There is so much to be said for those individuals who, just by being themselves, offer encouragement and leave you feeling better, or with a smile. I was born a small town boy in White Springs, Florida, population between 700 and 800. The population has not varied much, since I was brought home to one of our family farms close to 61 years ago. I have spent the majority of my life in, and around, White Springs, Florida.
I spent the early part of my life in that unhurried, leisurely era of time before cell phones, computers, and before many of the modern innovations of technology. My friends and I played on the streets and at the springhouse keeping time with the chiming of the Stephen Foster Carillon.
Into this world, that was not unique to north central Florida at the time, the art of storytelling was valued, and if one could tell an entertaining story and one with humor, well, that was an added plus. We were blessed to have some “cracker jack” storytellers in our part of the world who passed along local lore with flair and color.
Now, I leave this treasure trove of memory and come to the present day. Each day I drive past the now closed South Hamilton Elementary, my heart aches some. It aches for “what was” and the memories of laughter I shared with so many individuals while there. While my heart aches, I remember with fondness the many students and staff members who have passed through those doors and through those gates. “Gone are the Days.” There’s a lesson to be learned about the closure of the schools in the various communities in this county, and I have never shared this, but be careful for whom you cast your ballot. Sometimes folks will say one thing and do something else. If you don’t believe it, look no further than your community schools that are closed. Folks who are not from your community, who haven’t lived here and been a part of it for a good long while and come in and tell you they love it more than those of us who have been her for generations, be skeptical. My Daddy always told me to be leery of anyone who tells you they love God, the country or the community more than you. Keep an eye on them he said. My Grandmother Bullard told me there was a vast difference between “pleasant” and “nice.” She said, “Don’t go around saying someone is nice when you’ve known them for just a short while. Say, instead, they are pleasant, and that way you have said nothing unpleasant. You have to know someone for a while to know whether or not they are ‘nice.’ It takes time.” She was right. Just because it walks like a duck and talks like one doesn’t make it a duck. Being a Christian, I know it is incumbent on me to forgive, but I have never, ever taught myself to “forget,” I wish I could teach myself that. I am still working on it. All I have to do is to see the closed school at South Hamilton and one face, and one name, pops in my mind, and I can’t forget it but that damage is done. And in truth, I am still working on forgiving. Maybe I will before I die. Maybe not.
What makes events such as the closing of the school, or the loss of something precious to you are those individuals who, by just being who “they are” bring a smile, and leave you feeling better about things, even the hardest things. Don’t you hate to encounter those individuals who permanently wear an expression like they have been weaned on a dill pickle? I know I do. In this thing called life, we have our “up’s” and “down’s.” No question about it. The words to an old African American Spiritual are “If you haven’t had any rain in your life, wait a while.” That is the truth. There are those individuals though who help us weather those stormy times and that rainy weather. Today in my column, I am going to share my memories of two.
Steve Greene grew up in White Springs, and he raised his family in White Springs. He was an encourager. I remember that smile, that warm smile, and the laughter. I remember him and his wife Dianne added so much to the wonderful closeness and warmth that added a special and unique value to our community on the banks of the Suwannee River. We bought so much gasoline at Steve’s Stop and Shop, and we bought so much ice cream there too. At “Steve’s Stop and Shop,” which was located on the corner of US 41 and Bridge Street right across from Adams Brothers Store, Steve and Dianne did a swift trade selling some of the best hand-dipped ice cream ever, and I mean “ever.” I can recall the first years of teaching school at South Hamilton from the early 80s to the early 90s, I would stop by after school and purchase a double dip of that wonderful ice cream for my paternal aunt, the late Charity “Chat” Bullard Mann and go for a visit before heading home to the Eight Mile Still. Her favorite flavors: Strawberry Cheesecake and, when they had it, Coconut. Daddy’s favorite ice cream, Butter Pecan. Sweet memories. Steve Greene served as the Mayor of our town for 12 years, and he was a good public servant. He supported the local community, and he was a good husband, father and grandfather. He was part of the fabric that made the patchwork quilt that was White Springs very special indeed. I don’t ever recall lots of contention or folks wanting the limelight or much of anything but a genteel sort of peace and mutual understanding when Steve served as mayor. He was an encourager, and we shall miss him and all he and Dianne and the family were and “are” to our community. We remember Steve with love and respect. I can still hear Steve, Dianne and my Daddy laughing over something funny that had been told. I loved them all, and I always will. Good memories of a time that will come no more.
Someone else who passed away this past week lived out on Country Road 132 near Midway, not far from Marion Station. Now if you are not from Hamilton County, you may have to get your map to find that place.
She was a product of segregated schools, a native of Hamilton County, and a graduate of Carver High School, White Springs, and she began her teaching career in segregated schools down in Brooksville. Her mother worked hard to raise a family and was one of the best cooks in this part of the world. Her mother cooked for many years at the Triangle Restaurant, located at the Triangle of US 41 and SR 129. I remember eating there on so many occasions. Mrs. Bertha Yulee Johnson, an encourager, someone who took joy in her friends and loved ones, and one who could “talk a blue streak” but always, always pleasant conversation interspersed with laughter. I can still hear Bertha’s laugher. I had the privilege of working with Bertha the first year I taught school at Central Hamilton Elementary in Jasper and, later, when I served as principal there. There are not many individuals who possess a truly warm and positive nature, a nature that is devoid of any guile, a nature that wishes those who are close to them only good things. Bertha was one of those individuals. I never, ever heard her say a negative word about anyone, and I mean never. She always had an encouraging word, a smile and a “hello.” After retirement she called me each year, and said “It’s time for Memorial Day Poppies.” She was a member of the VFW Auxiliary in Jasper. She had a running joke and told me that she beat Gene Chandler to getting to me so I could purchase the poppies for her. I loved Bertha. At one of the darkest times in my life, she told me, “Remember how many people love you Mr. Bullard.” She said that unsolicited and then she gave me a hug, a real “hug.” Bertha lost her husband some time ago, and she raised two wonderful sons who both have good jobs, and she also encouraged and helped her nieces and nephews. Family and friends meant so much to her, and she lived her Christian testimony. My last short visit with Bertha was on Aug. 10. She was with her Hamilton County Alumni Family at the annual Ice Cream Social hosted each year by Kizzy Marshall Burch. I walked by their booth, and she said, “I know you are going to say hello to me Mr. Bullard,” and laughed. I gave her a hug, and as I left I said “I love you Bertha.” She said “I love you too.” It was the last words I would ever speak to her.
I am not pontificating here. I don’t have the right to do it, but I will offer this to you. Don’t be stingy with the words “I love you.” Mean them when you say them, but don’t be stingy with them. We never know when it may be the last time.
To sum this article up about my friends Steve Greene and Bertha Yulee Johnson, I, once again, am going to turn to the lyrics of a once popular song:
“So it’s the laugher, we will remember. Whenever we remember the way we were. The way we were.”
Our continued prayers and heartfelt sympathy to the families and the loved ones for a very special native son and daughter of our own home here “Around the Banks of the Suwannee.” For both Steve Greene and Bertha Yulee Johnson, it could be said their lives were superbly lived.
From the Eight Mile Still on the Woodpecker Route north of White Springs, wishing you a day filled with joy, peace, and, above all, lots of love and laughter.