Just past the middle of the month, November is bewildering
our hometown with a mixture of winter weather and sunny still days not allowing
us to see a clear path for the forecast.
In between my visits with several folks we have been
chatting about and with, I got a chance to revisit some old friends and
remember and share their loses through this column. A celebration of Christian
life blended with memories of loved ones who have passed on took place at
Pleasant Grove Baptist Church on October 27. The gathering of friends of the
Conard family and church members celebrated the youth memorial park as a
tribute to Melissa Hale Brooks and S. Glenn Conard.
So let me tell you their story and why a large stone and
bronze plaque commemorate their lives on a sloping hillside behind the church.
A thick blanket of thin fall leaves covers the area that had just weeks ago
been filled with summer play, green leaves, and the rolling roar of the Pigeon
River not a hundred yards away.
When Brian Beretta of Newport Sand and Gravel selected the
massive stone, he may not have noticed its
heart shape. And perhaps backhoe operator and veteran excavator Jimmy
Wright did not pay attention to this, when he placed the stone. Both did their
work at no charge.
Yet, there it is, a heart shape with large flat plaque at
its center. The church and steeple rise above it in the background. Mums, now
dry, were blooming and beautiful weeks ago, a reflection of the lives of Glenn
and Melissa. Lorane and her husband, Mike Runyan had invited me over to the
church’s community pavilion and youth park. Many already have enjoyed for years
the walking track and basketball court. The congregation is generous and
friendly. I am not surprised when I think of its association with a man you
have known, Rev. Ransom Hall, He preached there for many years.
Too young to die
Lorane is a Conard, Glenn Conard being a brother. Melissa
was Lorane’s only child. They were inseparable friends. She died March 28,
1995. Five weeks later Glenn died, May 12, 1995. Lorane still tears up when she
remembers how Melissa had a sore throat for many weeks. She was diagnosed with
leukemia and died within nine months. I have come across her tombstone at union
Cemetery and maybe you have seen it too on the newer eastside. There is a color
photo of Melissa on the stone.
As we sat at the pavilion on the cool afternoon last week, I
got to know the connections to the Conard family and others as we talked:
Lorane and Mike; Melissa’s child Alex with her husband, Brandon Welch. His
father is the late Jimmy Welch and Mom is Gayla (Gregg) Miller married to Jeff
Miller, a Knox native. During our chat I found out that Alex and the Plain Talk
are neighbors because she runs Max Movement, dance and exercise studio. I wish
her an early happy birthday when she celebrates November 25 and turns 26.
That’s how old her mother was when she died. Alex was just age six and living
with Melissa and Dad, Jimmy Brooks, off Fugate Road at Wood Yard Road. Alex is
glad to have the memorial in place and you know mother loved her much when Alex
said, “She couldn’t stay mad at me.”
I also learned that Mike Runyan, who refers to his family as
the “poor Runyans,” is a nephew to Bob Ford. You recall we stopped in on Bob
years passed. Mike’s father is Paul Runyan married to the former Dorothy Ford,
Bob’s sister. Although Mike retired not long ago after 37 years as a rural mail
carrier, he still raises cattle. Mike was there for Lorane during the loss and
he put in a lot of work at the Pleasant Grove Church park. They are quick to
say their contribution in money and labor is only a small portion because many
church members, friends and family contributed time and money.
Seeding the youth park
Lorane had gotten a life insurance policy for Melissa, who
was a child at the time. Proceeds from this went to aid in the creation of the
youth park and memorial. Those who remember the former White Way store at the
Food City East center may recall that Lorane worked there for years, when
Johnny Rader was manager. She was there for about 10 years as associate manager
until the store closed about 1985. Then she began insurance sales and service,
first with Home Beneficial and continues with American General. So she has been
doing this for 28 years.
The idea of the youth park is not theirs or current pastor
Kelly Reed, who spoke at the dedication. Former pastor Gary Smith presented the
idea to build the park and pavilion in an area between the church, parsonage
and the river. He talked about this since 1996. It was overgrown with shrubs
and trees. Lorane has attended the church for years. Pastor Smith envisioned a
place for Christian youth rallies. Gary got called away to another church, and,
when Pastor Reed arrived, he liked the idea, too. The church is able to provide
plenty of room for volleyball, swings, horseshoes, picnics, Bible school and
studies, outdoor Gospel singing around a nighttime fire. You might say they get
plenty of exercise for body and soul.
You know the Conards
Let me get back to the Conard family for a
minute. I’ve known various members of the family for 40 years. Glenn was one of
my students in 1972-73 at Cosby School. J. B. Conard worked for Newport
Utilities and always was helpful when we had electrical problems at the Plain
Talk. Off duty, he would assist in the power hookups for our cooking schools in
the 1980s at Cocke County High School. J.B. was at the dedication. I have early
memories of visiting J.B.’s grandfather’s home with its huge rhododendron
hedges. Rev. James Blaine Conard married Myrtle Wood and they lived a long time
at Dark Hollow. He was a farmer and Glenn followed in his footsteps. Myrtle was
a humble and dedicated housewife and raised nine children.