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STORIES FOR FATHER’S DAY

June 19, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Hatcher Garden and Woodland Preserve. Mail to P.O. Box 2337, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29304. Visit at 820 John B. White, Sr. Boulevard, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306. (864) 574-7724, info@hatchergarden.0rg

Kreswell Edward Neely was my grandfather.  I was fourteen years old the time he cussed the preacher out on the front steps of the church after a Sunday morning service. In my embarrassment, I tried to hurry my grandfather along, away from the preacher, away from the crowd, but Pappy would not be hurried. He couldn’t be.  A stroke left him partially paralyzed on the left side, and he walked with a limp, dragging his left foot, steadying himself with a cane. That is why I had become his designated driver.

At his funeral three years later, the preacher had the last word. “You never had to guess where you stood with Ed Neely. He would tell you what he thought.”

My grandfather was a man of few words. Some of them, sometimes many of them, were profane.  He was a Christian but said, “Being a Christian is a commitment to love the Lord and to treat other people right. It sure ain’t a promise to be nice and sweet and never say a cuss word. You can’t worry about what people think.”

Pappy taught me how to cuss and to pray. His prayers were straight from the heart. He spoke to God the way he spoke to everybody. He didn’t put on any airs. Praying was not about flowery language. Pappy was reverent, but he figured neither he nor God had time for drivel.

Pappy was a short, thin man, but tough as nails. For him, life was always difficult. His father died when Pappy was fourteen. He had to drop out of school to support his mother and three siblings. Several jobs and four years in the Navy became his vocational training. Through arduous toil and sheer determination, he was finally able to establish his own business. He started a lumberyard.

Five years later, in the midst of the Great Depression, with eight children and the ninth on the way, he lost his home to foreclosure and his business to bankruptcy.  As far as our family could tell, he was undaunted, always the Rock of Gibraltar for the rest of us. His way of dealing with hardship has served as an example for all of us. 

I enjoyed a special bond with Pappy. My grandfather wore a starched white shirt and a necktie that was custom-made to fit him. Unfortunately, Pappy was short. The long end of his tie was always behind the short end. Pappy solved the problem with a pair of my grandmother’s pinking shears. He simply cut off the long end.

Pappy taught me so much more about life and family and integrity and faith. When I was in the tenth grade, he called me into his office at the lumberyard. He showed me a check for $500 made out to a sawmill in Georgia.

“Kirk,” he said, “today I am paying my last debt from the Depression. I finally got them all paid off.”

 We enjoyed each other’s company. Conversation was sparse. When he spoke, he was direct, succinct, and salty. I mostly listened and asked questions. Pappy was a man of spunk, grit, stamina, perseverance, and faith.

One of the last conversions I had with Pappy was about the inheritance he was leaving. “Kirk, it ain’t much money. But I have tried to leave you a good name. Please take care of it.”

I don’t recall where I first heard these following two stories for Father’s Day, but I do know that legendary radio personality Paul Harvey told both of them. I have received them several times by e-mail, always told together.

The first story tells of a young Chicago attorney named Edward who became connected with the crime boss Al Capone in 1927.  The two were first involved in the illegal sport of dog racing.  The lawyer became one of Capone’s favorite colleagues and represented members of the Capone mob for crimes including murder, gambling, and prostitution. Known within the mob as Easy Eddie, Edward’s shrewd legal mind enabled him to rig trials, bribe juries, and pay off law enforcement officers. This skill at legal maneuvering kept Big Al out of jail for a long time. To show his appreciation, Capone always handsomely rewarded Easy Eddie.

Apart from his life of crime, Easy Eddie doted on his family. His three children – a son and two daughters – were his delight.  At some point, Easy Eddie decided that he owed his children more than just the material and financial advantages that came from his life of crime.  He wanted to provide for them a good education. Despite his own involvement with organized crime, Eddie tried to teach his children right from wrong. He realized that he could not provide them with a good example and a name of which they could be proud unless he changed his ways. 

Wanting to give his children an example of integrity, Edward made a difficult decision. In an attempt to rectify the wrongs he had done, he became a witness for the prosecution and testified against Al Capone and other members of the mob.  As a result, Capone was sentenced to eleven years in prison on charges of income tax evasion. 

On November 8, 1939, while driving in the Cicero section of Chicago, Eddie was gunned down. A mobster pulled up beside him and opened fire with a machine gun.  Eddie died instantly. This is a true story with a sad ending.

The other story involves a graduate of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when the United States entered World War II, this twenty-eight-year-old lieutenant became a pilot and was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, deployed in the South Pacific.  Known to his colleagues as Butch, this pilot of a single-engine fighter plane and his entire squadron were sent on a mission on February 20, 1942. 

Once airborne, Butch looked at his fuel gauge and realized that the crew on the aircraft carrier had neglected to fill his tank.  His commander ordered him to return to the carrier, accompanied by a wingman.  Reluctantly, Butch dropped out of formation and headed back to the fleet.

As the two planes made their way back to the carrier, they saw a squadron of Japanese bombers flying toward the Lexington.  The enemy was only about four minutes away from their intended target.  Butch and his wingman decided to attack, but the guns on the second plane had jammed.  Butch, his fighter plane low on fuel, was the only defense between the Japanese bombers and the more than 2,000 men who remained on board the USS Lexington

The daring pilot flew at the enemy.  Wing-mounted 50-caliber guns blazed as he charged, attacking one surprised Japanese bomber and then another. Finally, he flew underneath one plane, blasting its fuel tanks and causing it to explode.  Peeling off, he attacked another from above.

Butch wove in and out of the now broken formation and fired at as many planes as possible until all his ammunition was spent. Then, undaunted, he continued the assault. He dove at the planes, trying to clip a wing or tail in hopes of damaging as many enemy planes as possible and rendering them unfit to fly.

  In a matter of minutes, he had destroyed five of the nine bombers.  Pilots aboard the Lexington who were able to take off after Butch first engaged the bombers shot down three more.  The ninth Japanese plane crashed at sea.

Butch flew his damaged fighter back to the carrier. Film from the gun camera, which was mounted on his plane, told the tale of his heroic action.   

The lieutenant became the Navy’s first ace pilot of World War II.  He was promoted to lieutenant commander and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a personal commendation to him. 

One year later, in another air fight, this courageous pilot died when his plane was shot down by enemy fire. 

Revered in his hometown of Chicago, Butch O’Hare is remembered as a hero. As a result, O’Hare International Airport is named for him. Butch’s memorial is located between Terminals 1 and 2. There you can find a statue of the courageous pilot and a display of his Medal of Honor.

So, how are these two stories connected?

Butch O’Hare was Easy Eddie’s beloved son. Edward O’Hare would have been proud of his son and his good name.

I was fortunate to serve as pastor to Judge Bruce Littlejohn, Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. When we talked about his funeral plans just a few weeks before his death, he told me his favorite passage of scripture. It was one his mother taught him 

Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, Loving favor rather than silver and gold. “

A good name is one of the most important gifts any father can give to his children.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

THE OLD GRIST MILL

June 12, 2021

Thirty or so years ago, I stood with Dr. Lewis Jones on the bank of the North Tyger River in Spartanburg County, South Carolina. The beloved professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg pointed to Anderson Mill.

“This is where our county started.  This place is living history,” he said. “It needs to be preserved.”

I looked at the old building covered with corrugated metal, marred by graffiti. Trumpet vines, Virginia Creeper, and honeysuckle were climbing up the old stone foundation. The two waterwheels were rusted.

My unspoken question was, why in the world would anyone want to save this old place?

I remembered as a boy coming here to picnic with a church group on a hot summer day. On a big, flat rock across from the old mill we spread gingham tablecloths, ate ham sandwiches, and drank sweet tea. Then we slid on the rocks in the river rapids. In the 1950s this was our water park. Little did I realize then the historic significance of this spot on the Tyger River.

Gristmills were an important part of everyday life in South Carolina during the 18th and 19th centuries. Corn and wheat had been ground by hand before the invention of these early machines.

Power for the mills was provided by fast-moving streams. Where water rushed over a rocky shoal, a waterwheel could harness the river’s force. Inside the building, energy from the water was transferred, turning a large, grooved grinding stone. Rotating over a stationary millstone, grain could be ground into grits, corn meal, or flour. 

Only a few of these gristmills survive in South Carolina; fewer still have been renovated and preserved.  Anderson Mill is the oldest mill in South Carolina standing on its original foundation. The site was originally known as Nichol’s Fort, then as Nichol’s Mill, and later as Tanner’s Mill.  The mill gets its current name from Tyger Jim Anderson who acquired the mill in 1831.

The fact that the old mill still survives is a near miracle. Fires were a constant threat. The highly flammable grain was stored on the upper level. Gears turned the grinding stones. Millers would put animal fat on the gears to avoid the sparks caused by friction.  The old mill was constructed at the rapids on the Tyger River before the Revolutionary War. The Old Georgia Road, a wagon and stage route, crossed the shallow river immediately above the shoals. The fieldstone foundation and some of the supporting timbers remain from the original building. After floods in the early 1900s caused heavy damage, the current building was constructed on the old foundation.

Anderson Mill last operated commercially in the 1960s. However, in the late 1980’s Mr. Sellers, a former mill operator, gave demonstrations to history buffs and school groups. South Carolina Educational Television did a special program featuring Mr. Sellers.  

I took a Boy Scout troop to see the old mill. Mr. Sellers gave his demonstration, using the old stones to grind corn into grits. “Do you like grits for breakfast?” Mr. Sellers asked the boys.

Most agreed that they did. “What do you put on your grits?” the older man asked.

Some scouts said butter and salt, some said cheese. Then one scout chimed in, “My grandfather likes grits so much he calls them Georgia ice cream.”

Mr. Sellers replied, “Without the grist mill there would be no grits in South Carolina and no ice cream in Georgia!”

The living history that Dr. Jones had in mind would be reason enough to save the mill. For those of us who call Spartanburg County home there is further motivation. In 1762, John Thomas Sr. received a land grant on Fairforest Creek. The homestead was located in what is now Croft State Park. The Upstate would soon see an influx of Scots-Irish settlers.

In 1775, William Henry Drayton traveled into the backcountry. Drayton, who within a year would be appointed the state’s Chief Justice, was on a mission to recruit patriots to fight the British. He was introduced to John Thomas at a meeting at Nazareth Presbyterian Church. Thomas became the leader of a patriot militia. The new colonel was 57 years old.

Colonel Thomas commanded a unit of 200 patriot soldiers. The English had placed these Scots-Irish on the frontier to serve as a buffer against the Indians. They were tough and used to fighting. They fought with such valor that it was said, “They fought like Spartans.” The name stuck. They became known as the Spartan Regiment.

The Spartan Regiment is believed to have been part of numerous skirmishes with loyalists in late 1775. Colonel Thomas and his men earned their reputation for fierce fighting in several conflicts in which they opposed combined forces of English and Cherokees.

John Thomas, Sr., and the Spartan Regiment later would fight under General Thomas Sumter.  The regiment was reorganized after Colonel Thomas was taken prisoner. John Thomas Jr. took over as colonel and commander of the militia.

It was the younger Colonel Thomas who led the Spartan Rifles in several skirmishes in this area. They saw six engagements in four weeks, beginning in July with the First Battle of Cedar Springs near Kelsey Creek, just north of the Thomas homestead on Fairforest Creek. In quick succession, there followed the battles of Gowen’s Fort, Earle’s Ford, and Fort Prince. Then came the Second Battle of Cedar Springs and the Battle of Musgrove Mill. These battles set the stage for two decisive engagements.  Nearly two months later, Patriot forces assembled from several states scored a major victory at the nearby Battle of Kings Mountain.

Three months after Kings Mountain, the conflict returned in full fury to the Spartanburg area, when General Daniel Morgan defeated British Colonel Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens. The Spartan Rifles fought in that decisive battle. General George Washington would later call these Scots-Irish militia units the backbone of his army.

So, what does a Revolutionary War militia unit have to do with a gristmill? Following the war, the newly formed United States of America and the thirteen new states had to create local governmental structures in order to preserve the peace. In South Carolina, districts were formed. On the third Monday of June 1785, the first court in our district met to organize. The meeting was held at a location every person would have known well: a big flat rock where the wagon road crossed the North Tyger River across from the local gristmill, the same big rock where, through the years, hundreds of families have had picnics.

The first clerk of court was a man widely known and respected, Colonel John Thomas, Jr. The first order of business was to name the new district. It was only natural that those gathered named it for the militia unit that had protected them so valiantly. The Spartan District, later Spartanburg County, was officially created in 1795 by vote of the General Assembly.

The historic event happened on the big rock across the river from what is now Anderson Mill. The site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

On a warm summer morning, I drove over the North Tyger River bridge on the Old Georgia Road. I stopped my pickup truck to look at the old grist mill. I remembered Dr. Jones’ hope that the place might be preserved.

Anderson Mill is the oldest standing mill in South Carolina because the fieldstone foundation is original. The mill is the birthplace of Spartanburg County. The Tyger River Foundation is restoring this property to an operating mill open to the public.  An endowment to keep the mill in working order has been established by the group. Those who wish to support the project may do so at:

Tyger River Foundation

Tygerriver.org

3171 Walnut Grove Rd, Roebuck, SC 29376

(864) 574-6536

The big rock where Spartanburg County was formed and where we had family picnics is no different that it has been for years. The rushing water that powered the mill in times past still flows over the rocks where we slid as kids. There was a time when pollution dumped in the river upstream made the water so alkaline that it burned the skin and bleached the blue jeans of those who tried the rapids. Now, the river has been cleaned.

As I looked at the flowing water on that warm afternoon, I considered sliding on the rocks again. Then I had a better idea.  I cruised to the Beacon Drive-In, ordered a bowl of grits with butter and salt, and enjoyed my Georgia ice cream!

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

UNTIL WE ARE PARTED BY DEATH

June 6, 2021

          This week I have remembered a wedding at which I officiated more than fifty years ago. The ceremony was at a Baptist church in Lenoir, North Carolina. Both the bride and groom were recent graduates of Gardner-Webb College, where they met and fell in love. Both had a gift for music and a call to ministry. The groom was my brother, Lawton. The bride was Dawn, a remarkable woman. She died of COVID-19 complications on May 29, 2021, the Saturday before Memorial Day.

          Lawton and I were in seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, at the same time. Dawn was my brother’s soul mate. She was an educator who completed her professional career as a school principal. She and my brother were the parents of four beautiful daughters. Dawn was an excellent mother and grandmother. As my sister-in-law, I remember her funny stories gleaned from years as a pastor’s wife and as a teacher, counselor, and principal. I remember, too, her life of faith and love.

          For the last several years, Lawton and Dawn served together as chaplains at the Martha Franks Retirement Community in Laurens, South Carolina.  Several months ago, they both contracted the coronavirus. Lawton had a relatively mild case.  Dawn’s illness was much more severe. They both recovered to the point that they could spend Mother’s Day weekend at the coast celebrating their fiftieth anniversary with their family.

          When Lawton asked Dawn what she wanted for her anniversary gift, Dawn said, “I want us to make our final arrangements.”  They did.

          Three weeks later, Dawn was again admitted to the hospital. She died the next day.

          I do not perform nearly as many weddings as I did when I was a senior pastor. Still, I do conduct a few marriage ceremonies. I have had the privilege of officiating at weddings for many young couples just beginning life together. I am reminded of how young Clare and I were when we were married. We were both twenty-one years old.

          When a couple stands together to repeat their wedding vows, I hear them say those familiar words:

To have and to hold,

From this day forward,

For better or worse,

For richer or poorer,

In sickness and in health,

To love and to Cherish,

Until we are parted by death.

          I have thought many times that young couples cannot possibly understand the full meaning of those vows. How could they?

          The commitment made is a solemn promise to face life with all of the uncertainty implied in the words.

          Clare and I will soon celebrate our fifty-fifth wedding anniversary.  Ten years ago, my wife specifically requested that we begin cleaning the basement on our special day.  She wanted us to work on a project that had been on our to-do list for a long time. It might not seem like a very romantic way to spend our forty-fifth anniversary.  Moving boxes, discarding the trash, and loading the car with used items to be delivered to the Salvation Army and the Children’s Shelter were all a part of the day. It was the only gift my wife requested, and I wasn’t about to disappoint her.

          We worked together for several hours. Then, I picked up take-out food, and we ate supper together on our back porch, surrounded by boxes and bags of trash. We talked together about our marriage. We are married, and we are also best friends. Whether working together on a grungy project or dining out at a nice restaurant, as we did the following evening, Clare and I enjoy being together.

         This year Clare’s request for our anniversary is far less demanding. “I just want us to have a meal someplace where we can be together and have eye contact with no distractions.” Both of us are mindful that we have no idea how many more anniversaries we will have together. Each one is to be savored.

          Most of us are aware that marriage can be fragile. Few extended families have escaped the pain of separation or divorce. Clare and I have several good friends and dear family members who have suffered through the dissolution of their marriages.

          Both Clare and I had parents who were married to one person until death separated them: mom and dad for fifty-eight years and Clare’s parents for forty-two years. Our parents set an excellent example for us.

          We were married on a hot, humid Saturday in a small Methodist Church in the Midlands of South Carolina.  My three brothers and Clare’s only brother, Ben, were the groomsmen.

          The wedding proceeded as rehearsed the previous night. Holding Clare’s hands, looking into her beautiful green eyes, I repeated my vows.  Suddenly, there was a loud crash behind me. Clare’s brother had fainted.

          Always a quiet person, Ben had been ill the night before. He had kept it to himself so as not to interfere with the wedding. Unable to eat, standing motionless next to a bank of candles in a hot Methodist Church, Ben passed out. When he fell forward, his mouth hit the altar rail, knocking out his two front teeth. Blood was everywhere.

          My brothers scooped up Ben’s limp body and hauled him, arms and legs dangling, out the side door. Clare’s father jumped to his feet to attend to his son. The pastor simply waited to continue. Finally, the father of the bride and the three stunned groomsmen returned. Then, Clare repeated her vows to me.

          I have long thought that Clare had an advantage. I repeated my vows with little understanding of what it meant to promise to love Clare for better or worse. By the time we continued, she, at least, had an inkling.

          Few couples understand the gravity of the vows they make. It is the commitment between the bride and the groom that is most important.

Our marriage has gone through numerous changes. For many years our marriage focused on our children. We had to make adjustments as our parents aged, especially when Clare’s mother suffered from dementia. More changes were required as our children became college students and then adults in their own right. Once our nest was empty, it started filling up again, this time with grandchildren. Clare and I enjoy our family, but we also take delight in those times we have for just the two of us.

An old man and an old woman, married to each other for sixty-one years, were driving along a country road in a pickup truck.  They got behind a late model car.  In that car was a young couple.  The boy was driving, and the girl was sitting in the middle of the front seat.  The boy had his arm around his girlfriend.  The older couple in the truck followed the young couple for several miles. 

After a while, the old woman said, “Pa, I remember when we used to be like that.” 

After a pause, Pa replied, “I ain’t moved.”

We realize that our need for intimacy has not diminished, but it has changed. We have so much in common – a long history together, five children, wonderful in-laws, and thirteen beautiful grandchildren.  Marriages that endure are characterized by the bond that comes through shared experiences of joy and sorrow. The adventure of embarking together on a journey into the future is exciting, even if it means cleaning out the basement on a wedding anniversary.

Perhaps the wisdom in Robert Browning’s familiar poem, “Rabbi Ben Ezra” puts it best.

Grow old along with me! 

The best is yet to be, 

The last of life,

For which the first was made.

Our times are in His hands.

          My dad and my stepmother celebrated their third wedding anniversary at a restaurant in Tryon, North Carolina.  The waitress noticed that they were holding hands. She asked what occasion they were celebrating. 

          Dad replied, “We’re celebrating our wedding anniversary.” 

          The waitress said, “How wonderful.  How long have you been married?” 

          Dad responded, with a twinkle in his eye, “One hundred and twelve years.” 

          The waitress was startled. 

          Dad explained, “I was married to my first wife for 58 years.  Ruth was married to her first husband for 51 years.  And we’ve been married to each other for three years.  That’s a hundred and twelve.”

          A marriage can be an enduring source of joy and love until we are parted by death and beyond. That is reason to celebrate.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com