Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016
Like clouds breaking open to reveal eternal expanses beyond the boundaries of earth, so our lives open as we journey through adolescence into adulthood. These are The Launching Years.
Mary glimpsed this dynamic in her oldest son when he joined the Army and left home for three years. His return in July, 1959, brought fresh transitions for the whole family. He would live at home, but being out of the army’s “nest” meant he had two immediate needs–a car and a job.
“Look at this,” his dad said while reading the Saturday newspaper. “‘Nineteen-forty-nine Pontiac for sale, good tires, runs well. One owner. Priced to sell.'”
“Let me see that.” Hugh T checked out the ad and jotted down the number. “Let’s call about this.”
“Go ahead. You’re on your own now…but I’ll take you to look at it.”
He called and found the car belonged to two elderly women in the nearby town of Dayton. It turned out to be as good as advertised, and the price worked for him, so Hugh T bought it.
With the car issue settled, the next thing was a job. He found an ad from a local sewing machine store seeking a salesman. “Sewing machines!” he muttered as he read it. “Guess I could do that.” He went for an interview and got the job. That’s when some new issues surfaced. His first week went okay in the store, learning the features of each machine and how to use them. The beginning of the next week was when things changed.
“Here’s how things work around here,” he boss told him. “When you come in each morning we’ll have some leads for you. These are people who have called in for service on their machines.” He looked sharply into Hugh T’s eyes. “I don’t want you fixing those machines! Your job is to sell them a new machine. You won’t get a commission from repairs.”
That set up a moral dilemma when he discovered that most of the calls were from elderly women, often widows, for whom sewing provided a sense of purpose. Most of them lived very simply with limited resources. He expressed his feelings to Mary one morning at breakfast.
“I feel like I need this job, but I can’t do what they want. These are old ladies who know more about sewing than my boss will ever learn. I just don’t feel settled about selling them a machine, no matter how advanced it is, when all they really need is a new bobbin, or some simple adjustment.” He paused while he studied his plate, then looked back up. “The trouble is, the boss says I either sell them new machines, or I’m fired.”
Mary felt his distress. Her husband had been through issues like this a few times. “Sometimes you have to follow your conscience…your inner voice, even when you can’t see where that will lead you.” She put her hand on his. “Besides, how do you know you’ll even have time for this job when your classes start next month?”
Hugh T’s tension seemed to fade a bit. “Yeah, I thought of that, too. I guess I just needed to hear it from somebody else.” He paused thoughtfully. “Glad I saved enough while in the Army to pay for the first year’s tuition.”
“That’s a blessing already.”
Hugh T got up from the table, stepped over to the kitchen sink, then turned back toward her. “Actually, I hope to get a student pastoral appointment next summer…once I get my feet on the ground.” She knew he had completed a year-long correspondence course while in France that had qualified him for a Local Preacher’s License.
Within a week he had quit the job, and shortly after that came student orientation and then the beginning of classes. One morning when he was about to leave the house Mary handed him an official-looking letter that had arrived the day before. He had a puzzled expression as he opened it, then looked shocked.
“I can’t believe this!” He waved the letter in the air. “They say the Army overpaid me and they want the money back with interest.” He sank into a chair, handing the letter to his mother’s outstretched hand. “That’s practically everything I have in savings.” He looked up at her. “What am I going to do?”
Mary wished she could step in and help, but she and Hugh didn’t have the resources available. She also knew this was something her son really needed to work out for himself…the first of many challenges that would require spiritual resources.
“I don’t know, but if God called you to the ministry, God will have an answer. Your Daddy and I have faced some things like this, and we found God was bigger than our problems.”
Just a few weeks later an opportunity opened for Hugh T that he couldn’t have seen coming. The Keezletown church was part of a circuit that included two other churches nearer to Harrisonburg. When her pastor had a heart attack, he had to cut back on his activities. He narrowed his focus to the Keezletown conregation and hired Hugh T to preach at the other two until June. This helped with his day-to-day expenses, as did a part-time holiday job at a men’s clothing store.
A couple of months later Hugh T announced that he was going to get married to a young woman named Gerry he’d met through a college friend. They had been spending a lot of time together, so it wasn’t a total surprise, but some flags went up in her mind. Then she remembered how she and Hugh had known each other only three months when they got married. Maybe this is how my parents felt!
“Since your Daddy and I had a brief courtship, I guess I can understand that. But things are different for you. You’re in college. This is a big step.”
“I know, but several day students are married, and they seem to manage okay…” He paused a moment. “Besides, there’s something else going on. There’s a small charge east of Elkton that might become available as a student appointment in June. I just learned, though, that they won’t consider a man who’s single. By getting married this spring, I can qualify for consideration.”
“And how does Gerry feel about that? Is she ready to be a pastor’s wife?”
“She’s excited about it. You know, her parents are both active in their church. She says she looks forward to it.”
Hugh T and Gerry were married in March. In June he was appointed student pastor at the Blue Ridge Charge. Two-and-a-half years later they presented Mary with her first granddaughter. An image of her own Grandma Mary came into her mind and she wondered if she was ready for this. Looking in the mirror she thought, With my gray hair, I guess I look old enough to be a grandma, but I sure don’t feel like it.
Getting her oldest son launched wasn’t Mary’s only task during these years. She had already seen her daughter through nursing school. After working for a while at MCV in Richmond, Sis had moved to Staunton where she worked at King’s Daughter’s Hospital, and lived in nearby nurse’s housing. Mary praised God for her daughter’s accomplishments, but she was also anxious for her to meet some man who would love her and take care of her. One day the phone rang with a message that eased those concerns.
“I have someone I want you to meet,” Sis said. “His name is Bill Diehr. One of my friends at work is dating his cousin, and they introduced us. We’ve been seeing each other for a while and I want him to meet you.”
Mary and Hugh had them for dinner and got acquainted. Bill had been in the Air Force, and had a good job with a major airline at Washington National Airport. He was different from anyone Sis had been interested in before. She had dated a man who was in the Navy who asked her to marry him, but Sis had been unsettled about it.
Mary recalled Sis asking her, “Do you think I should marry him?”
“I don’t know,” she had replied. “How do you feel about him? Are you ready to get married?”
That same conversation happened several times, and finally Mary had said, “If you have to keep asking me about this, maybe you shouldn’t marry him.” Soon after that Sis attended the christening of the ship he was to sail on…and met his wife!
Sis had told Bill about that, and now he told Mary and Hugh his story. “I’ve been married before. I’m divorced. I married a beautiful woman and we lived in South Carolina…but I found out she was really married to herself. She had no room for me in her life.” Bill went on, “I learned a lot from that. I learned that I wanted inner beauty from a woman, and Merle has that. I also think I learned something about being considerate and supportive as a partner.”
So, Mary thought, they’ve both been through bitter experiences–two broken hearts–two hearts being healed. She and Hugh gave their blessing. Sis and Bill were married in December, 1964. They would soon present Mary with her first grandson, Tony, and four years later a granddaughter, Shannon.
Jimmy, twelve years younger than Hugh T and six years younger than Sis, was having his own launching experiences in the midst of all this. His entrepreneurial life began at age eleven when he took over delivering the Grit newspaper. The boy who had done it before had simply handed the papers out to anyone who wanted a copy. Jimmy saw a better way. He got on his bicycle and delivered a copy to each home in the community, which made the paper more visible. He was soon gathering new customers.
Mary complimented him on the way he did this. “Just like your daddy,” she said. “A born salesman!” Early in his life Jimmy had exhibited artistic talent. When he entered a contest connected with a local Saturday TV show, she wasn’t surprised that he won. Local artist, Judy Preston, ran the show, and Jimmy was invited to appear as a guest. He became a regular participant, and also took oil painting lessons from her.
Mary and Hugh’s friend, Bradford Cobb, owned a small cavern in the Massanutten Mountain. When Hugh T was a high school sophomore, Brad was just getting started with the enterprise, and trained him as a part-time summer guide. After Hugh T went into the army, Jimmy wanted to take his place. He worked there three summers…first cutting grass, then selling tickets, and finally as a substitute guide.
In 1955 Hugh took a job selling oil and grease to large construction projects in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. The company, Lubrication Engineers, was headquartered in Dallas. Periodically they had sales conferences where the men brought their wives. When Sis was working in Staunton, she was able to stay at the house and care for Paul and Jim while Mary went with Hugh to these meetings. It gave Mary a break from her routines, and sometimes included sight-seeing. One time they took Jim with them to New England where they visited Boston, where Hugh had gone to high school, and Cape Cod.
After high school, Jim entered Richmond Professional Institute (RPI) where he studied art. The campus, which later became Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), was located in downtown Richmond. One day his dad made an unexpected visit to his son, whom he didn’t believe was getting along as well as he could in college. Not long after that Jim joined the Navy. He took his basic training in Florida, and then was trained as a photographer.
While at Pennsacola, Jim had been assigned to help the protestant chaplain. When he reported for duty on an oceanographic ship with a small Navy complement, he was again asked to be chaplain’s assistant. He spent his enlistment on this ship in the Atlantic Ocean, then when he was released, got a job as a photographer in Cincinnati. He lived there for a time with his uncle and his wife, Bud and Charl, in the old Townsend Dairy farmhouse his mother had loved visiting when he Grandma Mary lived there. Since the family had moved to Virginia when Jim was two, this gave him a chance to connect with his Townsend roots.
The Launching Years! Mary’s family was growing up and moving into their own life spheres. Just as she began adjusting to the changes, her mother and dad called from Florida. “We’ve put our place here on the market. Florida has been a nice retirement place, but now we’d like to get closer to family. We were wondering if you could help us find someplace near you in that beautiful valley?”
Mary was thrilled. “Oh, yes, we’ll help any way we can. Of course, the weather won’t be as nice as Florida. Are you sure you’re ready for that?”
“Absolutely,” her dad said. “It will do us good to have four seasons again. Besides, your children are growing up and moving away, but Paul is still there. You tell Mr. P. R. Harris that I can’t wait to fill up some of his empty space. We’ll have a grand time together.”
Mary was energized with preparations. Elmer and Merle bought a mobile home and had it placed on a spot just across the driveway from Mary’s house. Hugh built an entry porch and storage room onto the trailer, poured a sidewalk to the driveway, and built a carport for Elmer’s Buick. All was ready for the dairyman and his daughter to reconnect, away from the city…out in the country.
Thank you, Lord, Mary prayed. How truly blessed I am!
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)