I’ve shared a few memories about my Great Aunt Edith already—including one about her volunteer work as a living history interpreter at Rocky Mount State Historic Site and also how she attended camp-meeting services at Sulphur Springs for more than 80 years. She was such an interesting woman, and I wanted to share more about her life.
Edith Elizabeth Keys, my Grandmother Hale’s sister, was born July 17, 1919, at the family home in the Limestone area of Washington County, Tennessee. She graduated from Sulphur Springs High School, where she was class valedictorian, and went on to study English and home economics at East Tennessee State College (now East Tennessee State University), where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1940. In 1957, she earned a master’s degree in library science from George Peabody College. The following year, she joined the staff of ETSC’s library, where she was responsible for the library education program as well as training the library’s employees and student workers. In 1967, she was promoted to associate professor and eventually retired from the university in 1984.
Aunt Edith was a genius at research. Countless authors, scholars and students benefited from her tenure as a librarian at ETSU. When I was a student at the university, even though it was years after she had retired, she was still well-known on campus among some faculty and staff, and I was always proud to say that she was my aunt. She loved ETSU, the historic Tree Streets community where she lived, and Johnson City. She especially loved her church, Johnson City’s First United Methodist, where she was a devoted member for many years and was very active at the local, district and conference levels.
I recently came across an article by Aunt Edith that ran in the Jonesborough (Tennessee) Herald & Tribune in 1999. It is titled “Growing up on a farm” and was originally written for a class at ETSU’s Institute for Continued Learning. Aunt Edith wrote about being a daddy’s girl and the special bond she shared with her father, Orgel Ralph Keys. She also shared memories of farm life and of working tobacco.
“I must have done it right,” she wrote about working tobacco, “for I won the Women’s Grading Contest at a Burley Tobacco Festival, which was an annual event at one time in Johnson City. (This was during the 1940s.) My prize was $50 in merchandise. I’m still using a cedar chest that was one of the items I got. I don’t remember the other things.
“At the time I entered the contest, I was a little hesitant since I was now a teacher-librarian in a Johnson City elementary school. I had not been involved in farm work much after I left to go to college, except helping out a little during my summer vacations when needed. The school superintendent was at the festival and said he really could not believe one of his teachers would be entering that event—and was really shocked when I won. You see, I was representing the Washington County Young Farmers and Homemakers and the other ladies were all older. They were members of Home Demonstration clubs, Farm Bureau groups, etc. But the superintendent said he was seated close to the judges and heard one say, ‘That young woman looks like she knows what she’s doing.’ I had noticed the judges checked all my work very carefully.”
She also wrote about the family’s Model T, which her father allowed her to drive. “I was already working before we were required to have a license in Tennessee, but I got mine with no difficulty,” Aunt Edith wrote. “But getting a car was my problem. In 1941 my $72 per month salary didn’t go very far. Then, during the war, very few cars were available, and of course the gas was limited. I decided not to buy a car until I could pay for it. I still have the sales slip, dated December 20, 1950, for $1,795.00. I drove it more than 12 years before I traded. …
“When I bought my little blue Studebaker, my father had already become partially paralyzed and couldn’t drive, so now I could take him and my mother places they needed to go. Most of this had to be on weekends, holidays and vacation periods. But I was so glad I could do this.”
Aunt Edith never married, though I remember hearing that she had been engaged at one time. She was an extremely busy professional woman and stayed very active in numerous clubs and organizations—too many to list—during her career and after her retirement until her health declined. She was a big believer in volunteerism and was honored for more than 6,000 hours of volunteer service at the Johnson City Seniors’ Center. She also supported local theater, and I remember attending productions with her, which was a treat.
Another interest and hobby of Aunt Edith’s was ceramics; some of her ceramic creations still decorate the homes of her extended family, especially during the holidays. My sister Robin remembered Aunt Edith’s love of ceramics how Aunt Edith would sign each piece she created with “EKE” on the bottom.
“I admired her vast collection of ceramic figurines that she had personally created,” Robin said. “I remember a couple of times she allowed us to visit her ceramics shop and choose one treasured figurine from it to keep. I still have a horse that I chose. Although I eventually dropped it one day, it was super-glued back together and I have it to this day. …
“I asked Aunt Edith one time why she put her initials on her ceramics as ‘EKE’ instead of putting her initials in order. She replied to me matter-of-factly, ‘Well, because that would spell “EEK!”‘”
A world traveler, Aunt Edith sent my siblings and me postcards from her many trips. And I don’t mean one postcard addressed to all of us, either. Aunt Edith took the time to mail us—my two sisters, my brother and me—our own individual postcards, personally addressed to each of us. She understood how special that was, and I haven’t forgotten it to this day. We could also count on a card arriving just in time to wish us a happy birthday each year. Aunt Edith was always so thoughtful—not only with cards, but also with gifts. She loved to knit and over the years gave her loved ones many pot holders/dish towels that she created. Another favorite Aunt Edith gift were the personalized pencils she would get us as children. How cool it was to have pencils with our names on them!
I can think of so many ways that Aunt Edith’s life has influenced mine—another one being her annual Christmas letter. Aunt Edith shared with me how she had saved copies of her annual holiday greeting over the years and how neat it was to go back and read the yearly summaries and remember life events in this way. I thought that was pretty cool—so I started doing the same. My husband writes our letters now, but I have more than 20 years’ worth of memories documented—even if very briefly—thanks to inspiration from Aunt Edith.
Aunt Edith passed away in 2012 at the age of 92. I’d like to close with an excerpt from her 1995 Christmas letter. Though she wrote it many years ago, I found it rather fitting for today and for the holiday season upon us.
“As the years go by so quickly our memories of the past become more and more precious,” Aunt Edith wrote. “We want to keep in touch with our friends, but sometimes we become so involved with meetings, volunteering, etc., that we run out of time for some of the important things. I did this little poem which expresses how we feel as the Christmas season nears.”
We decorate the house and trim the tree.
Then hang our door wreath for others to see.
But then before Christmas day arrives,
We send wishes to those who’ve touched our lives.
Aunt Edith touched the lives of so many people—including me. And I am a better person for it.