Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Eulogy for Claiborne’s life and faith

– Remarks delivered at the funeral of South Reporter columnist Claiborne Thompson

What a tribute it is that you have come to say thanks to God for Claiborne’s life and faith! How she would liked to have seen this. Just imagine what a column she could have written!

The lady who wrote the column for the paper where I grew up entitled her column, “I See All.” So did Claiborne!

When I arrived in Holly Springs almost 20 years ago, Claiborne told me to go over to the newspaper, where she had prepared a welcoming article, and have my picture taken. So, having seen a newspaper office, I went over and reported to the photographer.

It puzzled me that they seemed to have no idea who I was or why I had come. So it was then that I learned that, at that time, Holly Springs had two newspapers, and in fact, that these papers had “dueling columnists” — who reported all the news and the local “who’s who.”

Then when the Marshall Messenger merged into The South Reporter, Leta Belk and Claiborne each gave their version of events, and I will have to say they helped me, more than I can ever acknowledge, to sort out all the people, places, and events that as a newcomer I thought I would never figure out. Like Florence Scott King says in her book, Southern Ladies and Gentleman, “read between the lines of the society column in a small Southern newspaper, and you can get a pretty good idea what is going on in that town.” I did.

From Claiborne I learned who went to which churches, who partied with whom (and who did not), what each person’s formal name was — and often, each Thursday, what had gone on that caused various people to miss church the preceding week.

Claiborne’s father, Mr. Rowan, brought the family to Holly Springs when the city employed him to pave the streets. And, so as she told the tale, Claiborne — then a teenager — did not want to move. So her father promised that if she would come here, he would buy her a car. And Mr. Rowan was as good as his word, and so Claiborne had a car — and she and May Alice had some grand times riding that automobile around the square.

That began a tradition, for Claiborne was never far from the square. First there was her drug store in the building where Mark Miller is now. It burned down in February 1951 in the famous fire to which Mayor Crump sent the Memphis Fire Department. The Memphis Press-Scimitar quoted Claiborne that night as saying that she expected to re-open the store just as soon as she could find a suitable location.

Generations of children in this town ate ice cream from Claiborne’s counter, this time across from Graham Miller’s store. The children would go over between Sunday school and church — a great, weekly ecumenical gathering, whereby Coca-Colas and candy bars assuaged the rigor of catechism memory classes and the dread of the inevitable long sermons that would follow.

When I first knew her, Claiborne was holding forth from her Chamber of Commerce office in the Museum. Then she presided over the Chamber’s move to the little church in the middle of this block. And later, she was Collier’s receptionist in the little office over there.

Do you see a trend here? Claiborne spent most of her life on or within a block of the square. And the saddest day of her later life was the day she was no longer well enough to go to the square every day.

Claiborne loved people, as anyone who ever ate Christmas dinner or attended one of her parties can attest. She invented hospitality, or at least took her lessons from the one who did. We could stay all afternoon reminiscing about wonderful incidents and conversations that took place around Claiborne’s table.

Were you there to celebrate her 80th birthday? Many of us were, and it was a glorious night, indeed.

And how Claiborne loved her children, grandchildren, and these two little ones — her great-grand’s. Caitlyn and Grady were the lights of her later life. But there was a sadness, too — about which she seldom spoke — the little boy, her Ben — whom she laid away beside her husband Ben. At every Christmas, a couple of these poinsettias remembered their lives. And so it is a comfort to know they are together this day.

Kay said many times during the last few years that her mother perked up when Rowan came, and Rowan we saw the other day when she woke up and was so alert in the hospital last week. You two meant everything to her.

Depending on various people’s memories, Claiborne may have been a member of the Holly Springs Presbyterian Church the longest. The church roll says she was received into membership on March 12, 1930. This I do know, that Claiborne practiced her wonderful ministry of welcome as an elder of this church and that anyone who united with this congregation during her service as an elder, was warmly, wonderfully welcomed, for if I may put it this way, Claiborne understood the hospitality of Christ.

You know, some of the Romans used to put a certain phrase on their tombstones — a phrase so well known that in time it sufficed just to put the initials. Archaeologists find it often to this day. The letters were NFFNSNC. The words, translated from the Latin say, “I was not, I was. I am not, I do not care.”

Romans said that, not so much because they did not have faith, but from a certain kind of Stoic belief that said the only way to protect from pain was to steel yourself from every kind of love and loss.

And while that may have been a buffer of sorts, I would not trade the coldness of Stoicism for our Christian faith. Yes, we may shed a tear today, and the skeptic can surely say that we can neither prove nor disprove our belief.

But today we repeated the creed, heard God’s promises and sung our hymns in the face of death, and having found God’s love to be true thus far, how can we doubt His future. For as the old Scottish preacher said, “We find them verified at every turn of life.”

Some find it hard to hear those words, that: “this corruptible body must put on incorruption; and this mortal body must put on immor-tality.” But can you possibly conceive that God, having brought us thus far together, would lay down his plans and forget us at such a time as this.

Claiborne had reached a place where her body no longer served her well. Grady will tell you she is now God’s angel, and I could only wish that I, as her minister, could find words to speak truth so well. For although death is in one sense good-bye on a journey, it is not I believe, goodbye forever.

For though a lamp went out for us this Christmas Eve night, for Claiborne, at least, the dawn had come. And so what we do is to put life and death in their true perspective as part of a great journey, and this is but one stage on that way.

Ben Franklin composed his own epitaph: whether it was actually carved on his stone in Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia, I cannot say. But this is what he wrote:

The body of
Benjamin Franklin, printer
Like the cover on an old book
Its contents worn out,
And stript of its lettering
And gilding,
Lies here, food for worms.
But the work shall not be lost;
For it will, as he believed,
Appear once more
In a new and elegant edition
Corrected and improved
By the Author.

So we believe, and so we leave it to Ben to say it so eloquently.

We shall meet again.

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