[Look down at notes. Take two deep breaths. Look up toward heaven.]
Mother, I just know you. You’re brand new up there, but you didn’t waste a minute. You’ve already gone shopping. I can just see it now. You’ve already grabbed off the racks the finest garments heaven had to offer. You’re frocked in virgin silk. Adorned with gold. Bedecked and sequined with diamonds and pearls. You did have a thing for clothes. Too bad that the choir can’t look out into the sanctuary right now and see you, as they often said they’d do. They’d scan the crammed rows and spot you, craning to see what colorful stock of silk, linen or wool you culled from your closet the night before, every accessory in place, complete with a big brooch and matching silk scarf. You used to say: you didn’t drink, you didn’t smoke and you…didn’t cuss much…but you LOVED to buy pretty clothes.
[Deep breath. Look out into the sanctuary.]
I knew you all would be here today. Her retirement buddies, her Sunday School class members, her childhood Brushy Creek friends, her clients, her neighbors. I knew you’d, as the Baptists are fond of saying, “pack the pews.” You’re here with me, her youngest daughter, Leisa Hammett; her oldest daughter, Phyllis Hammett Altenbern and Phyllis’ husband Jim Altenbern; her middle daughter, Janis Hammett; her husband, Gene, and her granddaughter, Grace Walker Goad and the rest of her family here, to honor the exceptional woman and the exceptional life of Dorothy Ruth Walker Hammett. Dot was a Walker. Walkers are Scotch-Irish. (And, if I’ve got that detail wrong, I’m sure Uncle Ray will correct me.) Hammetts were German and English. (If I’ve got that wrong, I’m sure that if he were here, Uncle Harold would correct me.) One side is modest. The other side is not. Mother came from the side that is not. And, so I throw open the hatches and I’m going to let ‘er rip, because that’s just the way Mother would have loved it.
National news anchor Tom Brokaw wrote a book about my mother and daddy’s people. It’s called The Greatest Generation. And that is because it was and it is. The generation that built our great country. The generation that endured World War II. The Great Depression. This was the boot straps generation. And my mother took that organic moxie, stamina, and courage and employed it in every aspect of her life.
She was the youngest daughter and the next to youngest of eight siblings. Her mother died when Dot was eight years old. Her father was left to mind the farm and raise the rest of the brood. When it came time to learn how to drive, mother got in the model Ford and backed it out of their dirt swept yard on Walker Springs Road and taught herself how to drive. When she wanted new clothes, she went to the fancy downtown stores and studied what she saw in the windows and then went home and cut her own pattern out of newspaper and then made them. She made the satin gown she wore when she married my father. She worked in a Five and Dime and learned via a difficult boss one of her life’s most valuable lesson that she taught me: “You catch more flies with honey than you do vinegar.”
Growing up she peppered me and my two siblings with life lessons: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” “If you don’t toot your own horn, nobody else will.” And when we were younger, she’d encourage us: “Be like ‘the little engine that could.’ Can’t is NOT in your vocabulary,” she’d tell us with such great earnest. She mean it. Remember, she’d add: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”
These weren’t just lessons she taught us. These were lessons that Dot Hammett lived by. She could not afford to go to college, so she took a job at a textile mill, standing on her feet all day and pulling long stray threads from the fabric as it conveyed by. She did this sweat equity for two years until she earned enough to go to Bob Jones University, then in Cleveland, Tennessee. She was a contemporary there of Ruth Graham. She rode a bus up and down windy mountain roads to get there and back each semester. She did this for two years until she earned an associate’s degree in accounting.
Her Taylors High School peers thought her a little nutty, you see. And that’s because she had left behind a handsome, then thick, curly haired young man named Gene Hammett. He was a couple of years younger than her. She’d known him all her life. She’d be sent home with his sister after church on Sunday evenings so that his future missionary sister, Frances Hammett, wouldn’t have to make the long walk to her wood shrouded Hammett Bridge Road home all alone in the cold dark nights. One morning Mother awakened to the sight of a pillow raised in the air aiming to slam down on her face until the owner of the hand, my father, realized it was her and not his sister. Quickly, he dropped the pillow and ran from the room!
Those Sunday night walks home from Brushy Creek was in an era, so they say, of walking to school in the snow. It was also the era of “readin’, writin’ and arhymitic.” Mother never had the educational chance to develop her talent for writing nor her visual-spatial skills for art. She didn’t have the opportunity for course work that would have led her to law or to architecture, both of which she was capable. She did have opportunity, however, to date my father in high school. High school sweethearts they were. According to her, he was also in disbelief that she’d leave him to go away to college. And then, he had the audacity to date her best friend while she was away. (Something about that former friend mother never forgot.) And Mother, too, met someone and became engaged. But good thing. It didn’t last. Because mother did come back home to Daddy. And they did get married. They wed the year the war ended. 1945. And just this past Thanksgiving day, they celebrated their 63rd year as husband and wife. She was considered back in that time, at age 24, "an old maid." But she had the last laugh. She’d gone to college and gotten married. Had her cake and eaten it too.
With her new degree mother went to work for a series of companies, each time anxiously and eagerly learning something new. Putting her new accounting degree to work, she kept the books. She worked for Taylors Lumber Company and learned to figure lumber. At Greenville Steel, she learned more about building materials. She worked for Haynesworth Law Firm and learned to figure deeds and how to close loans. And she traveled with my father. Together they lived in Mexico while he worked on assignment. He flew cross-lantic to work in England and France. And undeterred by the danger, she ventured behind him on a turbulent ride across the ocean in an oil freighter. Just her, the captain, a crew, and two other women and a ship packed with oil tanks. A picture of that tanker took center stage above our mantle for years. And, so lasted the joke of my father’s about mother’s pathetic use of French: “Passe-le-salte, sous vous plais.”
With ever an independent mind and spirit that defied the female stereotype of the times, with all this travel with my father and work that was building the foundation of a remarkable career, she again quieted the rumors that had circulated that Dot and Gene were unable to conceive. She had my oldest sister when she was 27. Janis followed three years later. And then with some starts and stops in between I came 10 and seven later, in 1960, when mother was rounding 38 or so.
While raising us three daughters and serving as PTA president, she began keeping books for builder Alvin McCall. By the late 1960s, she began building ranch homes. She helped develop as well as name the subdivisions of Pilgrim’s Point, Pelham Estates and Merrifield Park. She also named the streets within them, borrowing names she spotted when the family went to Expo ’67 in Montreal. Later, with her oldest daughters about to exit college, she went to work for Tom Threatt, another builder. And then within his company launched Greenville Development Company. She was building 3,500 square foot Williamsburg and other classic style homes and with my father’s encouragement, launched her own firm, Dot Hammett Builder. She was reportedly the first woman residential builder in the state of South Carolina.
I realized I had taken my mother’s accomplishments and the support of my father, for mother’s career, for granted until she was a guest speaker in 1980 when I was at Carson-Newman College. It’s somewhat funny and simultaneously horrifying for me to realize that just a couple decades-plus ago we were discussing things like the emergence of women in the workplace. I had participated in a school debate on whether women were fit to fun for public office and a few months later mother served there as a guest panelist about women in business. After the discussion, a number of co-eds came to me and said they’d not had such a role model in their mothers. One married woman said her husband would never have supported her in such an endeavor. And that’s when I realized I really did have an especially unique mother. But, if you know my mother, to be unique and exceptional was just her path. And she pioneered it. For herself and for other women. We daughters were taught to be strong. And to believe that we could be and do anything. And why not? We had her as our role model. In addition to modeling that role for other women as well, she inspired the respect of many men about her.
She was managing up to 25 contractors per job, building six to eight houses annually by the time she took semi-retirement in the early 1980s. She began to travel with my father more and she reduced the number of houses she built to about two a year. Throughout her career, she also built houses of her own, from the time I was born on Hammett Road, to the house next door to it, to the home she and Daddy settled in Fairview for retirement. She also did a number of consulting projects for Taylors First Baptist, serving on the building committee, and also projects for individuals and for North Greenville University. She was an active member of Taylors, on countless committees and involved in her Sunday School class. She enjoyed world travel throughout her life before her health began declining about ten years ago.
I grew up in a home populated with visitors. If there was a revival or a guest speaker at church, a family holiday get-together, a Taylors High School reunion, our home was always the host. Mother loved to entertain. You’d of thought there was some Italian blood mixed in with the Scotch-Irish, because she was ever the ready to dish up more Chicken Curry, the family recipe. On Sunday nights after church, there was always a freshly baked cake, a pot of steaming coffee and a crowded kitchen. Some of the visiting friends were old ones from Taylors or Brushy Creek communities. Some were new friends or acquaintances, soon-to-become friends. Some were young. New to the church. And, if you were a new neighbor, you got a pecan pie, a visit from mother and daddy and an invitation to our church. For years she taught Sunday school and other years, she led Bible studies. There she nurtured faith and friendships that endured and are alive with gratitude in many of the hearts of you today.
Around the mid-80s, Steven Covey wrote a popular book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The book starts off with an exercise in which you write what you want to appear on your tombstone. I never finished the exercise but to come up with one word. “Generous.” And I knew when I came up with that word, it was because the mother who gave me life. Generous was the spirit of my mother, Dorothy Ruth Walker Hammett. She was generous with her money. Generous with food. Generous with kindness to church members in need. Generous with opinions. Generous with color and taste. Generous with love to those in her family, church and circle of friends. Another word for generous is gracious. And she was that, too. And it is with grace, the name of her only granddaughter, and graciousness that she left this life. A legacy. A legacy that I hold in my heart. A legacy that many of you, I am sure, also hold in yours.
Delivered by me on Tuesday morning, December 9, 2008. Taylors First Baptist Church, Taylors, SC
Delivered by me on Tuesday morning, December 9, 2008. Taylors First Baptist Church, Taylors, SC