In the South Alabama town of Bay Minette, just outside Mobile, lived a great man and an American hero.
I did not know him. That saddens me.
Yet I had the privilege of walking in with the family and sitting on the third bench of the First Baptist Church as a mass of town’s people turned out on a Tuesday afternoon to say good-bye to a man who served his God, his country, his family and his community.
The two days I spent with the Sims family reminded me strongly of what a life well lived means to countless people.
Truly, I was not worthy of the opportunity to sit so close to the flag-covered coffin but the family had shown grace and invited me to join them, to travel in the processional along the tree-lined streets to the cemetery escorted by several police cars while other patrol cars stopped traffic and law enforcement officers saluted as the hearse passed by.
At the church, two preachers extoled the goodness of his steadfast Christian witness; an Army Colonel reminded us that military service of men like Berlin Sims keeps America strong and free; the congregation stood to sing “Victory in Jesus” then, perhaps most affecting of all, his son, Mitchell, and grandchildren stepped quietly on stage and performed, with strings and piano, a haunting melody.
The song was mournful and to my Appalachian ear, it sounded like the sad fiddles and ballads of my mountain people. In the musical notes, I could hear the pain of a hard survival yet a gentle crossing over the River Jordan. I learned later that the song “Ashokan Farewell” was composed as a lament by Jay Ungar — and indeed inspired by Appalachian music. It is the theme music to Ken Burns’ documentary: “The Civil War.”
Later, at the cemetery, a light rain fell. One of the preachers offered me shelter under an enormous black umbrella. From there, I watched as a man in his 90s, hobbled toward the casket then stood to the side. He wore a billed-hat embroidered, “World War II Veteran.” A 21-gun salute fired and Taps played.
Still, through all of this and though emotionally moved, I did not cry until…
And, this is where I always cry: a neatly folded flag was presented to his widow, Linda, and a soldier, looking her directly in the eyes, said, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation.”
Beneath the black umbrella, my lips quivered and tears pooled. The widow and family wept gently, too.
This is how I came to be in the presence of such greatness and had the honor to mourn a World War II veteran who spent 95 years giving to others: his son, Terry, is a cherished friend of ours. Though Mr. Sims had never heard my name or knew that I existed, it was important that I make the seven-hour drive to join in the remembrance of an astounding man.
Terry has been a much beloved member of the extended Tinker family for well over 30 years. Like his father, Terry has a servant’s heart and sheds his kindness on all whom he encounters. For decades, Terry has lived in New York City but he never left behind his lilting Alabama drawl or his respectful Southern manners. It bonded us the moment I met him.
Tink was on a script deadline when news came that Mr. Sims had been called to his heavenly home so I kissed him good-bye and headed south to be there for Terry. That’s what Southerners do.
Terry hugged me tightly, whispering, “You have no idea how much this means.”
It meant more to me. I now pray daily to be like Mr. Sims and to leave behind me, a life well served.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]