Several years ago, my niece, Nicole, called to ask a favor. This is something she rarely does.

Nicole is a talented and smart physical therapist. She is so smart, in fact, that she earned a seven-year degree in six. In science. The only ancestors in my family who knew anything about science used that knowledge to make moonshine. And, to be honest, they didn’t realize science had anything to do with fermenting.

Nicole, also a terrifically compassionate person, has a particularly tender heart for older patients. She loves their stories, appreciates their wisdom and treats them with the respectful healthcare they have earned.

“I have a patient at the nursing home who is there for rehabilitation for a few weeks. She is so sweet. Her name is Mrs. Wanda Parks and she is one of your biggest fans. Would you stop by and meet her one day?”

Here’s how it happened: With my hair pulled back in a ponytail, no makeup other than lipstick and mascara, and dressed in jeans and a sweater, I popped by the nursing home.

Several of the women were in the recreation room, putting a puzzle together. Nicole walked over, put her arm around one of the women and said, “Mrs. Parks, I have someone I want you to meet.”

When this handsome, stately woman with thick gray hair turned her head and saw me, surprise and delight fluttered over her face.

“Oh, my!! It’s Ronda!”

That’s how I came to know one of my favorite people in the world. We chatted for a while, took a picture together (this is where I learned that I should always wear make-up), and I personalized a couple of books for her.

During the conversation, Nicole asked, “Do you know where Mrs. Parks lives?” She told me which road in which county and described the picket fence and gardens of brightly colored flowers. I knew immediately the house.

“Are you excited about going home next week?” I asked.

A cloud skittered across her face. “Not really. I’m really enjoying the company here. It’s lonely at home.”

Mrs. Parks is a widow with many stories to tell. An Appalachian girl, she married her sweetheart and, no sooner were the vows said, than the couple took off to Brunswick, Georgia, so Mr. Parks could work in the shipyard, building the renowned Liberty ships for the World War II effort. This shipyard on the Georgia coast illustrated the integrity and spirit of that war’s people.

When word arrived in December, 1944, that six ships were needed by month’s end, the employees stepped up to promise SEVEN ships and even worked Christmas Day, refusing to take extra money.

With the war ended, the Parkses did not return immediately to the Appalachian foothills. Mr. Parks took a job with General Motors in Atlanta and proudly worked there until he retired. The couple bought a 3.25-acre lot near a country road in Norcross that would one day become the overly-congested Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

In the 1970s, they sold three quarters of an acre — for several times the original purchase price of the full acreage — to Waffle House. This store has the privilege of being the restaurant closest to Waffle House Corporate Headquarters and last year the company had to make a decision: completely remodel the store or demolish it.

Perhaps more for sentimental reasons, they chose to remodel it.

“That store is special to us because it’s just around the corner from our offices,” explained Walt Ehmer, the company’s President and close friend of ours. “We wanted to keep it.”

Nicole’s “favor” became a treasured gift to me.

A Chinese proverb says: When an old man dies, a library burns down.

Through my visits with Mrs. Parks and the history she shares, I have found new truth in those words.

Next week, I want to tell you more about my friend, Mrs. Parks.

This is the first of a two-part series about an exceptional Southern woman. Ronda Rich is a best-selling author.

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