The Vagabond recently visited the state archives in Montgomery, where he discovered several photos of Etowah Historical Society founder Mary Harrison Lister. The following is a continuation of a book written by Elbert L. Watson about Mary Harrison Lister:
“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.’
“Mrs. Lister’s next nine letters left no doubt about her serious condition. I wanted to believe otherwise, but I knew that her illness could not long continue in its present direction without taking her life.
“Mrs. Lister’s 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 9th 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.
“Mrs. Lister’s 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. [I] 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 that 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 that 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. En route home that night, I tried to recall the day’s events and put them into some kind of perspective.
“One thought that 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 that 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 that I always enjoyed in her home. Across the top just above the brick structure she had written, ‘Aloha Lodge.’ Looking at it 10 years later, it still bespeaks Mrs. Lister’s warmth, generosity, and understanding, the kind of spirit which says to us, ‘I’ll lead the way…I’m not afraid.”
Visit the Etowah Historical Society website at www.EtowahHistory.com.