Final Letter to Libby


Dear Libby,

Its been two and half years since you left this earth and during that time I have fought through many emotions: disappointment, loneliness and depression, each interspersed with excitement, happiness and elation at the births of our two beautiful grandchildren.  Relating those emotions in this blog has been cathartic and the resulting stories will remind our grandchildren of your legacy of love and caring.

We often talked about how our love for one another changed over the course of our marriage and about how our understanding of love evolved even more over the course of our lives.  If you remember, we even discussed the many times we each thought that we were in love before we were married.

Just for the record, my first love was during Mr. Rice’s 6th grade homeroom class when I sat across from a certain blonde who I was sure would be my wife some day; then there was the girl in Jr. High that I believed was definitely “the one” until I found out that I was “the one” of three that she “loved”. Of course there were several girls in high school that I was definitely in love with, some knew it, some didn’t.

I still remember all of my “girlfriends” with fondness (even the red head in Mrs Walker’s first grade that I failed to list in the previous paragraph) but as I matured I realized that there is a huge difference between the love that you and I shared for 35 years and what I felt during those prepubescent and adolescent crushes.

I have given a lot of thought to the different degrees of love we experienced on earth compared to what you must be experiencing now. That perfected love that you have inherited as a citizen of heaven has to be light-years removed from the love that we shared here on this earth.

But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. 1 Cornithains 2:9  (KJV)

I’m hoping that in heaven you are able to remember our marriage with fondness and affection but it must surely pale in comparison to the love you are now experiencing in the very presence of God. Although the analogy falls woefully short, I equate it to the mature love we experienced after more than 50 years of living versus the puppy love of a 6th grade boy. This theory about love helps me make sense of things down here, although the multiplied difference between depth of love on earth and the depth of love in heaven is probably a factor of seventy times seven.

When I began writing these stories, the goal was to put down into words the story of our courtship and marriage so that our grandchildren could read about you and better understand your personality and character. The process of writing our story has been healing for me and I hope our grandchildren will understand their grandmother’s legacy through these stories.

Having chronicled our history together and accomplished even more than I intended by reminiscing about our life together, this will be my last letter. Even though the resulting love story will certainly never be considered a literary work of art, I hope it is an honest account our courtship, marriage, struggles and tragic ending.

Until I see you in heaven, just remember, I always loved you…



The Kiss

me and Libby

Several years before Libby was diagnosed with breast cancer we remodeled our house and replaced the carpet in the living room with hardwood flooring, the only problem was that a squeak developed in one section of the living room.  The culprit was a loose piece of sub floor that now happened to be right beside Libby’s bed; the exact spot where I put my right foot nearly every time I leaned over to kiss her.

Regardless of how deeply Libby slept or how much pain medication was given, the Pavlovian response to the creaking board was always the same; Libby would turn her head toward me for a kiss and the scene would be repeated dozens of times every night.

In some ways my attempt to sleep during the three months of Libby’s Hospice care was like that of a mom with a newborn unable to get into REM sleep. Similarly, in order to be close to Libby, I either slept in my recliner next her hospital bed or about twenty feet away in my (or rather OUR) bed, making constant trips each time she called or needed a drink. As exhausting as it was to get up dozens of times during the night to check on Libby, it was far worse when I did sleep soundly becasue then I woke up in a panic realizing that I had gone an hour or more without checking.

On the same night following my failed attempt to snuggle with Libby and the subsequent Taco incident with the hospital bed, she was fully alert and wide awake.  Libby took my hand and said, “Thank you for taking care of me, I love you”.  Embarrassed by the attention, I looked down at our hands and asked, “Do you remember the first time we held hands?”  Libby didn’t have to answer and I could tell from the confused look that either she truly didn’t remember that particular “first” in our relationship or the cancer had stolen that memory as well.

“We were on our way home from a date,” I began, a little too proudly, “We were crossing the bridge over Chattanooga Creek on South Broad Street in my ’79 Camaro.  I remember the exact spot becasue we could smell the leather from the Scholze’s Tannery where new saddles sat on the window sills.” On a roll now, I continued my narrative, ” I used one of my irresistible lines which went something like, ‘Libby, you have such small hands, put yours next to mine and lets compare’. Then I closed my grip and I held on until we pulled into the Flintstone Baptist Church parking lot next to your house.”

I was so proud that I had remembered such a detailed account from our dating years and even though it was now dark in the house, I was sure that Libby rolled her eyes when I described my move to hold her hand.

When finished I waited for Libby’s response but then I realized that she had fallen asleep somewhere during my monologue (probably about the time I made my “move”).  Trying not to wake her, I reached over Libby’s hospital bed to tuck her in but my right foot landed on the creaking board. Unconsciously Libby pursed her lips and strained in the direction of the squeak to get her kiss and our nightly ritual began again.


Hair Today…Wig(s) Tomorrow

Libby always had gorgeous dark hair, it was one of first things I noticed about her during Coach Killen’s gym class at Chattanooga Valley Junior High School; well, her hair and the fact that no one really wanted to pick her to play on their dodge ball team.

Libby’s hair remained roughly the same length and style for her entire adult life (except for that teased, big hair, 70’s look). Libby spent a lot of time cutting, curling and fixing that hair, so and it was traumatic when a few days after her first chemo treatment, all of that gorgeous hair started coming out by the handfuls.

Libby snowshoing

Soon after her hair came out Libby said, ” The worst part of chemo isn’t necessarily loosing my hair, it’s that people treat me different without my hair because now I look sick.”

Libby in hat

Years later Libby’s opinion changed slightly and she said, “The worst part of chemo is not that my hair, eyelashes and eyebrows all fall out, its having to deal with all of that while still shaving my legs, because for some dumb reason, my leg hair is resistant to even the most toxic chemotherapy drugs known to man!”

In the five years that Libby dealt with breast cancer we spent a lot of time (and money) on wigs and they became a fun diversion because just as she did with so many things in her life, Libby made the best of a bad situation.

Libby had on her favorite wig one day as we were visiting my dad at his house on the lake; he had been feeling ill and like most southern ladies, Libby believed that home cooking could heal most any sickness. Using my mom’s recipe and her old black iron skillet Libby decided to made some cornbread to go along with the meat and vegetables that she had cooked.

It was difficult to determine if the cornbread was done by simply turning on the oven light and peering through the dark glass, so periodically Libby leaned over and opened the lower oven door to make sure it was golden brown.  After cooking, Libby decided to let the cornbread cool on the stove top and join me for a boat ride across the lake.

As we were walking back to the house after the ride I mentioned to Libby that she needed to check her wig in the mirror because she had a wind-blown look as if we were still flying across the lake in the boat. When Libby found a mirror, I heard a scream and uncontrolled laughter as Libby came into the living room with her wig in her hand explaining that the hairs had evidently melted from the heat of the oven and then cooled on the boat ride. The wind-blown look was permanent because the synthetic hairs melted together forming a cohesive wave and it looked as if she was moving fast even while she was standing still.

Later we decided to take a short family trip to the beach and Libby thought that she should buy a blonde wig because, “Blondes and beaches just somehow seemed like they should go together.”


It was rare that we could all get together as a family since Nathan and Bethany were in Augusta but the late fall weather was perfect and I was able to spend some time walking on the beach with my newly blonde wife.

Libby learned a lot about wigs and wig care, mostly through trial an error, for instance once you get the shape and look that you like in a synthetic wig, maintaining that look is easier if it is placed over a round object instead of putting it back in its box.

Unfortunately on our beach trip we didn’t take any of the styrofoam heads to hold the wig’s shape at night so Libby found a roundish lamp shade to support her new favorite wig.  The only problem was that during the night someone decided that particular lamp would make a good night light and synthetic wigs do not do well with heat (see cornbread story above).

Yea, we may have gone through a few wigs during Libby’s five year illness but with Libby life was never dull, just ask the lady at the wig store, we helped put her son through college.

I Love You

picnic furniture

Although I try not to dwell on them too much, its hard not to have some regrets when I think back over my actions, words and priorities during my 35 year of marriage to Libby.  One of my big regrets is the fact that I didn’t say “I Love You” nearly enough, or at least, not nearly as much as Libby would have like for me to say it.

Now in my defense, there were some extenuating circumstances because as a child growing up in the 60’s, the term “I love you” was used only sparingly in my home. Now don’t get the wrong idea here, I had a great childhood and a very loving home but that love was demonstrated and not necessarily verbalized.

As my parents were raising me and my 3 brothers, work was valued above words and that same mentality was reinforced by our friends and our extended family, most of whom were fiercely loyal, hard-working, stoic individuals. When a friend needed help tuning up a car or even roofing a house, it was an unspoken love that was demonstrated by volunteering time to help out and a steadfast refusal to be paid for that help. As a child we were reminded by our elders, “Those who know how to do something, do it, those who don’t know how to something, talk about doing it”.

After Libby and I got married and especially after we had children, I eventually became better at telling Libby that I loved her (without being prompted) but I was always fared better expressing my feelings by writing her notes, sappy love poems and cards always ending them with “I love you”.  But try as I might, I never really got over that early influence in my life and I was most happy when I could do things for Libby, whether it was building something, planning surprise getaway trips or delivering small gifts on days when she wasn’t expecting anything.


Shortly after Libby found out that she had breast cancer, a good friend of ours from Athens, Tennessee found out that his wife had ovarian cancer and although Jack and Connie had been friends of ours for many years, the four of us were drawn closer by bond we now shared. In an odd twist of events Libby and Connie’s struggles paralleled one another, both began their fight against cancer just three months apart, both lived 5 years with cancer and then both lost their battles, once again, three months apart.

Since our wives’ deaths Jack and I still get together occasionally as charter members of a morbid fraternity which no one wants to join. We usually discuss things that we can’t talk about with “normal people”, such as the silly things that some people say to you to “comfort” you or the envy we both feel when we see an elderly couple walking hand in hand and the strange and awkward (for us at least) conversations we each seem to get into with single ladies.  (Note to self:  there are several topics for future blogs within that last sentence alone).

Now Jack, appears to me at least, to suffer from adult ADD, bouncing happily between ten topics during a five minute conversation. As Jack and I ate dinner together last weekend we discussed some of the funny conversations we have had with others and some of our regrets. I wasn’t sure Jack was even listening to me as he continued to look around during our discussion but then he suddenly surprised us both,  “You know, Barry”, he said, his eyes still darting around the restaurant as he attempted to focus his attention deficit ” There are a lot of men who say, “I love you” to their wives everyday of their married life, some mean it, some don’t; then there are the lucky ones, like you and me, who for five years were able to show our wives everyday just how much we really did love them.”

Our Family Grows

After several years as an early childhood educator Libby was well on her way to becoming a well respected and even admired teacher in every school in which she taught, my career with Olan Mills, however, was another story.  Libby and I had talked about starting a family and I had quickly realized that a photographer’s salary was not going to provide sufficient support for a family, especially if she decided not to go back to work.  After some serious discussions with Libby and lots of prayer, I quit my photography job and enrolled full time in the engineering program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga six long years after graduating from high school.

To help with finances while I was in college I had as many as five different jobs at one time including free lance photography, a bottled water delivery business, construction and solar panel sales.  Four years and a lot of sleepless nights later I would graduate from UTC attending commencement exercises in the spring of 1986, but not before Libby announced a commencement of her own.

During my junior year in college Libby became pregnant with our first son Jerod and he was born in November of my senior year.  On Monday after Jerod was born I skipped class with plans to hand out bubble gum cigars to my professors until I found out how much a box of bubble gum cigars cost, that’s when I decided that I would hand out the “real” cheap cigars wrapped in blue cellophane proclaiming  “Its a Boy!”.   After all, the guys had Phds, so surely they knew the hazards of smoking.  In hind sight I should have destroyed the empty cigar box because Libby found it and was not happy with my choice.

I had always marveled at Libby’s ability to fall in love with the students that she taught and become absorbed in their lives far beyond the classroom.  I had never before seen such a capacity to love so completely and so quickly, but then we had our own and she fell in love more deeply than ever before.

Our family was not the only thing changing; during my second year of college I began working for a small construction company designing and building earth sheltered houses, installing storm windows and other energy conservation materials in houses.  I enjoyed the work and as the small company began to grow we began designing and building more commercial projects and soon Libby and I took out a second mortgage to buy stock in Construction Consultants Inc.

When Jerod was nearly two years old, Libby gave birth to our second son Nathan and seemed as if everything was going perfect for us with two healthy boys, a growing business, a great church, great friends and a close family.  Life was good and we often commented to each other and to our friends that were indeed blessed. Then we received a call from the hospital.


The phone rang late one evening as Libby listened to the caller I watched the life drain from her face.  Libby quietly hung up the wall phone and starred into Nathan’s eyes.  When I asked her who was on the phone she told me that one of the nurses who had been in the delivery room when Nathan was born had called to say that we needed to bring him back in for additional tests.  The nurse went on to tell Libby, in a very matter of fact tone, that one of Nathan’s screenings had shown some abnormalities which indicated mental retardation and we needed to make plans to bring him in for additional testing to see the extent of the retardation.  Libby and I had just gone from most amazing high to the deepest low in minutes and for the remainder of the evening Libby could not be consoled as she sat in the living room floor cradling Nathan in her arms and sobbing.

Jerod must have sensed the uneasiness in the house that evening because it was difficult to get him to sleep as I spent most of the night in the guest bed next to Jerod’s room because he was so restless.  The next morning I found Libby still in the living room holding Nathan praying and sobbing.  I never asked if she got up early or stayed up all night because I was in a daze as well.  After breakfast I dressed the boys and got them ready to go the hospital while Libby called the doctor’s office to find out where the test would be performed, but when the nurse looked up Nathan’s chart she said there had been a mistake and someone was supposed to call us back to let us know that there had been a mix up in the lab and Nathan’s test was fine.

Libby was not happy with way that the hospital staff handled the situation and that may have been the most angry I have ever seen Libby in our 35 years of marriage (at someone other than me).  Libby was a bundle of emotions as she was simultaneously relieved, irritated, ecstatic and frustrated.

If nothing else the episode demonstrated to us both how precarious the good times can be and how quickly things can change, a lesson that we would continue to be taught many more times in our life.

The Big Ice Cream Fight——– The Honeymoon Was Over

I should preface this tale of woe by explaining that Libby’s dad the Rev. Jimmie Love Willis, spoiled his girls, especially when it came to their sweet tooth cravings.  If any of Brother Willis’s girls (Libby, her four sisters or their mom) wanted something from the store such as ice cream, or if they needed some sugar or cocoa to make a desert, their dad was quick to respond to the need, grabbing his car keys and jacket as he headed out the door; complaining only after the second or third trip back to store.   Full truth disclosure here, Rev. Jimmie Willis’ behavior may not have been completely altruistic since he was known to indulge in an occasional sweet from time to time.


At the complete other end of the spectrum from the Willis family was my family.  Our family lived further out in the country, and although we had Pace’s Grocery (the original convenience store) a trip to “town” was a big deal that my mom planned out and scheduled once every other week, on Saturday morning, while the bed sheets were drying on the clothesline.  My mom was the queen of making do with what she had when she was cooking, and because of that we had some unusual tasting dishes at times, but we rarely made sudden trips to the store, especially to stores who didn’t give Green Stamps. In the evenings after my dad arrived home from work, just after supper, he took off his boots which signaled the end of his day, after which he rarely left the house unless one of us boys was hurt badly enough to require stitches and then only if they couldn’t get find enough butterfly bandages to pull it together.

With that brief background into Libby’s and my families it should be easy to understand how foreign the actions of Rev. Willis appeared to me and yet how normal they appeared to Libby.  These differences helped cause one of the biggest fights that we had about, of all things, ice cream; and as usual when two stubborn people disagree on something, the source of the problem was soon forgotten as the conflict got bigger and bigger.

Just a few weeks following the return from our scuba diving, beach combing, month long honeymoon, Libby and I were sitting in our living room one evening when she said to me, “I just checked the freezer and we are out of ice cream”, I said, “Yea, I noticed that as well…”  Libby looked at me and said, “Will you run to the store and pick some up?”  I told Libby, “Sure, no problem, we’ll pick some up the next time we go to the store.”  Libby seemed to be getting more and more upset with me and said, “I don’t want to wait until the next time we go to the store, I want some ice cream now.”   Then she made some comments about it being my job, and about how her daddy would get it for her.  Words like spoiled and pig headed were batted back and forth between us as the argument grew.  Libby thought that getting ice cream would be a way to show how much I loved her and I decided that Libby was being selfish and completely irrational.  We were both stubborn and both wrong.

The intensity of the argument grew relative to its volume and we both said things for which we were ashamed, but the thing that neither of us realized at the time was that the first 21 years of our lives had far more influence over our current actions than the last two months of marriage and the marriage ceremony did not magically change that.

We eventually settled our argument or at least called a truce and because of that argument and few more after that, we learned a valuable lesson about the need to set some boundaries that had to be maintained regardless of the intensity of the argument, in addition we eventually decided on some “rules of engagement” for all future arguments:

  • No telling other friends or family about our disagreements in an attempt to get them on our side
  • No leaving the house  (we would, however, go to separate rooms to cool off)
  • No threats of “going home to mom”
  • And finally the big one, no threats of divorce

Although it may sound foolish to some, we could now argue with a measure of security because we had boundaries and with that framework in place, along with time and some much needed maturity for both of us, our arguments became less and less frequent and much less intense than the legendary Ice Cream Fight.

Our Honeymoon, A Month of Sundays

During the summer of 1978, a full 12 months before Libby and I were to be married, I started planning for our honeymoon. Libby and her family had spent a lot of time to make our wedding extraordinary and I wanted make our honeymoon a unique experience, something neither of us would ever forget, so as a part of that preparation I convinced Libby to take a scuba diving certification class with me at the local YMCA.  It was during that same time that I began researching the best scuba diving sites and eventually settled on John Pennenkamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida.  Writing to the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, I received dozens of brochures about lodging in the area and I finally settled on a quaint little Mom and Pop motel advertised as being within walking distance of the docks (of course I found out later that the island was so small everything was within walking distance).

After consulting my trusty Rand McNally Road Map I realized that 12 hours of driving was not the best way to start a leisurely honeymoon, so I needed to break up the drive and find a place to stay.  I called the Burns family (close family friends in central Florida) and asked about renting their cabin in New Smyrna Beach for a couple of nights,   Dot Burns told me that she had been meaning to call when she heard about our engagement and she offered to let us stay in their cabin for a week as her wedding gift to us and, if we had the time, we could rent the cabin for a $100 and stay an additional week when we finished diving in the Keys.  I quickly accepted her generous offer and I changed our reservations in Key Largo to accommodate our new schedule.

Because it was summer, the one commodity that we had in abundance was time.  Libby’s classes and my job were both on summer break, so we had plenty of time, money however, was a another matter.  In the fall Libby would be starting her junior year at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in pursuit of her teaching degree, leaving Mercer University and it’s generous academic scholarship behind, so besides car loans, a mortgage, utilities, taxes and insurance we added tuition to the debit side of my modest $11,000 salary at Olan Mills.  Looking back now, I should have been nervous about our finances but I was in love with this little girl:


Our friend’s New Smyrna Beach cabin came compete with beach chairs, skim boards, floats and surfboards, in addition they had generously stocked the refrigerator with food and homemade deserts, so we spent a lot of time on the beach lying in the sun, surfing, walking, floating, eating and just relaxing. It was a great time for us both to slow down after the stress of the wedding and with no schedule agenda, the timing could not have been better.


I had prepaid the motel and cabin bill several months before we left and we had budgeted $500 for the rest of our honeymoon expenses such as gas, food, diving, sightseeing and any other expenses.  Libby was always the more detail oriented person in our relationship, so it just made sense that she would be in charge of the budget and she enjoyed carefully recording every expense in a daily planner.  The first chink in the armor of our budget happened in the Everglades when our car battery went dead and we had to buy a set of jumper cables for $24 at a convenience store, putting a strain on our already tight budget.  Determined not to have credit card debt, we decided to eat out less and buy some bread and cold cuts instead.  As I type these words, I realize how ridiculous a $24 overrun sounds now, but at the time it was a strain on our budget and in turn on our young relationship because it meant that we may have to go home early.

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At the end of our first week in New Smyrna Beach we drove south to Key Largo and began our week of scuba diving.  Libby and I made two to four dives a day and depending on the amount of energy exerted and depth of each dive, our compressed air tanks would last just under one hour (longer if you held your breath, which Libby did often when she got nervous or excited) We experienced coral reefs, amazing fish species and so many shipwrecks that a monument called Christ of the Abyss was erected in memory of the sailors who lost their lives.


Being in the open ocean 50 feet below the surface, Libby was uncomfortable during the first few dives, but she soon became more accustomed to her surroundings and eventually even wrote a note to me on her slate writing tablet telling me to take a picture of her and she would point to the scenery.  She may look calm in the picture below but as soon as I snapped the image with my underwater camera she immediately began turning her head back and forth holding her breath and looking for Jaws.


It didn’t help to ease Libby’s fears when, on our very next dive, Libby saw a school of barracuda, some of them 6 feet long. Remembering the warnings that our dive master had given during our training classes, she knew that barracuda were attracted to shiny objects and have been known to mistakenly bite off the fingers of divers in an attempt to get their bright shiny rings, Libby tried warning me about the intruders by pointing toward them with her head using an awkward jerking motion pushing her head in the direction of the barracuda.  She was afraid to point with her finger, in fact she tried covering her rings with her other hand, afraid that the barracuda would take her engagement ring, wedding band and the finger within. Eventually the barracuda lost interest in us and went on their way, but now Libby had several more reasons to keep her head on a swivel while in the open ocean.

Following our week of diving in the Florida Keys we returned for another week to New Smyrna Beach to begin our final week in the cabin.  Libby found out during our first week on the beach that she absolutely loved playing skee ball in the arcade across from our cabin and on the way back to the beach Libby confessed, “I think I’m addicted to skee ball, I spent way too much money the last time we were here”.  I laughed and said, “That’s silly, how could anybody be addicted to skee ball, besides, at 10 cents per game, how much money could you possibly have spent?”  Libby dropped her head sheepishly looking out of the corner of eyes she quietly said.  “Over thirty dollars the first time we were here”.

Some intense discussion followed (OK, it was a fight)  in which we discussed our budget, jumper cables, mortgage and tuition.  Again, the amount of money was petty by today’s standards but at the time we were, once again, back to bologna sandwiches.  As we crossed over the inter coastal waterway on our way back to New Smyrna Beach we had less than $150 to spend, so we mutually decided that one dollar per day should be enough to satisfy Libby’s skee ball compulsions and still leave enough gas money for us to get home even if we could sell the giant panda that she “won” with her skee ball tickets.

Libby and I enjoyed the third week of our honeymoon back on the beach and during that time we were invited to spend another week back at the our friends home in central part of Florida, we told them our money predicament and they said it wouldn’t cost us anything since they had a spare bedroom and we could eat with them.

Our fourth week in Florida was spent relaxing with great friends who took us around to local sites, fed us, put us up in their home and let us use their three wheelers to explore the local fields and swamps.

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Soon after celebrating July 4th with our friends in Florida we decided to take I-75 North back to our little house in Flintstone, GA.  After more than a month in Florida and only minor disagreements about money and skee ball, we were about to learn what people meant by the term, “The honeymoon is over”.


The Wedding

It was the summer of 1979 and my new mustard yellow Sony Walkman wasn’t much larger than the Doobie Brothers cassette tape it played. Three Mile Island was a hot topic in the newspapers, an upstart cable network company called The Entertainment and Sports Network was about to start broadcasting sports 24 hours a day, Ford Pintos seemed to be blowing up everywhere, and every red-blooded American boy had a Farrah Fawcett poster in his room (until they got married and their wife made them get rid of it).  But, if not for Google Search, I would not have been able to recall any of those memorable events that summer because they were all background clutter compared to our wedding in June of 1979.  OK, if am being honest here, I will admit that I was able to remember that poster.

Libby was the first of the Willis girls to get married and this wedding was going to be a big deal, but at that time, I had no idea what it meant to Libby or the others who would help with the planning and to the many who would witness the ceremony that day.  I was clueless about the amount of preparation involved leading up to the wedding day and only later did I realize what it meant to Libby to have her mom and sisters work so closely with her on those preparations.  I don’t think I am the least bit out of line when I say to you that no matter how stressful the time was before the ceremony and no matter how tired she must have been when the wedding day finally arrived, Libby was stunningly gorgeous on her wedding day and by far the most beautiful bride ever (hey, it is my blog, after all ).


Libby’s family of five sisters viewed weddings completely different than did my family with it’s four boys, and like my brothers (and most other guys I knew) I did everything I could to avoid weddings, mainly because they could ruin a good day of hiking or fishing since they normally happened right in the middle of an otherwise, perfectly good Saturday, not to mention that you would have to stop what you were doing, take a shower and get dressed up right in the middle of the day.  It was hard for my male brain to understand why people planned weddings during the day, it seemed to me that if you planned a wedding for either 8:00 in the morning or 9:00 in the evening then it would allow all of your potential guest the time to enjoy their Saturday and yet, still attend the wedding.

My job during the weekend of the wedding was to make sure I was at the rehearsal on Friday night before the wedding and then, on Saturday, get my tux, my car and me, to the wedding on time.  Now, I certainly wouldn’t want to leave the reader with the impression that all I did was show up, because there was a whole lot more to my part in this wedding than that; I had to say “yes ma’am” often during the rehearsal when I was told what to do by Libby, her mom, her sisters or any other female with the authority to do so, which, in effect, was every female over the age of twelve.  In addition to saying “yes mam” at the rehearsal, ,I had to say “I do” and “I will” at several different times the next day during the ceremony itself, no easy task since the two phrases were not interchangeable (something I learned the hard way during rehearsal).  So the groom (me in this case) had to listen intently to the preacher’s questions and be prepared to give the appropriate response at the appropriate time during the ceremony.

Libby and I had built our friendship on planning events together throughout high school but I learned that I was a lost ball in high weeds when it came to wedding planning, so very quickly I took my place in the matrimonial pecking order.  After all, this was Libby’s day and I came to realize that everyone came to see her, not me.

Now, if Libby were looking over my shoulder as I typed this, which she often did, she would say something like, “Now Barry you shouldn’t write that, the wedding was not about me, it was about the vows we made before God in front of our friends and family”, but lets face facts here, this was Libby’s day.

On Saturday June 9th 1979, right in the middle of an otherwise perfectly good Saturday, Libby and I were married in front of several hundred people packed into the pews of Flintstone Baptist Church .  Among those witnesses in attendance were friends and family from both the Willis and Gilley families, our respective churches, Flintstone Baptist Church and Chattanooga Valley Church of the Nazarene, Olan Mills Studios, Red Food Store, Chattanooga Valley High School and Mercer University.  Libby had so many friends and family in the wedding party that I told her if the number of bridesmaids grew any more I would be forced to go out and make new friends in order to have an equal number of guys on my side of the church just to balance out the number of girls in the bride’s entourage.  There was, however, one obvious omission from Libby’s bridesmaids lineup, Helen Buckner (soon to be Helen Hawkins) was not among the ladies in blue (see A First Date for that explanation).


There was a tremendous amount of preparation that went on during the months, weeks and days before the wedding and I was, of course, oblivious to most of it. With a very limited budget to decorate, plan for and accommodate the 400 or so guests, the Willis family and their friends either made or borrowed nearly everything for the wedding to decorate the church in what had to be the social event of 1979 in Flintstone, GA.


Libby was calm, confident and radiant in her long flowing white lace dress as her dad prepared to walk his girl down the center isle of the church.  For the moment, I too was calm and confident as I stood in a small room behind the organ waiting to enter the church, but then, my pastor mentioned to me that he saw a funny thing happen to a groom once during a wedding when someone painted the words “Help Me” on the bottom of his shoes to be seen by everyone as he knelt for the prayer during the ceremony.  I nervously laughed about the poor guy’s misfortune, but then, out of curiosity, I looked at the bottom of my black shoes and saw the words, “Help Me”.  Suddenly, the musicians began playing the song which was my queue to make my entrance but I was sitting on the steps to the choir loft nervously pulling the white athletic tape off of the bottom of my rented shoes.  I was late walking in (so I already messed up on one of the things I was supposed to do) and my once calm mind was reeling with thoughts of, “I wonder what else they did…”  I eyed my groomsmen as I walked by to see which one was responsible, only to conclude that they all looked guilty.  Libby told me later that my hands were shaking as I held hers during the vows, but I said everything I was supposed to say when I was supposed to say it.


Although my role was limited during the wedding preparation I distinctly remember a conversation Libby and I had about a current trend in weddings to change a lot of the traditional vows, modifying or even eliminating parts that many viewed as “too restrictive” or “rigid”.  Libby and I both wanted the traditional language in the vows and ironically, during our discussion of those vows she laughed and said, “Barry, you had better be sure about this ” til death do us part”  thing because I plan on living a very a long time”.


I only had a couple of things to do during the wedding, one of which I messed up, but for more than a year I had been planning a month long honeymoon, promising Libby that it would be unlike any other, and I planned to keep that promise.

The Proposal (well sort of…)

Young people today seem to keep coming up with evermore creative ways of “popping the question,” some have even video taped and posted their elaborately choreographed proposals on the internet.  In the previous post I recalled an elaborate cliff-side picnic atop Pigeon Mountain.  Readers of this blog may have thought that I missed the perfect opportunity to propose to Libby during that picnic, but the truth is, I did propose (sort of).

Libby and I talked about getting married as we sat next to that cliff on that gorgeous Sunday afternoon; but then, we talked about getting married on the date before that picnic and we talked about getting married during the date after that picnic, and nearly every date after that. Libby and I became so comfortable together after our first few dates that we were able to discuss marriage as easily as we discussed which desert we were going to split after a meal.  The good thing about so many frank discussions is that we learned one another’s opinions on so many different things that it helped us better understand the other’s point of view; the bad thing about so many discussions about marriage is that afterwards, when you look back, there was never a definitive time that can be pinpointed as  “the proposal”.

Libby and I discussed a variety things during the two years that we dated including marriage, children, finances and, ironically, what each of us would do if the other one died first.  We thought it was important to share our opinions on these and other things because we both believed that if you decide ahead of time what your standards will be in any given situation then you are more likely to stick with your convictions instead of allowing circumstances to sway your decision.

An example of one such discussion happened while Libby and I were on a date in a restaurant when a family sitting next to us began to deal (unsuccessfully) with an unruly child by explaining logically why she should not lie in the floor and scream at the top of her lungs as she threw a temper tantrum.  That lead to a discussion between Libby and I (when we could finally hear one another) about how we would handle the same situation when we became parents.  For the record Libby said, and I agreed, that the little darling needed a firm hand to her backside, instead of her parents attempting a logical discussion with a 4 year old about manners.

During the discussions that Libby and I had about marriage there never really was a specific time when I asked Libby if she would marry me, nor was there a specific time when she said yes.  In fact, we talked about getting married so often that during one conversation in the summer of 1978 we decided that we should get married the following summer on June 9th. At some point during the conversation, a realization came to Libby’s face slowly as she looked up at me with a grin and gleam in her eye saying, “Well, I guess that means we’re engaged…”.  Ever the romantic wordsmith, I said, “Yea, sure looks like it”.

We never really thought about it at the time, but afterward, I always felt bad for Libby when girls eager for a romantic story would ask her, “How did he propose?” she would say, “He never really did.” followed graciously by, “We both just decided that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together; and after that it was really only a matter of setting the date”.  In hindsight, Libby deserved better, she deserved one of those elaborate proposals that are going viral on YouTube, but the truth is we were both so concentrated on our relationship and our life together as a married couple that we viewed the proposal as more of a mutual decision than a single question, asked and answered.

After we decided that we wanted to get married in such anti-climatic fashion, I went to ask Libby’s dad for permission; that conversation, much like the proposal, was more like the culmination of a process than a single event.  For a year or so, Pastor Willis and I had been having discussions about religion, marriage and responsibly, so when I finally asked for his permission to marry Libby his response was something like, “I thought you would never ask!”, followed by, “Of course you have my permission to marry Libby, now lets go tell her mother before she has a coronary.”

The ring, however, was another story altogether.  We had so little money that we had both decided we would not get an engagement ring. but instead we would put all of our money toward getting a house.  I bought an older house from my uncle that had been vacant for 5 years and it needed a lot of work.  It was my idea not get an engagement ring so we could put more money into the house before we moved in, and even though Libby agreed, I later had second thoughts about it (the ring, not the marriage).

In the next few months I spent all of my savings, nearly everything I made, and almost all of my time working on the house to make it livable.  In addition to working on the house, many nights I was sneaking away to take on extra jobs so I could save up enough money to buy Libby an engagement ring.  Missing out on several dates and/or opportunities to work on the house paid off in the end as I was eventually able to save up $500 toward a ring that I picked out from a Bennett Blue Book mail order catalog.

On Christmas Day 1978 I surprised Libby Willis with at diamond engagement ring, now we were really engaged!

christmas ring 6

The Date That Nearly Cost Me…

During the spring of 1978 I purchased a well-used 1973 Toyota Landcruiser so I could join my friends when they went off-roading.  Although it was not much to look at, the old green and white cruiser was a lot of fun drive, especially in the summer when you could take the top off.  Later that summer that old cruiser would be the key component in one of our most memorable dates ever.


Libby and I went to a lot of movies early in our relationship, mainly because it was the expected thing to do on a date, but even though I didn’t have a whole lot of experience in this dating game it seemed like it would be much more fun to do active things when we went out rather than sit next to one another for a couple of hours and eat popcorn.  I couldn’t help but believe that an afternoon of four wheeling would surely make for a memorable date, which brings me to our mud-slinging, rock crawling, red neck afternoon.

It was a Sunday and I had driven my old Landcruiser to church in preparation for our adventure.  Several days before, I had talked to Libby’s dad about taking her on this date because I had planned several things that would require his permission. The first potential issue that required permission was that I would be taking Libby away on a Sunday afternoon, breaking a long standing tradition, if not a rule; second, I was taking her away from Sunday dinner (both a rule and a long standing tradition).  After some discussion and a stern warning to have Libby home by 6:00 PM for Training Union, the Rev. Jimmie Willis gave me his permission to take his daughter on this unusual date.

On the way to church the morning of our outing, I remember thinking that I had come up with the ultimate date, one that Libby would never forget (and, as it turned out, I was right).  I wanted to surprise Libby so I didn’t tell her about my plans until church was over when I asked her to change into her jeans, telling her only that we were going on a different kind of date. Libby was a lot of things, but adventurous was not among them, in addition she had trouble understanding why someone in their right mind would buy a vehicle specifically to take it in the mud, so this would be a first for her.

We left Libby’s house on that Sunday just past noon and and headed south toward Lafayette to begin our date.  Leaving the paved road, we turned onto a dirt road and entered the Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Preserve, then we took a treacherous switchback jeep trail to the top of Pigeon mountain where I surprised Libby with a “gourmet” lunch on the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley.  I arranged a blanket on top of the rock and unpacked the picnic basket which had ham, Velveeta cheese, bread, Golden Flake potato chips and Welch’s Sparkling Grape Juice (obviously, I had pulled out all of the stops).  As we finished our grape juice I told Libby that we should leave, explaining to her the conditions that her dad had put on our Sunday afternoon date.

The road over the top of Pigeon Mountain during the 70’s was very rough, often times requiring a jack to lift the vehicle over some of the larger boulders covering the road, along the way we would straddle large ravines and plow through lots of mud, all adding to the fun and the challenge.  As we continued our journey across the top of the mountain I was busy explaining to Libby Willis how, when driving on some of these rough trails, the driver needs to stay alert to keep from hitting the oil pan on boulders, pick the best line through mud, and all while keeping your momentum so you don’t get stuck.

With the worst of the hazards behind us, Libby decided she was ready to try her hand at driving, so I decided to swap sides with her and let her in on some of the fun.  I said to her, “There may be some mud and a few small boulders the rest of the way, so go slow over the rocks, avoid the mud when you can, but whatever you do, don’t stop, just keep going and you should be fine”    Libby drove like a champ even though it was straight shift transmission, had no power steering and she had never been off-road.

We topped a rocky hill and headed down onto the flatter portion of the trail where Libby would see the first muddy section. Since we were getting close to civilization, I began trying to find some music on the AM radio to accompany our adventure. Suddenly the Landcruiser veered off of the trail and came to a halt, when I looked up from the radio we were buried in a swamp.  I asked Libby what happened and with a sheepish grim, she pointed to a mud hole in the road and she told me that she didn’t want to hit that mud hole, so she dodged it.

I couldn’t afford one of those large $2000 bumper mounted electrical winches that would have gotten us out in 15 minutes, instead I had a ratcheting come-along (mail ordered from J.C. Whitney for $19) which, with a lot of cranking,could move the 3600 lb Landcruiser about 3 feet every hour.  Using a long cable that I kept wrapped around my front bumper, I strapped to the closest tree, hooked the other end of the cable to the bumper and began pulling.  And pulling.  And pulling.

In hindsight, it is unclear if we left from our picnic spot in time to complete the trail ride and make it back before church, but now, at the exact same time that church was starting at Flintstone Baptist, we were sitting axle deep in a swamp needing to cross 15 feet of mud, 4 miles of mountain trail and 25 miles of paved road just to get home.

Libby was very upset about her decision to avoid a 6 inch deep mud hole in favor of a 3 feet deep swamp but I told her that there was no damage done and eventually we would get out.  We did get out after several more exhausting hours of pulling on that come-along and resetting the cable.  We stopped at the first house we came to after getting out of the woods and asked to borrow their phone to let everyone know what had happened and then we finally made it home just after midnight.

I don’t remember all of the details of the encounter with Libby’s dad that night, only that he was gracious in his response and my fear of what might happen was far worse than the reality of what actually did happen. It was the first and last time we ever broke curfew, but of course it was a whooper.

On my way home that night after an exhausting day I decided it would be prudent to wait a few months before asking Libby’s dad the next big question for which I would need his permission.