Mary Harrison Lister, founder of the Etowah Historical Society, Part 4


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:

“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, Mary made elaborate preparations to insure an unforgettable evening. I was flushed with pride over being selected as 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.

“In February of 1960, I resigned from the pastorate of the East Gadsden Church of the Nazarene. The following day was overcast 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 Mrs. Lister. 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 letter was filed carefully away, so that 10 years after her passing, I can still read them and feel that bubbling, effervescent personality emanating from their contents. 

“In the first letter, 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, 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 been 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 that 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 that 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, the 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. 

“Mrs. Lister was deeply committed by now to the Centennial activities and was determined to see the event through to its end, doing the things 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!’

“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 Aug-ust 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 15 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,’ Mrs. Lister was the one to ‘advise and try to ‘comfort!’ Perhaps this was the primary reason she could say, ‘I am rich in friends.’

“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, and I treasure these letters 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 Mrs. Lister to test her strength of character. Unknown to Mrs. Lister, 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 shan’t support your candidate.’ 

“I then confessed what I was up to and 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. ‘I hope 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 Re-public.’ 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.”

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