Thank you, Donald and John and David, for giving me this opportunity to express the love of our community for a very special member. Odessa’s death on Tuesday left us with a terrible sense of loss, for she was been an integral part of Wagram and Riverton for so many years, as well as our dear friend.
From the time she arrived here as the teenage daughter of Spring Hill’s minister to the morning of her death, she gave the community her time, talents, energy, and love and we can’t imagine being without her. When Mr. Arnette was pastor here, Spring Hill Baptist and Montpelier Presbyterian worshipped together, alternating Sundays. My John told me many times that the boys his age actually looked forward to going to church with the arrival of the Arnette sisters – Odessa, Lois, and Josephine; and according to my late brother-in-law, J.J. Pence, the young ladies added the same kind of interest and zest to school days at Old Spring Hill.
Odessa developed a lasting love affair with both her church and her school, returning to teach at Wagram at age 19 and handling with maturity such students as Edwin Womble and Raymond Monroe! Her four sons graduated from Wagram School, and during those years she served as grade mother, third-grade teacher, teacher of high-school math, and later as principal.
She was still serving in the last capacity when Scotland County Schools became integrated in the late 1960s. Because she never saw color, only children, she seemed God-chosen for the challenge. Odessa personified the transition from Old South to New. During her years at Wagram School, she instilled into the boys and girls there such a sense of pride, personal worth, and love of their school that discipline problems were minor, although she didn’t hesitate to punish offenders.
For her third graders she had a special corner of the room called the pig pen, for those who kept messy desks. My Ann spent some time there! When playground stragglers among the 30 students failed to respond to her whistle that it was time to resume studies, they were assigned a spot in her “dog house.” The theory was that if they couldn’t respond to voice control, they really needed to be on a leash. Odessa could speak the language of any child and had the talent of being as effective with teenagers in high-school classes as with the little ones. During her years at old Wagram High School, she counseled students, cheered their teams, followed the old Blue Hornet bus all over the county and into Ellerbe for basketball games, chaperoned Beta Club parties, encouraged debating teams and, most of all, loved each child who matriculated there. At the same time, our friend was leader in Wagram’s Garden Club, the John Charles McNeill Book Club, the Finesse Club, the historical society, as well as in all of her church activities.
And although all of us who loved her became concerned about her failing health over the last year and suggested she slow down, Odessa never really wanted to give up any of her interests. On Tuesday, she had planned to go with Mary Odom to give Homemakers from Cumberland County a tour of the Temperance Hall and John Charles McNeill house. At 7:30 that morning, she called to say she wasn’t well enough to go but would leave all the posters, brochures, notepaper and material Mary would need on her porch. It was all there.
Odessa kept agreeing to slow down but she didn’t really mean it. When she told Donald last spring that she was going to have to give up some of her activities, he replied, “Well don’t give up the cooking!” She had such a wonderful way of feeding both the body and the soul with her delicious meals. She repeated Don’s remark to her friend with great pleasure. His answer was just what she needed although we kept telling her that would be the boys’ joy to take her out to eat. She wanted to feel that her cooking was still the special treat it had always been throughout her sons’ growing-up years and later for her grandchildren.
And now I want to speak a personal word of what Odessa’s friendship meant to me, feeling sure that I speak for many others. Friendship is one of God’s greatest gifts to us humans. Odessa’s friendship offered the special nurturing quality of God’s own grace, offered freely not for what we could do for her but in love and loyalty for who we were in the fabric of her life. By nature, she was a homeowner, centered in her family, but her friends became her extended family and her community, her extended home.
Today we Christians make a big deal about issues, argue about the “isms”: humanism, liberalism, fundamentalism, or about the infallibility of the scriptures, the role of women in the church. Odessa kept up with all the issues and no doubt had her own firm opinions. Divisions in her beloved Baptist denomination probably bothered her as did differences among friends and family – but not too much. Her faith was so much a part of her personality and character, she didn’t need to preach it, argue about it, or defend it. She simply lived it and all of us lucky enough to be exposed to it were blessed. When I listen to the proponents of encompassing language, changing the wording of creeds and hymns and translations to ensure the acknowledgement of God’s feminine nature, I think of how well Odessa personified God the Parent, displaying firm authority and loving grace in all of her relationships.
Yesterday her son David commented that ideally every child should have two parents, but circumstances made it necessary for his mother to be both father and mother. He added that while she was natural as a mother, she filled both roles remarkably well. I knew just what he meant. She was my principal at Wagram school for several years, and few of her male counterparts could match her! Yesterday morning as I sat on her porch reminiscing with Donald, David, and John, I was caught by several of their remarks, the gifts their mother had left them on what life is all about.
John may have summed it up best: “Mother loved so many things,” he said. “The cardinal that knocked on her outside wall every afternoon knowing it would be fed, an exciting game of bridge, discussion of a good book, family reunions, ACC sports, the Democratic Party – and of course her church.” It’s true – her love of life was contagious, a triumph over the tragedies that befall all of us if we live long enough.
I recall last winter’s Wake Forest-North Carolina State basketball game that went into a third overtime. Odessa told me that she’d had to stop watching entire games because she got too excited but for me to call and give her regular reports. Although she had sons who were graduates of both universities, I knew her heart lay with that Baptist school where her youngest two (identified through a typographical error as her “twin sins” in a local story recounting her honor as mother of the year in the 1950s) had more recently graduated. I had planned to join my State son-in-law in pulling for the Raleigh team, but by the time I had reported to Odessa the third tie, I was pulling for Wake, too.
After a particularly enjoyable, exciting evening of cut-throat bridge several years ago at Mary Odom’s with Odessa and Mary Faye, I wrote the following lines in my journal:
Her carefully coiffeured white hair Is a testimony to pride;
The twinkle in her blue eyes framed in crinkles instead of wrinkles
Tells of happiness built on faith, transcending tragedy.
The courage to be happy in “whatever state I find myself”
Is perhaps the trait I most admire.
Odessa knew that for each of us, life is a story. And that while we can’t always control the events in that story, we can determine its tone and its theme. Her story was sometimes a dirge of despair, sometimes a hymn of happiness – but always a love story, always an adventure story; and with faith and humor Odessa always affirmed life and made it brighter for all of us who gather here today to express our love, our sense of loss, and our gratitude for having known her.