By Donna Thornton/News Editor
Peggy Townsend Clark has experienced highs and lows – from the acclaim that resulted from setting a world record at 17, to the challenge of facing cancer four times and losing a number of loved ones to the illness.
Peggy has persevered, employing the same kind of determination that gained her attention as “Pole-sitting Peggy,” the girl who spent seven-and-a-half months in a tiny house atop a 70-foot pole to break a world record.
Peggy recalls going to the Pik-a-Burger one evening in 1963, where there was a “hot line” to call in requests to WGAD disc jockey Reeves Cook.
He asked if she and her friends could bring him a cup of coffee and when they went to the station he mentioned a woman named Marie Rose Kirby, who’d just set a world record for flag pole sitting.
“He said ‘I bet you couldn’t do that,’” Peggy said. But past experience made Peggy believe she could do it.
When she was 13, she was run over by a car and spent two years flat of her back in a hospital bed. Spending seven and a half months in a small house at the top of a 70 foot pole was within her capabilities, she believed.
So on Dec. 12, 1963, Peggy Townsend went up the pole in the parking lot at the Big Chief in Glencoe, to begin life in a 6×6 structure. She had a sleeping bag, a toilet, a telephone and a hot plate. During the next seven months, Peggy experienced a blizzard and a tornado that took down trees and blew away a shopping center across the street, never leaving the pole. She talked on the radio nine times a day, started at 5 a.m. and ending at 10 p.m.
One night she was awakened by a drunk trying to cut down the pole, she said, and she was stirred regularly at all hours by people who came by and wanted to see and talk to the girl on the pole. She remembers her friend W.O. Sims, following the snow storm, fixed snowballs and sent them up to her in a basket so they could have a snowball fight. They’d play ball, too, she said. Peggy got letters from soldiers, which she has kept in a scrap book, and an autograph from a man from Bombay, India. Country music performer Clyde Beavers drove from Nashville to see if it was true about the girl on the flag pole, Peggy said, and she still has the record he gave her.
“I was having so much fun I didn’t care if I didn’t come down,” Peggy said.
Initially, she refused to. She’d been promised a car and for months there was a shiny new Chevrolet parked under the pole. The car was gone by the time it was time to come down, Peggy said, and she told the event’s organizers she wouldn’t come down until she got a car.
“I ended up with a straight-shift Rambler with no radio,” Peggy said.
She said she never felt isolated or alone on the pole, because the parking lot was always full.
When Peggy came down, she said, her point of view had changed. After spending those months up above others, she said felt kind of lonesome when she was back on earth with everyone else.
“Looking down, everybody looked about this big,” Peggy said, holding her hands about two feet apart.
“When I came down it was like everyone was a giant, right in my face,” she said.
It is all, as Peggy describes it, a matter of perspective.
Fifty years after those months on the pole, Peggy lives in North Gadsden. Her doctor recently told her he believes she is cancer free, after a fourth bout with the disease that claimed the lives of many loved ones, and she talks a lot about how God has blessed her.
Peggy said during her treatments, a fellow cancer patients asked her “Why us?”
“I told him sometimes God puts us on the mountaintop and sometimes in the valley,” Peggy said. “If we were never in the valley, we’d never have to call on Him.”
Just before she went up on the flagpole, Peggy said her sister and the guy she was dating asked her if she wanted to go with them – and a fellow named Jerry Clark – to a ball game at Gaston. While they were at the game, an announcement was made about a girl who was going to spend seven-and-a-half months on a flagpole.
“Jerry said ‘That girl’s got to be crazy,’” Peggy recalled. And her sister laughed, telling him he was sitting with that girl.
“Well, don’t expect me to date you when you come down,” Jerry told her. Peggy said she told him she wouldn’t.
But after she had spent about six months up there, Peggy said, Jerry came to see her one night and asked her to pull up the basket she used to bring her supplies. In it, she found an engagement ring.
“We were married for 35 years,” Peggy said, until she lost Jerry to brain cancer.
It was after his death, she said, that she decided she wanted to help cancer patients. She trained to be a LPN and worked at Medical Center East in Birmingham.
Peggy said when she first had to take Jerry to Birmingham for treatments, she told him she couldn’t drive there.
“He told me I could, that it would be fine,” Peggy said, and it was. When she went to nursing school, she ended up going back to Birmingham, near where they’d traveled for his treatments.
Peggy believes the previous experience was Jerry and God getting her ready for the times she would travel that highway alone.
Often Peggy is called on to speak at churches, offering her testimony. “I talk about the pole, and about having cancer,” she said.
She has faced difficult days, especially during her most recent reoccurrence of cancer. After caring for her husband when he faced cancer, and nursing countless patients with the illness, she didn’t have people around to help her with the struggle.
“People told me, ‘You’re going through this alone,’” Peggy said. “I was never alone. God is always with me.”