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Tue, Sep 2, 2014

WHITTLE: Lives well lived help ease loss of loved ones

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The sting of death ... soothed by lives well-lived:

I recently observed a whole town in mourning, paying respects at Woodfin Funeral Chapel to Grady Cole, who helped thousands of his neighbors live better as an owner/pharmacist of the old Smyrna Rexall Drug Store.

Never knowing what to say to surviving family at a funeral home, I muttered these words to Smyrna Town Councilman H.G. Cole, the grieving son. “H.G., I never know adequate words to say at a moment like this, but look around, this whole town loves you and your family.”

When H.G.’s brother Lee closed Smyrna Rexall doors two years ago for the final time, it ended a business tradition covering more than a century.

As the oldest, longest continuous business in the history of Smyrna, Rotarian Grady Cole’s old Smyrna Rexall has the rare distinction of serving people in three different centuries dating back to the 1890s.

“Dad lived a good life,” H.G. shared.

The sting of death … soothed by lives well-lived:

Blessed was I as a writer to interview former bootheel of Southeast Missouri neighbor Florence Robinson Poe, first at age 105 and five years later at age 110.

Like Mr. Cole’s Rexall business, Mrs. Poe’s life spanned parts of three centuries.

In our initial interview, it was clear Mrs. Poe had that rare-type mind that spanned a century, and she could recall what she “fixed for supper” last week.

Five years later, on her 110th birthday, she sent word to Tennessee for me to return to Missouri for another interview.
“I’ve remembered some good stuff that’s never been published,” she said.

She recalled floating into our small rural village in 1905 after crossing the frozen Mississippi in a covered wagon as an infant in 1898.

This was long before the region’s huge swamp, partially formed by the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812, was drained and the land was eventually put to the plow.

“We floated into that swamp with all our possessions on a log raft and Jon boat, with our horses, oxen and milk cow trailing slowly behind in water up past their bellies,” Mrs. Poe shared. “Today, at age 110, I’ve lived to see the six counties formerly covered by swamp water and timber evolve into a farming region that supplies 30 percent of Missouri’s annual agriculture products.”

Mrs. Poe died in 2010 at age 112.

The sting of death … soothed by lives well-lived:

Poppy Gowen was a farm neighbor of my youth.

Each day, before I became old enough to work in the cotton fields, I’d walk the dirt road to farm neighbor Poppy Gowen’s house, covering the distance with loyal farm dog named Hitler.

As a boy, each winter I suffered with terribly-painful ear aches.

Poppy Gowen, who smoked pipes, would patiently sit for hours blowing his soothing, warm pipe smoke into my aching ears. I can remember the pleasing fragrance of his pipes to this day.

And Poppy faithfully saved his cloth tobacco sacks for me to store my prized cache of marbles and other boyhood treasures.

One particular sun-shine-filled spring day, upon leaving Poppy Gowen’s house, I leaned over and kissed my Poppy on his old graying forehead.

“I love you, Poppy Gowen,” I said as I stroked his head.

I’d never done this before.

That night Poppy died of a stroke, but not before I planted my fateful kiss on his loving forehead, letting him know that as a small boy, he was my first non-blood-family best friend.

His family later advised that Poppy shed tears that fateful morning after I kissed his forehead.

Later, his family offered to “adopt me,” and I would have gone if my parents had allowed it.

The sting of death … lives well-lived:

Joe Nunley was a college professor. He could have been a famous novelist or successful in any endeavor. He was that smart.

He was a notable football coach in his early days of education at various Tennessee high schools. So good at coaching, he was the only coach whose team defeated the Huntland High School team when played on by the legendary Johnny Majors.

Later in life, Joe Nunley became my personal “writing coach,” often mentoring me about ways to make my feature stories and columns more impactful.

As the witty author, he penned a book about 1940s-era Middle Tennessee State Teachers College male students leaving to serve in World War II. His book was needed to preserve that important local history for future generations.

Joe Nunley lived to retirement years in his late 70s, when his family found him lying out in his backyard garden. He had a big plug of chewing tobacco secured in his jaw when found.

“Dad died happy, because he loved his chewing tobacco and being out in his garden,” confirmed Joe Nunley Jr., himself a great now retired educator.

I was privileged to cover Joe’s funeral for the newspaper at the historic beautiful First Presbyterian Church that was filled to capacity in downtown Murfreesboro.

After the funeral, I rode with Tennessee educator Jerry Gaither to Joe Nunley’s burial on “Nunley Mountain” in Joe’s boyhood Mt. Zion community between McMinnville and Manchester.

As the casket was lowered at the foot of Joe Nunley’s beloved mountain, a pair of nearby jackasses began braying and kicking up hooves, while some crows over in the corner of rural Mt. Zion Cemetery were loudly cawing and creating their loud ruckus.

I remember writing these words in my reporter’s notepad:

“Those braying jackasses and cawing crows, Joe Nunley would have thought this was the perfect ending to his remarkable life.”

The sting of death … soothed by lives well lived:

Amen!

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