Going the Extra Mile

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CP Mother of the Year

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Mary and Hugh were challenged to go the extra mile when they got involved with a CP Parents group.  Here were people who wanted to create a center to provide schooling and physical therapy for their children.  They were actively exploring methods to fund their dreams.

The group provided good networking for Mary.  She thrived on their bi-monthly meetings that provided bonding around common experiences, ideas, frustrations and triumphs.  She got involved with the funding discussion.  Television was a new and powerful communication instrument.  The group decided to approach WLW-TV about doing a telethon to get visibility for their efforts.

They launched a contest to name one of their members “CP Mother of the Year,” and have this person presented during the telethon, which would be held at a prominent hotel. Over a period of time community business leaders submitted letters nominating someone for this honor.  Mary was overwhelmed when she received the most letters and was selected.  The night of the telethon her children were thrilled to see their mom on television.

From there on fund-raising efforts proved effective.  The group hired a professional fund-raiser to direct the program and soon they were able to move forward with the center.  That’s when Mary suddenly hit a brick wall.  When the center was ready to open she found out Paul wasn’t qualified to participate.  Several other children with similar levels of need were also rejected.  She learned that group leaders had set minimum standards for participation that said only children who could feed themselves and were toilet trained could qualify.

Mary was crushed and angered.  “I can’t believe this, can you?” she said over the phone to another parent whose child was rejected.  “Why did we all work so hard if this isn’t going to serve the children who need it most?”

She took her feelings to God in prayer.   Lord, I don’t understand this.  We found this group, believed in their cause, helped them raise money to create this facility…and now we’re blocked!  Why?  What did we do wrong?  Show us the way.

In response, she heard an inner voice saying, Wait!  Keep the faith!  Look deeper!

Mary found herself going the “extra mile” again.  She called the other parents of rejected children.  “Maybe this just wasn’t the right approach,” she found herself saying.  “Maybe we need to do something else.  Can you come to our house Saturday afternoon?  We’ll have sandwiches and talk this over.”

On Saturday five children and their parents showed up.  This was a different “coming together” than they had experienced with the other group.  They were all active caregivers who loved their kids and wanted to advocate for them.  They began to meet each week and dubbed themselves the CP Support Group.

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The impact on the children was noticeable.  Being a child with Cerebral Palsy was isolating.  People around them didn’t understand their condition or their needs.  The support group had the effect of normalizing their lives.  Now they could simply “be kids”–laughing and playing together in the safety this group provided.  Mary and Hugh were thrilled.

“Sometimes God has different ideas that we can’t see right away,” Mary said one day.  “We had to run into a brick wall in order to see past the boundaries we had helped set up.”  The support group began to feel energized and soon became visible, and people wanted to help.  One of those  was Paul’s Sunday school teacher.  She and Mary had become friends, and one day she said, “You know, I’d love to come over when your group meets and read some stories to the children.  It might help stimulate them to learn words.  Do you think that would be all right?”

Mary and the group welcomed her.  Soon she was innovating ways to teach these special needs children to speak.  She would put a word she wanted them to learn on a red ribbon that she pinned to their shirt or dress.  The kids squealed with delight and tried to form the words.  They began to have contests to see which child could get the most words on their ribbon.  This became such a stimulus that the group grew from six to twelve children.

About that time Clifton Methodist Church received a new pastor, Reverend Warren Bright. Mary invited him to her house for one of the support group’s meetings.  He was impressed with what they were doing, but noticed how crowded they were.  He made a suggestion.

“Have you ever considered meeting at the church?  We have a large social hall, a kitchen and bathrooms–anything you might need.  You would have so much more room.  I do hope you’ll consider this.”

It didn’t take them long to say “yes.”  The group became known as the Clifton “CP School.”  A woman named Mildred Martin emerged as a key leader who would keep the group functioning for many  years.

Mary and Hugh continued their trips with Paul to visit Dr. Phelps during all of this.  They were still thinking about moving to the Shenandoah Valley some day so they could be closer to Maryland.  Mary also remembered how the beauty of the area had attracted her.  They put their house on the market, but after a while took it back off due to lack of interest.

Hugh had been selling women’s hats, and had done well with it, but it took him out of town a lot.  Then he had the chance to open a business of his own.  He had become interested in woodworking and cabinetry.  A space suitable for a shop opened up on Vine Street, next door to a moving company.  It was an ideal location.  A major part of his work became refinishing furniture damaged in transit.  Applying his woodworking skills to the house, he decided to remodel the kitchen.  About this same time they put the house back on the market, still thinking about Virginia.  He was only halfway finished with the remodeling when the house sold.

Suddenly their world was turning upside down again.  The dream of living in the Shenandoah Valley was now a possibility.  Hugh drove to Harrisonburg where they had stayed at the Pure Village Court, and looked for a house.  He had limited funds and the realtor showed him several places, but nothing seemed right.  Then he was shown an old tenant farm house in the village of Keezletown.  It had once been part of the estate of Senator George Keezle.

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The property covered three-and-a-half acres that included an apple orchard…and a magnificent view of the Massanutten Mountain and the valley that spread out from it.  The house needed a lot of work, but the price was right.  He went home and described it to Mary.

“I bought the most magnificent view you’ll find anywhere in the Shenandoah Valley.  You can sit in the front yard and look out across miles of farmland.  She was fascinated with his description, and intrigued by the apple orchard.  Then she choked back some misgivings when he told her more about the condition of the house.

“It has a cistern for water located right outside the back door.”

Mary pictured the well outside the kitchen of the hold house on the dairy farm where She wasn’t sure how she felt about the cistern.  Then he told her the biggest drawback.  “It doesn’t have a bathroom, and it has no closets.”

“Hubert Harris, if you think I’m going to live in a house without a bathroom or closets, you are mistaken!”

He tried to console her.  “You won’t have to live in it like that, honey.  I’m going back for a few weeks and I’ll fix it up.  The soil perks, so I can put in a septic tank and build a bathroom…and I can build closets.  I’ll also turn the old back porch into an enclosed utility room.”

She thought about the view and her desire to live in the Valley.  This was the biggest “extra mile” she’d encountered yet.  After prayer and more discussion, she saw God’s hand in it. It was 1951 and they had lived in the house of her dreams on Howell Avenue for six years. She reckoned it was time to trade dreams and entrusted that to God.

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The dairyman’s daughter was about to move back to the country…not to a farm, but close. It felt good!

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life was Good!

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Mary Ellen with brother Bud at a family picnic.

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris 1911-2016)

For a while after she quit school Mary Ellen felt relieved, unstressed, and happy.  Sleeping late was a luxury she felt she could get quite used to.  Her mother had other ideas.  She tolerated a few weeks of “Met,” as she called her when she was mad or being sarcastic, lazing around, shopping, and running off to Columbus with Artie.

Merle wasn’t sure about this young man.  He was a good student, had a lot of promise, but he was a socialite.  Mary Ellen and Artie grew closer and by summer she was wearing his engagement ring.  He still had another year until he would graduate from college, and then he had to get a job.  He believed that would be no problem.  Merle Townsend wasn’t so sure.

One morning in June when Mary Ellen came down to breakfast her mother announced, “Met, I’m leaving in a few minutes for my Eastern Star meeting and I want you to come with me.  You’re eighteen now.  It’s time you got involved in some worthwhile activities.”

Boom!  Just like that!  Her mother had been through all the Eastern Star chairs and had said many times that she wanted Mary Ellen to join when she was old enough.  It wasn’t that she was disinterested, it just wasn’t something she wanted to do right then. She knew better than to get into an argument over it, so she went.  In high school she’d belonged to a sorority.  The Eastern Star felt a little like that, but it was focused on biblical teachings, and had a lot of very rigid rules and practices.

Joining the Eastern Star opened a door her mother used to get her into more organizations and activities.  Mary Ellen decided enough was enough.  One Saturday morning when she and her dad were in the kitchen by themselves she decided to have a talk with him.  Elmer Townsend was a wise and patient man.  Though he and the family were now attending the Methodist Church, his Quaker roots of quiet contemplation were still present.  He had not been happy with her decision to quit school, but had not pressed her about it.

For her part, Mary Ellen had done some research.  She had checked into the Littleford Nelson Business School’s offerings and decided she wanted to go there.  It was expensive and she had to ask her dad for the money.

“Daddy, I think it’s time for me to have a job…some way to support myself if I should need to.  I can’t go on living here forever, and it will be awhile before Artie and I can get married.”

He looked at her with his characteristic expression, one eyebrow raised higher than the other.  “You know jobs are hard to find these days.  You didn’t finish high school….”

She knew even a high school diploma was no guarantee of a job.  At Western Hills she had made Home Economics her course of study.  She had learned skills in cooking and sewing that she knew would serve her well throughout her life, but a job in those areas?  Probably not easy to find.  The country was in the Great Depression.  She’d been in the classroom when news of the stock market crash devastated everyone.  Her teacher had invested in stocks for retirement and lost everything.  The school had been closed down for the day.

Elmer looked intensely at his daughter.  “Mary Ellen, I understand what you’re saying, and I’m impressed that you’ve looked into this.”  She had told him the cost.  “I could afford to send you there, but how do I know you’ll stay?  What if your young man wants you to be with him when you need to be in class…what will you do?”

“He won’t do that.  Artie knows I need to take care of myself until we can get married.  And what if something happened to him later?  I’d need some skills to fall back on.  I don’t have my head in the sand about this.”

The discussion went on and finally her dad softened his concerns.  “Okay, I’m going to trust you.  I believe you really do want this and that you’ll stick with it no matter what.  Is that a promise?”

‘Yes, I promise,” she said, hugging him.  “Thanks, Daddy.  I’ll make sure you won’t ever regret this.”

At Littleford Nelson secretarial students had to choose between learning shorthand, or stenography, which was a code system using a special machine that was faster than shorthand.  Mary Ellen chose stenography and did well with it.  She felt deep satisfaction and pride when she had completed everything and was ready for a job.

Her joy was tempered, however, by a change in her relationship with Artie.  That’s when he developed a new romance at college and broke off the engagement.  Her spirit was torn between the joy of achievement and the pain of a broken heart.

Her dad offered her a job at the dairy.  She accepted it, suspecting that he did it to keep an eye on her.  Every day she checked out the newspaper classified ads.  One day a secretarial position was offered with a coal company in Bluefield, West Virginia.  She read the ad.  “Must be willing to travel.”  Oh!  This is perfect.  I’ve always wantd to travel.

 It was a dream job that she knew was meant for her!  She went for an interview but felt intimidated when she found a room full of people filling out applications.  Still, she filled out hers, was interviewed, and then left to keep an appointment to have her hair done.

When she got home her mom said, “Did you apply for a job today?  Someone has been calling you–they want you to go back to the hotel this evening for another interview.  Oh, they said to bring your machine with you.”

Mary Ellen was elated.  She went back and got the job with the Virginia Smokeless Coal Company.  The position was as secretary to the manager of a branch they were opening in Cincinnati.  Travel arrangements were made for her to go by train to Bluefield where she would work in the home office for about six weeks.  When the train pulled in she was met by the the vice president, Dr. Houston St. Clair.  He took her to his home for breakfast and then to a room with a private bath he had rented for her.

 A lasting memory of that arrival in Bluefield would always be Dr. St. Clair’s small son who gave her a big hug and then announced, “My, you smell pretty!”

Her landlady, Mrs. Stringfellow, was a single parent with a little girl, and her mother also lived with her.  To supplement her income she had a small home business making cakes, candy and pastries.  They made Mary Ellen feel right at home by designating her the “official taster.”

“The air here is a little different than Cincinnati,” Dr. St. Clair told her.  “Take a few days to get adjusted before you come to work.  You’ll probably want to sleep a lot at first.”  He was right.

When she did report for work, Mary Ellen found the office staff cordial and welcoming.  Dr. St. Clair’s father was the president of the company.  One day he called her into his office to take dictation for some letters.  While transcribing her notes she was startled to read the words, “chicken ridge.”  Chicken ridge?  I must have made a horrible mistake.  If I type this I’ll be fired.   Her training kicked in, however, and she typed the letter exactly as she had transcribed it.  She took the typed letters in to President St. Clair with great apprehension. He read each one carefully, then signed all of them.  “Be sure to get these in the mail today.”  He handed them back to her.

The next day she asked Dr. St. Clair what “chicken ridge” meant.

“Oh, that,” he said, breaking into laughter.  “So he tried that little trick on you!”

It seemed that Dr. St. Clair’s father was dubious about stenography and the fact his son had hired such a young, inexperienced girl.  She continued to learn about the coal businss and about people, and how to get along with them working in a large office.

The coal mines were located in Jewel Ridge, Virginia.  The coal was called Jewel Pocahontas.  They gave Mary Ellen a tour of the mines, and showed her how coal was separated into different sizes.  She learned about gondolas, freight cars, tippies, and how coal was shipped to various parts of the country.

At the end of her training she returned to Cincinnati where she went to work for the branch manager, Mr. Victor Gillespie.  The office was located downtown in the Mercantile Library Building on Walnut Street.  Mr. Gillespie was out of the office almost three weeks every month.  Her job was to be there, answer the phone, write letters, and be ready to really work hard when he returned.

Mary Ellen soon found this gave her a lot of spare time.  She would sometimes cut out and baste a dress or a blouse.  She had time to do a lot of reading.  And there were always salesmen coming by to give her a diversion and conversation.

Life was good!

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

Resilience!

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They were everywhere!  Yellow taxis weaving through traffic, horns honking, collisions seemingly inches away–yet avoided.  Quite a change from Dinkel Island where the only yellow car in town is an aging VW Beetle driven by an old guy with a sign on the door that says Pest Annihilator.

This was in New York City last Friday afternoon.  My wife Sharon, and I had just arrived at Penn Station.  We’d been directed to an escalator that thrust us outside amidst crowds at a taxi stand.  Soon one of those cabs delivered us safely to our hotel at Ground Zero.  We were in New York for Tate Publishing’s Premier Authors’ Conference and Book Tour.

Tall buildings, streets filled with cars, trucks, and pedestrians all scrambling to maneuver made me think of the contrast to my fictional town of Dinkel Island that is the setting for my novels.  I wonder how people keep from losing themselves in this packed and bustling world? I thought.  We soon got settled and tasked with “fitting into” this scene of hustle and bustle.  We walked ten blocks to Battery Park where our meals and sessions were held at Pier A.  We were right on the Hudson River at the docks with the Statue of Liberty visible in the distance.  Suddenly things didn’t seem so packed and busy.

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After a delicious supper and evening session we went to a Manhattan coffee shop to meet people and sign books.   The next morning we started our day back at Pier A with a hearty breakfast and more resource speakers.  Then we went to a library for another book signing.  A tour of the Fox News studios and a session about author interviews was followed by a dinner cruise around Lady Liberty–a rich opportunity for fifteen authors to consult with Tate executives and resource persons.

We learned in depth about the worlds of publishing, film making,  and media resourcing.  Perhaps the greatest impact came from staying right at the site of the twin towers that were destroyed on September 11, 2001.  Walking around the fountains where those buildings once stood, reading the names of people who lost their lives there, was powerful. So was looking out our hotel window at the magnificent Memorial Building that now stands with a museum to honor those who died there.  More buildings are under construction.  The message is clear:  We stand for freedom and we are resilient.  

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When we returned to Penn Station Sunday for our return home, this world of massive people, movement, and “yellow taxis” didn’t seem so strange or foreign.  A bridge had been formed in our spirits between this world and the world of small places like Dinkel Island.  We keep our individuality and enhance our lives in both worlds by the way we keep our values straight, our faith strong, and our energies positively directed.  That’s what raised a magnificent tower at the site of unthinkable destruction and ruin.  Evil does not have the last word!

I believe the Memorial Tower sends a visible, positive message to a world that wants to divide and conquer people.  It’s a message much like the familiar words, penned by Emma Lazarus, that grace the pedestal of Lady Liberty.  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to be free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Great cities, small towns, rural farmland, busy factories, crowded shopping malls, quaint stores–these form the fabric of our diverse lives.   We have our disagreements and differences, but at the center is our faith in God and each other.  We are diverse and yet united.  We are America!  We are free!  We are strong!

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