Brownsville's Favorite Son
January 31st, 2019
As one of his children noted, my friend never had just a meal, or just an ordinary experience for that matter. His descriptions would often end in “ever” – and in his grits-dripping Southern accent that sounded like “evah” – as in “best party evah.”
I think that’s how he would describe this one, the last one he planned.
As published in The Daily Memphian
LIFE IS A SONG
On the 50-mile drive over to Brownsville, Marsha Thompson told us a story.
Homesick at UT, she really wanted a quick visit home to Lookout Mountain, so she asked fellow student and friend Ronnie Richards to take her. She showed him around including a visit to her church. Ronnie made a beeline for the organ, opened it up – telling her that organists always keep the key in the same place – and fired it up, pulling out the stops and joyfully filling the big empty church with big beautiful sound in an impromptu concert for two.
There was a lot of joy and big beautiful sound to Ronnie’s life. The trip to Brownsville was for his funeral. Everyone in the car knew Ronnie in college. He was my big brother in the fraternity. It’s fair to say, no one in the car enjoyed every day then and since, even the bad ones, like he did. As his children – all four spoke at the service – all pointed out, he celebrated.
How was your day? “Terrific.”
How was lunch? “Spectacular.”
And toward the end, in pain, how was your morning? “Remarkable.”
Lately, it may seem like I’m writing a lot about loss – God knows my dark suit is getting a workout – but I believe I’m actually writing about life. Nothing focuses your attention on the length and breadth of a shared journey and its shared meaning like the end of that journey.
Like its beginning, this one ended as a celebration of a person and place. Brownsville, Tennessee and Ronnie Richards were inseparable – he, the town’s biggest advocate – the town and everyone in it, his biggest friend. He was in insurance, and real estate, and laughter and love. He became the organist for the Baptist church in the eighth grade. Over his life, he was the organist for the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Synagogue, and the funeral home, and the life of a party. We had a grand piano in the frat house. Ronnie made that happen. Come on, frat houses don’t have grand pianos; they have chipped tables covered with cigarette burns and dried beer. We had those too, but that piano remained pristine. Ronnie made that happen too, and we gathered around that piano and sang. Come on, frat houses gather around kegs. What do you suppose made me think I could sing?
As I sat in the church before things commenced – actually in the standing room only fellowship hall because we got there just an hour and a half early and the church was already standing room only – the woman next to me, Peggy, talked about life in Brownsville. “When we lived in Memphis, my husband would blow dry his hair on the way to church at stoplights. Here, it stays soaking wet. Two minutes.” She continued, “Between our house and the square, maybe half a mile, I pass my dentist, my hairdresser, the ATM, the mail drop, the grocery store,” this is my favorite part, “and the best gas station chicken in town.”
Visits to small towns in the company of those who live there are common among those who go to state universities, and the closeness of life there can seem so compelling when they celebrate one of their own. This was a town-wide event, and the procession to the gravesite in outlying Nutbush stretched seemingly unbroken from the church to the cemetery.
In a wider world, Marsha Goree Thompson is the mother-in-law of Peyton Manning and the community of Nutbush is where Tina Turner was born. In my world and that of my oldest friends, Marsha is the Sweetheart of my college fraternity and Nutbush is where our friend Ronnie Richards is buried.
I’m a Memphian, and life in a world of friends is worth living.
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