Death angel quiets gentle voices

Friday, June 21, 2002

The death angel paid a visit several days ago to the small community of Ellsinore, Mo., which you can find on a map if you follow U.S. 60 west from Poplar Bluff as the highway crosses part of the Mark Twain National Forest on its way to Van Buren.

The population of Ellsinore and the surrounding farms and hills all put together would be fewer than 1,000 hardy souls. Keeping track of what these good folks do and say, when they are born, when they die, was the weekly task of Gladys Leach, who for more than 40 years wrote the East Carter County news for the newspapers in Van Buren and Piedmont.

Country correspondence still thrives in a lot of weekly newspapers. Some readers call it chicken-dinner news, because an awful lot of inhabitants of small communities still consider fried chicken or chicken and dumplings to be the bedrock of communal cuisine -- food to be shared whether laughing at a celebration or weeping at a wake.

"Death angel" was the term Gladys used when she had to tell her loyal readers that another relative, friend or acquaintance had slipped the bond of those rocky hills and, it could always be presumed, was now skipping along those golden streets just beyond the pearly gate.

For such a small community, Gladys managed to write lots and lots of news each week. Even though I grew up near Ellsinore, I didn't know anyone there. But I faithfully read what Gladys had to say each week, and I was always disappointed when she took off to see one of her children or had the flu so bad she just couldn't write.

Not much went on in the Ellsinore area that didn't wind up in the East Carter County news. I'm convinced that if Gladys didn't know about it, it didn't happen.

Besides her weekly chronicles of the way people live their ordinary, fascinating lives, Gladys was remarkable for some other things too. She relished her membership as one of the town's streetwalkers -- a group of over-80 women who walked for exercise and celebrated their virtue by meeting at the Log Cabin Cafe for hearty home-style meals. It would be impossible to explain to today's physical-fitness buffs how this made perfectly good sense, but the statistics speak for themselves. Any group of women over 80 must be doing something right.

Gladys was a bowler too. And a churchgoer. And a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother (23 times over).

Recently, Gladys had endured the physical and emotional strain of auctioning off most of her worldly possessions as she prepared to move into smaller accommodations, leaving the home she and her late husband, Albert, had enjoyed. In no way was Gladys giving up, however. It was not her plan to wither and die of old age.

The death angel came for Gladys when she drove her car onto U.S. 60 in front of a large recreational vehicle. Suddenly, she was standing at the pearly gate herself.

I wonder how many times Gladys extended genuinely heartfelt condolences through her weekly column over all those years. Now the tables are turned. I can only express my hope and prayer that all of her friends and acquaintances will remember her family at this time of loss.

The sad news from Ellsinore came at the end of a tragic week. Just a few days earlier, the monks at Conception Abbey in Northwest Missouri faced their own death angel as a man showed up with guns and began firing, first at one and then another, until two monks were dead, two were injured and the killer turned a gun on himself.

During our eight years in Maryville, Mo., I met and knew many of the monks at Conception, a scant 18 miles away, especially Brother Damian, who wrote weather forecasts for the newspaper and illustrated them with his Weather Rooster.

See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil ... . -- Deuteronomy 30:15

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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