The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

My Dad - Walter Arnold Heafner

By Bob Heafner © 1991

Issue: June, 1991

Walter Arnold Heafner and Cora Lee Beatrice Allen Heafner. Mom and Dad shortly before their marriage.Walter Arnold Heafner and Cora Lee Beatrice Allen Heafner. Mom and Dad shortly before their marriage.It was 1953, I was six years old and we lived in Taylorsville, North Carolina, where Dad, Walter Arnold Heafner, was superintendent of a textile mill. Mom was standing on the porch holding the screen door open and Dad was standing on the top step. Like any curious six year old I was squeezed between them trying to catch, if not understand, the conversation. Dad was telling Mom that he had been asked to become the Preacher at Nebo Baptist Church in Hidenite, North Carolina. The salary wasn't much but there was a grocery store there that he could buy and that would help supplement the family income. From the looks on their faces, I knew the conversation was serious, but being six, it all just sounded exciting to me.

Being in charge of the mill and living directly across the street from it, Dad was often called at all hours to handle the problems that arose on all three shifts. His health had been getting steadily worse for the last several years and, after his last stay at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, his doctor had warned that the long hours and pressures associated with his job at the mill had to be reduced.

His faith had played a large part in his life and he was often a guest preacher at Baptist churches in southern North Carolina. A church program announcing his delivery of the Sunday sermon from the First Baptist Church of Cherryville, North Carolina dated Sunday, March 20, 1955, is still tucked among the pages of his bible. Outlines of his sermons, some typed and some hand written are still scattered between pages throughout the bible along with war ration books and other mementos such as a Father's Day card from my sister Jeanette postmarked June 15, 1953.

He was the son of John Franklin Heafner and Hattie Rhodes Heafner, born on July 21, 1905. His "schooling" ended with the fourth grade but his "education" continued until his death. An avid reader, he studied his bible and religious reference materials and read every newspaper, magazine, and book he could lay his hands on. He was opinionated and didn't hesitate defending his point of view in a friendly or heated debate.

Dad's family moved from the mountains of Western North Carolina to the cotton mill towns of Lincoln County when he was just a boy. He started working in the mills as a "sweeper" when he was 11 years old. By the time I was born he had risen to top management positions. He was capable of running the entire operation and could tear down and build virtually every machine in a cotton mill. His attempts at self education were so successful that he was offered a position with one company which included a seat on the board of directors, but he declined because he and mom didn't want to "move up North." On another occasion, in the late 1940's, he was asked to set up and run" a mill in Cuba. I've often wondered what would have happened if he had accepted that offer.

He married Bessie Scronce on August 2, 1922. He and Bessie had one daughter, Louise (Mrs. Odell Carpenter of Cherryville, North Carolina) on April 25, 1923. Bessie died in childbirth on August 10, 1924. She and their still born son are buried at Daniels Lutheran Church in Lincoln County. I once asked him about Bessie and a look appeared on his face that mirrored memories and loss to such an extent that I never inquired again.

He married Mom (Cora Lee Beatrice Allen) on August 25, 1925. They had four children, Annie Jeanette (Mrs. Robert Trabosh) born June 11, 1926; Betty Sue (Mrs. David L. Harrison-deceased) born April 28, 1931; Kenneth Allen, born June 25, 1939; and me, Robert Arnold, born September 4, 1947.

After much discussion Mom agreed he should accept the call to preach at Nebo Baptist Church in Hidenite and buy the store. I'll never forget the first time we entered the store. Dad unlocked the door and he, Mom, Ken, and I stepped in. It seemed huge but I'm sure six year old eyes were seeing larger than life. There were rows of shelves filled with groceries and a large glass display case filled with candy. I asked Dad if he would buy me a Hershey bar, and he said to go ahead and get it; at that moment I fell in love with the grocery store business.

On Sunday we all got dressed up in our finest for our first service at Nebo. Dad had labored all week over his sermon and he had honed his message to perfection. It was his first Sunday at his new church and he wanted to make a good impression. From the little country road we turned into the red clay church yard and only two cars were parked there. Dad said we must be early. The church bell was on a pole in the yard, but there was no rope to pull to ring it. I remember Dad laughing as one of the men shook the pole to ring the bell. That first Sunday the four members of our family nearly out numbered the congregation. Looking back, I'm sure that dad was disappointed, but he never let his disappointment show.

The following weeks and months Mom often looked after the store while Dad visited people in the community inviting them to come to church. Sometimes Mom, Ken and I would accompany him. We visited the Keever family often and I will never forget "Granny." She always insisted I call her "Granny" and never failed to give me some small present before I left. Her son, Bill raised peacocks and pheasants and no trip to the Keevers was ever complete without looking over the birds.

Dad worked hard and in less than a year had built an addition onto the church that more than doubled its size and the parking lot was filled every Sunday morning. However, rather than easing his work load he had thrown himself into the church with such dedication and drive that he had assumed more work then ever.

It was early 1954 when his health finally collapsed. After another extended stay in Baptist Hospital in Winston Salem, he was forced by disability to finally quit preaching and running the store. He tried several times to resume work but each try ended with severe health problems and hospitalization. Mom's health was also bad and she was not able to work either, although like Dad she often tried only to be stopped by hospitalization.

Dad was from a generation where the "man of the house" provided for his family and the realization that he could not was almost more than he could endure. After years of applying and appeals he was finally able to draw disability social security and that helped not only the family finances but his spirit as well. Until Ken and I were old enough to quit school and go to work, we literally survived off of our gardens. Each year Mom and Dad would "put up" hundreds of jars of beans, tomatoes, okra, corn, etc. and in spite of all the hardships our family faced, there was always a full table at every meal.

He was in his forties when I was born and for most of his remaining years his declining health was a major factor in his life.  However I remember his laugh and his resolve never to give up and I can only hope some of that spirit is in my children and me. In spite of poverty, I never knew him to not drop a little in the collection plate on Sunday, or fail to help anyone if he possibly could. If someone needed help and he didn't have the money to give, they would receive things from our garden, either fresh or canned depending on the season.

From a Hospital room in Fletcher, North Carolina, in the late 1950s when I was ten years old, he wrote me the following letter:

"Hello there:

How is my boy tonight? It sure is hot here. Well it looks like I won't be home soon, but I will be someday so you be a good boy and look after mother for me. Will you?

Bob don't you let her go look for a job. Tell her you are the man there and she is not going. Now son, you stay home where you can watch about her. Will you do this for dad?

I would give anything tonight to see you and Ken. Now you be Daddy's big boy, look after Mom and don't you worry about Dad son, I am going to be OK.

Well be good. Boy remember now, I know you will take care of Mom for me.

To daddy's boy, the Greatest.

Love, Dad"

I was working as an upholster in High Point, North Carolina when on the morning of November 7, 1966, my supervisor came to me and told me I was needed at home, my Dad was sick. I raced up Interstate 85 to Greensboro and our little house on Cedar Fork Drive. My brother Ken met me in the yard and with tears in his eyes said, "Bob he's gone."

He was 61 years old when he finally lost the fight with bad health that had started in 1953. He is buried alongside other members of our family at Pisgah Methodist Church in Lincolnton, North Carolina. Mom joined him there in 1984.

His walking cane accompanies me on walks in the woods now and his worn out old Stetson hat sits in my bedroom among the other cherished possessions I have that were his and Mom's. However, it is not the material things that I cling to the most but the memories of an old man with more worries than anyone should ever have to bear, but whose faith, humor, and sheer grit gave him the courage and strength to never give up.

He was an accomplished soloist who "read shaped notes" and as I sit writing about him this morning with a mist in my eyes, I can still hear him singing "Farther Along" or "In the Garden." To paraphrase his letter to me of so long ago, I would give anything to see him tonight. Father's Day 1991, will find me giving thanks for and recalling the memories of him that I will always cherish and for the fact that he was my Dad.

"Fathers Day is a special time for expressing our love to our fathers. If your father is alive don't miss the opportunity. If he is not alive devote the day to precious memories."