he will not be able to head the committee for plans for the Centennial, and he is about to lay the whole thing in the lap of the Historical Society. I am asked to attend a meeting in the office of the Judge at 1:30 today... I have already told all concerned that it will be impossible for me to take on any special duties. That is Dr.'s orders, but I only wish I could get right into this Centennial thing."

 

   What Mrs. Lister did to change the doctor's mind, I do not know, but I was not surprised to receive her exultant letter of January 3, 1961, in which she opened: "We are 'head over heels' in an effort to get this Centennial thing going; . .there have been unforeseen difficulties, of which I have not time to tell you now. However, I feel that we have the situation well in hand, without having to call in the Marines. "

  The night of January 13 found me once again in Mrs. Lister's living room, delivering a paper to the Society entitled ‘‘Gadsden’s Role During the Civil War.'' Much of my material had been gathered from primary sources which I had examined at the State Department of Archives and History. Outside a drenching rain was pelting down on the countryside, but inside the great fireplace was blazing again and I responded to the warmth which I received from the large crowd there. Looking back, I feel that this was one of my most rewarding moments with the Society.

  Frances Underwood used the paper to prepare four installments as part of the Gadsden Times' Centennial emphasis. The result was that I was invited to return to the city on March 20-21 to give historical talks to Gadsden High, Duck Springs Grade School PTA, and Turkeytown Methodist Church. I witnessed first hand the tremendous work accomplished by the 'Historical Society to involve the county in the Centennial. My visit to Gadsden on that occasion was like a return into yesterday. Long beards, skirts, and top hats were the vogue. Mrs. Lister, attired in her old fashioned dress and little cap accompanied me to Duck Springs and Turkeytown. She was deeply committed by now to the Centennial activities and was determined to see the event through to its end, doing the things which she wanted to do. By March 27, however, she had felt the effect of her exertions, but glossed over her illness by writing: "I am having to slow down a little---the past week has been filled with pleasant affairs. But - - the 'old gray mare she ain't what she used to be!"'

 

Sweet Miss Mary at an outing of the Historical Society, probably in the summer of 1960. Hazel Oliver is in the background.

 

 

  References to her illness, however, became more numerous thereafter, but she still minimized it by referring to problems faced by others who were close to her. Miss Mary was indeed a remarkable person in this respect. It is possible, of course, that this characteristic to think of others first helped sustain her through five years of physical decline. One can easily surmise how sick she was in August when she wrote: "You three have many friends here, and none can esteem and love you more than old sister Lister, the gal who is losing her teeth, not allowed to talk by her Doctor, and threatened with dire disaster if she tries to manipulate a broom. Woe is me!”

  On that Sunday afternoon in 1958 when Mrs. Lister, Margaret, and I took down the manikins at the Reich Hotel following the last meeting of the Alabama Historical Association, I kept as a souvenir the quotation from the Moore poem, which Mrs. Lister had written down and pinned to Emma's skirt. There is no better way to describe Mrs. Lister as she entered the last fifteen months of her life, than to combine portions of the two lines to read: "I'll lead the way...I'm not afraid." It is difficult to lead when one is beset with sorrow as she was within three months in the loss of both her brother and sister. It is equally difficult to be courageous when your own body is beset with pain, and life seems to hang by the slenderest of threads. Yet through all of this, the content of Mrs. Lister's letters to me varied in only the slightest degree. She never surrendered her concern for others, and when some of you "caught the brunt of it all," she was the one to "advise and try to 'comfort!'” Perhaps this was the primary reason she could say that "I am rich in friends.”

 

THE SHADOWS FALL BUT HER LIGHT REMAINS

   Mrs. Lister's letters for 1962 became noticeably shorter, an indication that her health was precarious at best. The news was more sketchy in these missives which also came at greater intervals of time. Even so, I could tell that as Gadsden entered into another spirited political campaign, Miss Mary was showing anything but passive interest, I treasure these letter s because they are marked with the determined spirit with which she faced any issue. In February I played one of my few successful jokes upon her to test her strength of character. Unknown to her, I was in Gadsden one day to assist in the funeral of a former church member. Prior to the service, I called Mrs. Lister and introduced myself as a Marvin Johnson, who was to be the campaign manager for a certain candidate whom I knew she opposed. I spread the syrup on pretty thick by telling her how much we needed to have her name associated with our cause. It was easy to detect the indignation rising on the other end of the line. When she could stand it no longer, she interrupted me and said that she wasn't interested in helping either me or my candidate. I asked her if she believed in good government, to which she quickly replied: "Yes, I believe in good government and that is exactly the reason I shanlt support your candidate." I then confessed what I was up to, and then went up to her house where we all got a good laugh out of the abortive trick. I heard about "Mr. Johnson" in almost every letter thereafter. "Dear Bro. Johnson," she wrote on February 27, "hope 24 this finds you all well." Again, on March 16, it was: "Dear Mr. Johnson." On May 2 she sent a card in reply to a note which I had written from Mobile, where I read another paper to the Alabama Historical Association. The card read: "Dear Elbert: Thanks for your letter from Mobile. Glad you spoke before the 'mighty ones.' You’re a good boy, dear Mr. Johnson, as witness your kindness in breakfasting with (the) Battle Hymn of the Republic." And on June 5: "Dear Mr. Johnson: Instead of flowers you deserve a spanking. " Her reference was to the fact that I had gone through Gadsden a few days earlier, stopped over for the night but left early the next morning before she arose.

 

    Let me backtrack for a moment to September, 1961, when I spoke to the Society on the life of David W. Baine, the man for whom Etowah County was first named. After the meeting Hazel and I enjoyed a long visit at which time she predicted that I would eventually leave the ministry to enter a field which would give me greater exposure to research and writing. She and I had never broached this subject before, but she was right - I was dissatisfied in the ministry but was wavering indecisively. Shortly after the first of the year, however, I cut the emotional ties and accepted a position at the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville. When Mrs. Lister heard of our plans, she followed them with great interest and lent her moral support. About three weeks after our arrival in Nashville, she wrote on July 27: "I note with pleasure your new home is in a pleasant location. May you all be happy and content. I have the feeling that this new undertaking will prove a great success. My heart's best wishes, and love to you all---Miss Mary.  P. S. Turn on all the charm, Mr. Johnson."

Her next nine letters left no doubt about her serious condition. I wanted to believe other wise, but I knew, as you did, that her illness could not long continue in its present direction without taking her life. Her letter to me on September 19 is priceless. She obviously knew that the end was drawing near but being a good trooper her thoughts were on others as she wrote:

 

  "I have read and reread your letter of quite recent date and want to thank you again for your wonderful tribute to my undeserving self... always our association has been a happy one and to be with you and your lovely little family. . .has been inspiring in this day when life is sometimes - - - shall I say perhaps insecure and unrewarding?' Truly, as much as any young couple I have known, you deserve the good things that have come your way...Your letter is placed among my 'treasures' to be read again when my heart will need a special lift. . .The Lord love you all and guide you. "

 

I felt a sense of urgency to want to return again to Gadsden, and read once more a paper in front of that wonderful old fireplace where I recalled some of life's most enriching moments. The tentative date was set for the January, 1963 meeting. In November, a few weeks after her birthday was observed by the Society, Mrs. Lister had a brighter tone to her letter. Referring to my forthcoming appearance, she said: "I am not yet sure if the meeting will be here or not.

if not, it will be here while the weather still demands that log fire. . .fear not, my dear sir, the logs will be burning !" But her letter of December 5 was distressing, so on the ninth I made a feeble attempt to lend some encouragement to her by remarking on how the Christmas season always seemed to clear my thinking and renew my confidence in the Heavenly Father who has always comforted our hearts during anxious moments. Her last letter to me on December 17 left no doubt as to the seriousness of her condition, but was still marked by her intrepid spirit when she wrote :

 

  "Last Thursday I was ill again. Had by 'phone arranged plans for the Christmas party. Wonderful cooperation, especially when they knew I was ill, and everyone enjoyed it---dinner and program. I was careful to remain very still, and in bed all Friday. Up at 5, dressed. Tallmadge and Mrs. T. came for me. I knew I looked a wreck, but made it through but did not eat. But a joy to see all the others having a good time. "

 

  Early on the morning of December 29, Ramona, Lisa, and I left Sapulpa, Oklahoma, for Nashville after spending the Christmas holidays with my wife's people. Throughout that long trip over the plains and through the mountains, into the daylight and then into the darkness again, Mrs. Lister occupied much of my thinking. Most of us have experienced times like these when something gnaws away at our minds, yet we cannot explain just exactly what the problem is.

   The ringing of the telephone awakened me to a brilliantly cold Sunday morning in Nashville. When I recognized Jerry Jones's voice, I knew his reason for calling, although I acted otherwise in a vain effort to believe differently. Shortly I was on my way again to Gadsden, where nine years earlier I went without having one friend or acquaintance in the entire county. You can imagine the memories which swept back and forth through my mind as the miles fell away. When I entered the Collier-Butler Chapel, the first person I saw was Hazel and we seemed to instinctively reach out for each other over the loss we had suffered. This oneness of spirit which Mrs. Lister instilled into all of us was felt as never before that afternoon. Minutes before the service began, Margaret sent word that she wanted me to give the prayer. I felt completely inadequate for this task, but I knew that I could not decline so thoughtful a request.

  After we had laid her quietly to rest in Forrest Cemetery, several of us retired to Mrs. Lister's home where DeWitt and Tallmadge Robison, Jerry, and I visited for awhile in front of the fireplace, whose smoldering embers were quietly burning away as had Mrs. Lister's beautiful life. The evening shadows had fallen over the majestic hills and valleys of Etowah County when I departed. Enroute home that night I tried to recall the day's events and put them into some kind of perspective. One thought which I remembered from the prayer went something like this: "Earth is poorer today, but heaven is richer. " That was certainly a misleading statement, I mused, for I knew full well that earth would always be richer because of the influence which she left.

 On Monday, Ramona and I opened the Christmas cards which had come during our absence. The one from Miss Mary I have kept. It depicted a blazing, log-filled fireplace much like the one which I always enjoyed in her home. Across the top just above the brick structure she had written: "Aloha Lodge." Looking at it ten years later, it still bespeaks her warmth, generosity, and understanding---the kind of spirit which says to us: "I'll lead the way...I'm not afraid."

 

 

 

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ducational Programs- Presentations of historical interest. Current programs of history in the making.

istorical Markers - Markings of historical homes, cemeteries, schools, rivers, trails, public buildings

ignificant Preservations - Preservation of historical buildings, homes & landmarks

The Etowah

Historical Society

 P.O. Box 8131

Gadsden, AL 35902

(Physical address at

2829 W. Meighan Blvd.)

 

Danny Crownover

President

256-613-6844

E-mail:

 

 

Officers & Board Members

President ...........................Danny Crownover

1st Vice President ..................Traci Pondick

2nd Vice President ............Sharyon Ramsey

Recording Secretary ...........John McFarland

Corresponding Secretary ..Molly Cheatwood

Treasurer ............................Gorden Maddox

Historian .................................Patsy Hanvey

Devotional ...........Gennie McDaniel Dawson

 

 

NOTICE

The Society meets every 2nd Friday night each month at Elliott Community Center, corner of 29th Street & Meighan Blvd. at 6:00pm.

Each month we have an enjoyable presentation and refreshments.

Come and enjoy!!!

 

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