A bridge was dedicated in memory of Gayle Faulkner Lawson today in Harlan, Kentucky.
The event will not be covered on the world evening news, but I bet it is big news in Harlan. It should be.
This morning, the Kentucky General Assembly named the bridge on new U.S. 119 near the Harlan County line in Gayle’s name, recognizing her lifetime of community service.
Sometimes, dedications of this kind tend to honor famous people. Politicians. Celebrity types. Often, the structures have nothing to do with the person being honored.
Today they got it right. They are honoring the right person.
Although well-known throughout southeastern Kentucky for years of diligent community service, Gayle Lawson would be quick to tell you she was just an ordinary person.
I knew her before her hair turned white and she updated her hairdo. As Kentuckians say, let me tell ya, “She was not ordinary. She was really quite extraordinary.”
Words like persistent, determined, stubborn, obstinate, pushy, and tenacious were often used to describe her. She was feisty, which made her a worthy opponent. People learned to do their homework before tangling with her. Highly intelligent, she had a good memory and was always prepared for any meeting. Her daughter, Doris, told me people often dreaded seeing her name on their calendar.
Doris tried to describe her mother before our first meeting. “Ag, she will wear you out. She talks all the time and sometimes is downright nosey, so be prepared for inappropriate questions.” Gayle and I hit it off immediately. Doris told me her mother approved of me saying I was easy to talk to. and because I loved volunteering. I think she was a sucker for people born in Kentucky. Besides I could talk almost as much as she could.
Gayle and I often talked about the importance of volunteering and community service. I once asked her secret for dealing with elected officials at the state level. Her answer, “I always go in knowing more than they do.”
I drove to Lexington to visit her in the hospital a few weeks before she died. When I entered the room, the nurse was trying to get her to eat, with no luck. When Gayle smiled at me, the nurse handed me the spoon and said, “Maybe you will have better luck than me.”
Gayle was extremely weak, unable to say much. She did allow me to feed her a few bites of her soup and a few sips of her drink. She smiled as I talked to her for a few minutes. Then closed her eyes and fell asleep.
Sitting, watching her sleep, a stack of get-well cards on the windowsill crashed to the floor. Picking them up, I started to organize them so they wouldn’t fall again. There were lots of cards, many on engraved stationery with the State Seal of Kentucky on the front, from senators, even the governor. I began to truly understand the scope of her volunteer work.
Gayle had told me once the seal was surrounded by goldenrod, the state flower. Not sure she appreciated my comment that I thought goldenrod was a flowering weed. With her eyes flashing, she set me straight; telling me goldenrod was a weed and a flower. Laughing, she added someone who had been born in the Great Commonwealth should have known that.
Her thirst for learning and her love of teaching was inspirational. But, her exemplary community service, outstanding leadership, and working to better her community had been her true legacy.
Gayle was dedicated to her causes, worked tirelessly, and never gave up on the projects she believed in. She believed a lot of her success came from bringing the right people together to get the job done. I think her exceptional patience and boundless energy probably didn’t hurt. The driving force behind important projects that changed the lives of so many, she was a remarkable woman who had a huge impact on her community.
She bought her Ford Bronco so it could get her to meetings and conferences all over Kentucky. I think of the phrase of putting your money where your mouth is because she always traveled at her own expense.
In some ways, Gayle was sort of old school. She liked her information to be printed on paper once telling me, “Agnes, can you believe the College is switching their records over to the computer. I have half-a-mind to bring home the paper records so they will be preserved for the future.”
Gayle was always telling me how she admired my organization habits. She never threw anything away and often asked for tips to help organize her substantial amount of paper files. Once inviting me to come spend a few weeks with her and help get her organized. In the next room, Doris overheard her invitation and yelled, “Mother, really!” Gayle calmly said, “Doris Jean, I wasn’t asking her to do it for free. I plan on paying her.”
In the early 80s, we moved just around the bend from Doris and Jerry. After my brother finished remodeling our kitchen, Doris brought Gayle over to see it. Learning the old cabinets were still on the back porch, she turned on the porch light to see them. She shouted, “Doris Jean, these cabinets are in good shape. They would be perfect in your basement.” Doris finally took a corner cabinet to her station wagon to make her mother happy. That memory always makes me smile. It was so Gayle.
Her grandson called and invited me to go to the dedication. I thought about it a long time, thinking it would be nice to be there, for Gayle. And Doris.
But, today is a proud day for her family. A time for her son and daughter-in-law, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren to witness what one person can do with their life when they decide to become a champion for good.
I liked Gayle because she was a good person, outspoken, funny. I respected her for tirelessly working to make an area she loved a better place for people to live and work. I loved her simply because she was my best friend’s mother.
A trailblazer, someone who got her hands dirty, worked in the trenches. Her passion for projects that connected people made life better for those in her community, and in Kentucky was her legacy.
I am grateful she was my friend.
Ending on a Positive Note: Gayle Faulkner Lawson was one of a kind. Don’t see many like her anymore. I hope the people at the dedication realize her true value.