Better to Wear Out Than to Rust: Gerry Fox Haymes
Memoir by Michael Usey
February 6, 2009
I have been pastor at College Park in Greensboro for 15 years, and for all that time, Gerry and Joe have visited about once a quarter at our church, sitting with their favorite (okay, only) daughter Peggy. 15 years, four times a year, about 60 times she’s worshipped with us, Joe with his kind laugh-lined face and Gerry with her marvelous smile and her great love for singing. When she sang of course I noticed Gerry, because very few people sing with so much joy and abandon out in the congregation. Little did I know then that was how she lived all her life, large and with gusto. However, you are well aware that they joined First Baptist here in Winston-Salem in 1949, 60 years ago, and have been faithful members ever since. Which means I have a limited experience of this remarkable woman compared to some of you, who have known her, cherished her, and loved her for so very long. But this is nothing new for us ministers: we often tell people things they already know, and we also preach to people who are better Christians than we are. (Perhaps that’s why congregations hire us: for members to be able to say, well if God can use that guy, God can certainly use me.) But a little distance is necessary to appreciate fully a lovely painting. And I want to remind you briefly of the masterpiece that was in your midst for so long.
You know that Joe and Gerry were born in Lynchburg, Va.; she was older than him by eight hours, she on February 28, Joe on March 1. He loved to remind her that he had married an older woman—and every leap year gave him a whole extra day to do it.
They were in the primary department together, and Joe remembers sitting in rows as children, girls in one row, boys in the next. He remembers eighty-plus years ago sitting behind Gerry and looking at her golden curls. He wanted to reach out and run his finger through one of them, but that was a much different time, and he knew there would be payback for that.
Joe was wounded in the war, and Gerry wrote to him friendly, caring letters, no hint of romance, but kind words. Earlier when Gerry was at Lynchburg College, she was writing regularly to three or four guys at once. At this point, her mom gently reminded her that one day soon the war would be over and all of these guys would be returning. So Gerry got busy writing “dear John” letter. But the kindness with which he wrote Joe was different, and something she did her entire life. She would quickly write a caring note to someone hurting or healing or in need of a kind word from God. Gerry had an instinct for when someone needed a small quiet encouragement or word of grace. In a time of great need in Ross’ family, she sent them a prayer that said in essence, God would either get you through this trouble or make you stronger. Ross and Beth said it was exactly the right thing at their lowest point.
Gerry got Joe to ask her to a banquet at their church, when he returned from the war. Joe says, it was as though they were honed in on each other, two people together in a crowd, a significant memory. So they dated, and Joe took her on some exciting dates, such as the one in which he picked her up in a Model A, took her to the farm, where she sat on the fence, while Joe dug a well while she watched him. Then he took her home; with this kind of dating penash, it’s fortunate that Joe ever got married. (It was much better than the date on which the Model A caught on fire.) They were married in 1946, almost 63 years ago, at Franklin Baptist church in Lynchburg. Since they dated, Joe has always called her Poochie, because of the sleeves of the dresses she made for herself back then; he thought it was funny the way she described them as “poochie.”
Joe was working other jobs after they got married, when he was accepted into the Pittsburgh Art Institute. She wanted him to go, and they spent a difficult year apart. Gerry joined him, working retail at Minski Brothers. She worked with a rough crowd, and after listening to their language she told them that she was from the South and men didn’t talk like that to ladies. Which is another excellent part of Gerry, that she would speak the truth with kindness. Gerry was who she was with everyone. She was transparent and genuine, rare qualities in an age when everyone talks about being real, but few actually are genuine. Gerry would tell you exactly what she thought, yet do it in a nice way.
So in 1949 when Mr. Carr called the art institute for a recommendation, the administration put forth Joe’s name, and he was hired into a two-man ad firm with a part-time secretary. When Joe finally retired from Long, Haymes, and Carr, the agency had over 100 employees.
Here she grew her family, her faith, and her roots deep. Gerry absolutely loved being a mother. First Ross, then Doug, who apparently was suppose to be a girl, then Peggy. She always wanted to have the house where all the kids wanted to congregate. Ross had his band practice in their basement, playing beach music and R & B, shaking the house. She went to every basketball and football game, home and away that Doug played. And when Peggy did arrive Gerry loved the idea of having a girl that would play with dolls and do ballet. So when Gerry discovered Peggy had no use for dolls, but wanted to play football in the backyard with her brothers, Gerry quickly adjusted, and came to all of Peggy’s softball games later on, often being the team Mom. She didn’t need you to be a certain way for her to love you. And she—of all the family—may well have been most proud when Peggy became a minister, as though her own love for serving God by serving people had borne this fruit in her adult children. I can’t begin to tell you all the marvelous gifts that Peggy brings to our congregation. She is teacher, friend, musician, preacher, prophet, and counselor: the whole package, and now I see what a chip she is from Gerry’s block.
In fact, you didn’t even have to be Gerry’s own children. When they were living on Hawthorne, the family across the street had challenges—alcoholism ruled their lives and the two young children, John and Nancy, were after several crisis to be taken to a foster home. Just a few weeks before Christmas, with Doug and Ross both under five years old, and with Gerry 5 months pregnant with Peggy, Gerry took them those two children in to live with them. Although the family didn’t have much money, Gerry got them a bike and a basketball for Christmas, and raised them in her home. To Gerry, it was not something you thought about; it was something you did: you saw a need and you did what you could to meet it. Gerry’s family received lovely emails this week from both Nancy and John, now 50 years later. John wrote: To my dying day, I will remember her as a second mom, watching out for us when we needed it the most. For the early part of our lives we Hawthorne road kids lived a rip-roaring time of play and adventure. From building stock car track to playing army in the magnificent sandbox your father built, we had a great time. Your mother was heaven sent …and it was your father Joe who inspired me to be an artist.
Gerry would adopt all the stray children from the neighborhood. Much later on, Gerry took an interest in two siblings James and April, since both parents worked. Those two kids called Joe and Gerry Papa and Mema. They still pay for James, now a teenager, to fly out each summer and attend the Wake Forest Basketball Camp.
Bishop Richard Cumberland wrote in 1700, “It is better to wear out than it is to rust out,” Neil Young wrote the same into a song. And Gerry could have made that saying her motto. She certainly acted like she believed it.
Gerry was never late for anything. When the family went to the Nutcracker at Christmas time, they often beat the symphony there. It wasn’t uncommon for her to be here when they unlocked the church. “Get ready, Joe, we got to go,” was a phrase she said more than once in her life.
Nor did Gerry ever think of herself as old. In her 70s she would say, “Well, I went to see the old people today,” and she would visit and sing with them. Gerry loved to sing; she has always been fond of the hymn “In The Garden,” because it was the first solo she sang in her church. In fact, the woman in ICU next to Gerry this past weekend was a woman Gerry had visited once a month for years. If we looked for them, there would be lots of stories like these.
And of course Gerry was determined. Peggy remembers that just 5 years ago, when Peggy couldn’t get over to the house right away to help Gerry move a dresser down the basement steps, that Gerry tied the dresser to herself and bumped it down the steps, in order to paint it. One time Doug called, asking her how she was; “Oh, a little sore.” Why is that, Mom? “Well, I had two tons of stones delivered and I’ve been putting them out in the garden.” Even last year, when Peggy was recovering from being hit by a car on her bike, Gerry could be found over at her house at 7 am raking leaves, “before it gets hot.” Into her 80s she would work 4-5 hours at a stretch in her yard. “Even at that age,” Doug said, “she could work us into the ground.” She was always very happy to have her hands in the dirt.
And Gerry was especially happy to have her large extended family around her too, in a large family dinner that she had prepared. You could be sure that there was at least one dish special to every person. Broccoli with cheese for everyone, and one version without cheese for the cousin who didn’t like it with. She knew what people liked, and she kept up with all the details, like birthdays, because she loved them dearly and wanted them to know it.
Mother Teresa once said, “Do small things with great love,” which is a very good summary of Gerry’s life. She was a giver, not as good of a receiver, and she never thought she had done anything. Just a couple of years ago, when new neighbors moved into the neighborhood, Gerry met them and promised to bring them a cake at an appointed time. Gerry did not show up at the given time, but finally did show at her new neighbors’ door with a beautiful cake. “I’m sorry I’m late,” Gerry said simply. It was sometime later that her new friends discovered the reason for uncharacteristic tardiness: she had been in an auto accident that day. But she didn’t mention it, and was focused on bringing them a welcome to the neighborhood treat.
She didn’t eat cake herself; she was diabetic, and had been since her mid-50s, and was so disciplined about her eating habits. She only had to ask herself if she would rather have that piece of cake or keep her sight and legs in her old age. She was determined to wear out rather than to rust.
The tumor that took her came on quickly. There was no sign of its reoccurrence in a scan on December 9 th. But when she went into the hospital recently, it was so hard for her and Joe to be apart. As Joe told me on Wednesday, they had so long been one, they were not longer two people. When she finally was awake enough for Joe to be with his Poochie, they were like two teenagers in love. One of the nurses said, “I’m going to have to leave the room; I’m blushing so.” And when her time came, it was a good death for Gerry, not bed-ridden, not laid up for months or years, not for this woman of boundless energy and love.
There are hundreds of other stories of Gerry’s faithfulness to God and people. These few stories are just the edges of a very large and beautiful painting. Gerry had this incredible energy and drive to help others. She was selfless in the same way Christ was selfless, doing nothing from selfishness but considering others as more important than her. Gerry wasn’t perfect, but she knew the sweetest of life lay in giving her life to others, and all of us are the richer for her life, love, faith, and boundless energy. You’ve had this beautiful masterpiece in your midst for so long, you all have been surrounded by this lovely soul, and now there’s a blank space on the wall in our hearts. We will miss her beauty.