The Beginning of a Dream

 

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Libby’s love for children has never been disputed and that love caused her to constantly look for ways to engage all children, ensuring that none were ever overlooked, which is why she commented on more than one occasion that our church needed a playground.  After visiting area playgrounds during the summer of 2013 and doing additional research, Libby’s vision of a playground soon faded when we learned that the costs were far more than either of us expected with even the smallest playgrounds costing tens of thousands of dollars.

Fast forward six months and Libby was still struggling to recover her health while doctors tried to determine the exact cause of her horrible headaches and the loss of a third of her body weight. Because of Libby’s precarious health I had to limit the number of visitors which created a sense of helplessness among our friends and family and left many of them wondering how they could help.  Suggestions were made to hold bake sales, road blocks and even a 5 K run, all to raise money for Libby.

My initial impulse was to graciously decline any fund raising efforts for Libby since we had good insurance and money for the deductibles.  What I finally came to realize was that it was never about the money, the fundraising effort gave our friends and our community a purpose and and a feeling that they were helping contribute to Libby’s recovery. That’s when I remembered the discussions about the playground during the summer and so without asking for Libby’s permission, I made a few phone calls, launched a fund raiser webpage and formed a non profit called “Libby’s Living Legacy” to begin collecting money to build a playground to honor Libby’s love of children.

After the proverbial reins were released people began calling or texting with ideas on how they wanted to help and with little more than an, “Okay by me”, Libby’s Living Legacy fundraisers began springing up throughout the community of Chattanooga Valley. It was an amazing outpouring of love for someone who had touched so many people in our community.

An incident happened one day as some of the students from Libby’s children’s program lined up to each hand over a dollar of their allowance to help build a playground for Miss Libby. I hugged each little girl in turn thanking them for their gift but the youngest stood off from the others and nervously looked down at her feet shuffling back and forth.  I looked over and asked, “Can I get a hug?”  She shook her head “No”. So I asked, “Why not?” and she answered shyly, “Because I don’t have any dollar”.  (She got the biggest hug ever until she said, “You are squeezing me too hard, I can’t breathe”).

It was the gifts of pennies and dollars from children and the $9.67 earned by selling lemonade during a Saturday afternoon that I remember more than the corporate sponsors and large donors as this fundraiser started to pick up some serious momentum.

Within days of starting Libby’s Living Legacy the dream of creating a community playground began to develop a life of its own, meanwhile, still in the hospital, Libby was still fighting for hers.

 

Life’s Milestones And Wigs

The life that Libby and I shared together had some pretty major milestones during our courtship and marriage including our first date when Helen Hawkins (aka Hamburger Helper) hit a cow on the road in front of us, then there was our wedding on June 9, 1979, the purchase of our first house which cost $14,000 but took $10,000 to repair, the birth of each one of our two boys and then there was Cancer.

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Cancer so changed our lives that we would sometimes categorized past events using the abbreviations BC (Before Cancer) or AC (After Cancer). Like it or not, Libby’s cancer diagnosis was a watershed moment in our lives and it was as much a part of us as our wedding and our children.  For fifty years (BC) Libby had been known as a beloved daughter, a sweet sister and a role model for others, then as an adult she was known as a gorgeous bride, an excellent teacher and a loyal friend.  But then (AC) Libby’s identity changed to cancer patient who constantly amazed others by making the best of a bad situation.

Libby’s particular type of breast cancer needed estrogen to survive and grow, so to slow the cancer’s progress her oncologist immediately prescribed an estrogen suppressant which had it’s own unique set of problems, most notable were the intense hot flashes which happened several times every hour.  It didn’t take a keen awareness to determine the moment when one of Libby’s hot flashes started because, if we were alone at the house, her the wig would suddenly fly across the room followed by her jacket which she couldn’t seem to get off fast enough. Throwing her wig across the room became much less common after one particularly high arching toss resulted in an unfortunate encounter with the living room ceiling fan.

Some of the nicer wigs that Libby bought were Raquel Welch brand wigs, one of which had become her favorite until the day that she was cooking supper at my dad’s house.  While trying to determine if the cornbread was brown on the bottom Libby opened the lower oven door and leaned over to inspect the cornbread as 450 degrees air wafted up out of the oven and quickly “baked” her synthetic wig melting the individual hairs together as they shrank and retreated away from her face.   Libby was unfazed by the heat but her favorite red wig cooled quickly into a cohesive permanent wave on top of her head.

The thought came to me so quickly that I really didn’t have time to apply a filter, and besides I thought a humorous comment by me could relieve some of the awkward tension in the kitchen, but I have to admit that it sounded a lot funnier in head than it did when I said, “Your Raquel Welch wig looks a lot like a Donald Trump hairpiece.”

The synthetic wigs were very durable (well, except for the one she baked) easy to care for and easy to style, but one particular evening I discovered a completely unexpected benefit of having a large collection of wigs.

Libby and I were getting ready to go out and meet another couple for dinner and as Libby stood in front of the full length mirror she asked, “How does this outfit look?”  Now, in times past I had fallen into that sticky trap of answering that question incorrectly so I said, “That looks great!”  I wasn’t lying to her because I thought she looked good in nearly everything she wore.  However, I must have lacked sufficient enthusiasm in my comment because she responded, “You’re right, the colors are all wrong”.

Wait, what?

This is where years of husbandly experience came in handy and although I knew that we would be late, I knew too that it would be unwise to ask Libby to hurry up. I did, however, know exactly what to do in this situation; I went to the living room, located my TV remote, sat down in my recliner and turned on the football game as I prepared for the fashion show that would soon start in our living room as Libby went through several combinations of outfits.

I knew also that I had to be mentally prepared to give a much more enthusiastic reply when Libby modeled the next outfit if we had any hope of making our dinner reservations.  I rotated the side arm on my recliner to extend the footrest just as Libby stepped into the living room to model her outfit.  I was about to tell her how good she looked, but then I stopped myself when I realized that this must be some kind of test because she hadn’t changed clothes.

That’s when I noticed her hair, because instead of changing pants, top, shoes, pocketbook etc. she changed wigs, throwing off her brunette wig in favor of a silver one. I was genuinely impressed (by the speed of the newly coordinated colors not necessarily the colors themselves) and we were ready for our night out.  We were not late, Libby felt good about the way she looked and I was finally beginning to see the benefits of owning a large supply of wigs.

“Every Day Is A Holiday And Every Meal Is A Banquet”

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The quote in the title of this blog was used by my dad to describe Libby Willis shortly after meeting her when he said to me, “I love her enthusiam and positive attitude, because with Libby everyday is holiday and every meal is a banquet.”.  My dad also reminds me often that after making the above comment he said to me, “If you don’t marry that girl, it will be the biggest mistake of your life.”

That enthusiasm and love of life was one of the first things that attracted me to the young, bubbly, Libby when we both were still teenagers.  Throughout her life Libby could seemingly find good in everyone she met, so much so, that our son Jerod once told his mom that he thought she could probably find something good to say about Adolf Hitler, to which Libby said, “I’m sure he had some good traits but he was a man who made some very bad decisions, but God loved him so much that he sent his son to die for him as well as each one of us”.  I rest my case.

As much fun as Libby had living life and looking for the good in others, at her core she was an introvert, she was never comfortable being the center of attention, preferring to do most of the work and not get any of the credit.  But if Libby saw a project at the church that needed completing or if she saw a child in need of help, she was very bold and seem to possess endless energy to complete projects and care for children.

On many occasions over the years I begrudgingly met Libby in the front yard with a head lamp and a shovel in my hand after she phoned me from the car asking if I could get a hole ready in the yard so the we could plant something just as soon as she got home.  The story was nearly the same every time; Libby would explain with her hands waving in the air and using short bursts of sentences, ” I was just driving down the road… you know after I dropped Helen off…we had been buying stuff for the church dinner next Sunday…don’t forget to set up the tables… and I passed this house with the most gorgeous _________ ” (tree, flower or bush, you can fill in the blank here) “that I have ever seen, so I stopped and asked the little man where they bought such a gorgeous ________ ” (tree, flower or bush ) “and , well, we got to talking… and he was such a nice little man… he and his wife have been married nearly 40 years and they have 3 children and 4 grandchildren… I taught his son in the 3rd grade… now he was a rounder…always having stay in from recess…  and anyway, I kept talking to the nice little man …then before I left… I told him how pretty the  _________ (tree, flower or bush ) was and then…he just dug it up and gave it to me!”

Whew, sometimes it could be more exhausting to try and follow the animated explanation of how Libby wound up with the tree, flower or bush than actually digging a hole and planting it.

People were drawn to the open, honest and caring attitude that Libby possessed, in addition, Libby had this naive belief that everyone else in this world was as trusting and giving as she was and in spite of that innocence, or more likely, because of it, people would do things for her that most of us would never even think to ask. The one story that illustrates that personality trait better than most happened when my youngest brother Rodney was a freshman at the University of Georgia and our family had gone to Athens on a Fall Saturday to watch a football game.

Throughout the game we all watched in awe as a talented freshman running back named Herschel dominated the day; everyone, that is, except for Libby who was enamored with Uga the Georgia Bulldog mascot on the sideline in front us, After the game, we all went down on the field to see a friend of Rodney’s who was on the team (and possibly meet this Walker kid) but as we started down the long rows of bleachers onto the field Libby said, “You all go ahead, I’m going to go pet the dog”.  I said, “Libby, don’t be silly, they are not going to let you pet the dog, they will not let you near that dog”.  “I will just ask”, she said as she walked away.

Later after visiting with Rodney and his friends (but not Hershel) we were ready to start back home but we couldn’t find Libby.  Bear in mind this was BC (Before Cellphones) so my mom, my dad and Rodney spread out as we walked the field searching for Libby. By now most of the fans had cleared the stands and only a few remained scattered about the field, that was, except for a crowd of people standing close together at the “G” in the center of the field, which is exactly where I found Libby sitting cross-legged on the ground surrounded by children with the Georgia mascot UGA III lying in her lap, his leash in her left hand.

As I approached the group, I could hear Libby’s “teacher voice” telling some children, “No, James is next in line to pet Uga so you will need to wait your turn” then adding, “OK Jenny, don’t pet him too hard he’s had a long day and he’s getting tired.”  It was truly one of those “Only Libby” moments that we would see repeated thousands of times more in her life a she seemed to always surprise her family and friends with light-hearted moments

Libby could have literally and figuratively rubbed my nose it that day in Athens by giving me a knowing look with the subtle raising of her eyebrows or by simply saying, “See I told you so” but those thoughts never entered her mind as she sat beaming from ear to ear, simply enjoying her afternoon of college football, surrounded by kids saying, “Hey lady, can we pet your dog?”

She did, however have one thing to say to me when she saw me looking down at her over the top of the children’s heads, she said, “Oh hi honey, will you check to see if you can get me a towel, Uga is slobbering all over my legs!”.  I said,” Yes Miss Libby” just before I shuffled off in my search.

Lessons Learned (or not)

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When Jerod and Nathan were toddlers their great grandmother (Libby’s mom’s mother) died during the spring of 1989 following a brief illness. While we were on our way back home from the funeral in Greensboro, Alabama Jerod wanted to know where Nonnie was now.  Libby and I tried to explain to our young boys in very simple terms some complex ideas that, frankly, we had trouble understanding ourselves.  It was difficult at best explaining the death of a loved one to the two restless, short attention spanned boys in the backseat of a moving car and as usual you never know how much information is actually sinking into their little brains especially when the conversation proceeds something like this, “…but dad…… why can’t we just drive over to her house and see Nonnie?”  as the younger Nathan chimes in with, “Yes daddy….please!!”  Trying to select my words carefully now I say, “Nonnie is not at her house, she is heaven with Jesus.”  Both boys appeared to be in deep thought and I was sure my bright children were considering their own mortality.  Jerod quickly broke the silence when he said,  “Ok, then can we stop for ice cream?” and Nathan followed with, “Yes daddy…….please!!”

Later that evening when we were back home, Libby was in the kitchen cooking supper and I was playing with the boys in the living room when we heard a scream coming from the kitchen; Libby had just seen a bug crawl across the floor.  Now Libby was deathly afraid of bugs and she definitely did not want to get close enough to kill one, so she called to me over her shoulder as she ran out of the room, “Barry, come kill this bug!”. As I got up to perform my manly duty Jerod quickly jumped to his feet and said, “Let me do it dad.”  I looked at Libby and shrugged my shoulders as our four year old walked into the kitchen, assessed the situation and then turned back toward his mom and me as he lifted up his cowboy boot preparing to step on the bug.  “Watch this,” he said, “I’m going to send him to see Jesus!”  I looked over at Libby and whispered, “We may need to have that heaven discussion one more time, I’m not sure that the right message got through.”

Nonnie’s was the first death in our family that our boys would experience and as it turned out, it would be the last time they experienced that kind of loss for a very long time; in fact 21 years would pass between the death of their Nonnie and the next death in our family.  When the boys were both in college Libby and I had a conversation which began with Libby saying, “I’m really worried about our boys, they have lived a charmed life”.   Not really sure where all of this was going I asked what she meant by “charmed life”.  Libby said, “Well, except when they were toddlers, they have never experienced the loss of a loved one.”  Libby went on to explain how she was afraid that because our boys had been spared that particular agony they never developed the skills to deal with the loss of someone that they love.  I told Libby that they were smart boys and we would just have to pray that we had laid enough groundwork in other areas of their lives to carry over, because they would certainly have their share of grief sooner or later,besides there was nothing that either one of us could do that would delay or speed up that experience for them.

Sadly, beginning a few months after that conversation, our boys would get multiple opportunities to develop grieving skills as their cousin Samantha Gilley, grandmother Joyce Gilley, grandfather Jimmy Willis, uncle Michael Gilley and then finally, their mom Libby Gilley all “went to see Jesus”.

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9 NIV).

Libby’s Love of Children

With our wedding, honeymoon and several arguments behind us, Libby would graduate from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the spring of 1980 having completed her student teaching at Howard Elementary School, an inner city school in downtown Chattanooga. Libby’s impact on the students, faculty and administration was immediate and obvious at Howard and every other place in which she taught.  Libby had been teaching children since she was fourteen years old in a Sunday School class at her dad’s church, but now she was getting paid to do the thing that she loved most and it was obvious to all who who knew her that she had found her true calling in life.

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Now, with Libby working we had two incomes and no college tuition to pay so there was a huge weight lifted off of our financial shoulders.  With less financial strain on our relationship we had only minimal disagreements until we clashed over an idea that Libby had while teaching at Howard Elementary when she decided that way too many of her kindergarten students were from broken homes and they would benefit from a positive family experience.   Libby thought that the best way for many of her students to have that positive experience would be to bring two or three of her students to our house every weekend so we could take them hiking or fishing on Saturday and then take them to Sunday School and Church on Sunday. Libby had everything worked out in her mind, including the fact that she would simply bring them home on Friday and they would stay at our house until she took them back to school with with her on Monday morning,  Then as the year progressed we would be able to keep all of her students at least for a few days and give each of them a positive Christian influence.

Libby’s heart was in the right place but she and I had to have a serious discussion about a few of the practical details that she had failed to consider in her zealous approach to changing her kindergartner’s circumstances such as liability insurance coverage, crossing state lines with minor children, and class action lawsuits.  Libby thought everyone looked at the world the same way she did, and although it would be nice if that were so, I had to continually introduce a cynical realism into her pure, idealist world.

In the end, we never kept any children at our home but in spite of that, Libby’s love impacted nearly all of the children that she taught and many times their parents as well. As a compromise for not keeping children in our home, Libby and I spent several weekends in the inner city projects visiting the homes of her students to try and convince their moms that they needed to take an active role in their child’s education, praying with them and giving them books to read to their children.

Libby had some unusual teaching challenges as she taught at Howard Elementary,  Graysville Elementary and Chattanooga Valley Elementary; a rule follower by nature, Libby found it completely amazing that people who knew the rules would choose to break one or more of those rules. One memorable challenge involved an unruly, spoiled little kindergarten boy (whom I will call Jonathan).  Jonathan was constantly getting into trouble, he was the type of boy that had never been disciplined at home and he found out early in life that a good old fashioned temper tantrum was the key to getting anything he wanted.  Now, besides being a rule follower, Libby was confident in her decisions (some may say stubborn) and it was nearly impossible to change her mind once she made it up, and she had made up her mind that Jonathan had a scared, loving, insecure little boy trapped inside a short-tempered bully who needed some discipline and direction in his life, and if his parents wouldn’t provide it then she would.

I was regaled nearly every night at the dinner table with stories of Jonathan being involved in fights, kicking a teacher and bullying other children in their kindergarten class.  One day when Libby was trying to correct some errant behavior, Jonathan kicked her in the shin and tried to bite her arm.  Libby calmly picked Jonathan up and wrapped her arms around him holding him tight.  She had her teaching assistant take the other children out to the playground and Libby continued to restrain Jonathan throughout recess and for most of the remainder of the day.  She would talk softly to him saying, “Miss Libby loves you and I only want you to listen to me and be obedient”.  When Miss Libby finally released her lovingly firm grip, Jonathan was sullen and quite until he got on the bus to go home, then he told his mom about “that mean old lady teacher” that had picked on him and caused him to miss recess.

The following day Jonathan’s mother stormed into the principal’s office and demanded that the principal withdraw her son from the school and insisted that Mrs. Gilley be disciplined for being so hard on her son.  She informed the principal that she would be moving him to a better school with better teachers.  That evening when Libby arrived home she cried, saying that she had failed Jonathan and began to question her effectiveness as a teacher.  My comforting words for Libby went something like this, “He’s a spoiled brat with an overindulgent mom and you should be happy she transferred him.  I would call his new teacher and, as a professional courtesy, warn her of the impending doom!”

Not one to wallow very long in self pity, Libby soon got up from the couch and got busy, she found out where Jonathan was being transferred and the name of his new teacher, then she called Jonathan’s new teacher at home.  I thought Libby was going to take my advice and warn the teacher about Jonathan’s behavior problems and tell this new teacher what to expect from the entire psychotic family but no; the whole conversation between Libby and this other teacher involved Libby trying to get Jonathan back into her classroom.  (This was one of many examples why, as parents, you would much rather have Libby teach your children than me).  Libby told the new teacher that Jonathan was beginning to respond to her, but by changing teachers and schools now it would be the worst possible thing for him reinforcing his manipulative behavior.   Libby wanted the teacher’s help in convincing Jonathan’s mother that they should return Jonathan to Libby’s classroom and allow her to continue working with him. Libby’s plea to the teacher and later to her principal fell on deaf ears.  The saddest part of this story is that Libby never saw Jonathan again, she did keep up with his progress, or lack thereof, until several years later when she learned that he was in juvenile detention and once more Libby felt like she had let Jonathan down.

The conflict with “Jonathan” epitomizes the commitment and desire Libby had for each child entrusted into her care and I marveled how quickly and completely she could fall in love with the children of strangers throughout our first seven year of marriage, but then we had our own children and things really changed at our house.

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