Mary Harrison Lister Founder of the Etowah Historical Society, Part One


“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.”

The Vagabond recently visited the state archives in Montgomery and found several photos of Mary Harrison Lister, who started the Etowah Historical Society. Elbert L. Watson wrote the following piece about Mary Harrison:

“Memories of a Gracious Lady

“January 1973

“Those words, written by me to Margaret MacDonald on December 31, 1963, still express my fee-lings tonight as I recall the memory of Mrs. Mary Harrison Lister.

“Indeed, after 10 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’ 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 that 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!

“I actually 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 [event] on this occasion.

“With little trouble, I managed to bring up the rear by about 30 or 40 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 that 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 that were of great benefit to me in my future ministerial and civic relationship to the community.

“Very early on 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 a 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. It was there that 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’ 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 around 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 Mr. Copeland 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 Etowah 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 certainly were apparent. I knew that I would like this lovely person once I met her personally at the October meeting scheduled at Lloyd and Rebecca McMahan.

“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 and 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 was 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, 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 over, I left feeling that I had found my group and that my work in Gadsden would be happy and rewarding.”

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