I never knew Kitty Wells personally. What I know of her I learned mostly through her granddaughter Kathie Bennett, and through visiting with a handful of others folks who could recall her.
While there is very little evidence of it in the photo of the lovely, and seemingly demure Miss Kitty hanging in the Calhoun County Library in Blountstown, Kitty Wells was reportedly a headstrong and spirited woman. The kind of gal whose wit and will could put the fear of God in a man or a mule – an extremely useful trait to have when you are trying to educate the uneducated masses.
As the town’s first librarian, Miss Kitty routinely enlisted the brawn of her husband. “R.B.bring me that box of books up here, would you?” Miss Kitty would stop mid-step and call out over her shoulder. That up here Miss Kitty referred to was the second-floor of the Piggly Wiggly, home to the public library at the time.
I don’t suppose you could get any more of a public space than the local grocery store but today Blountstown has a state-of-the-art library facility, replete with hundreds of books and dozens of computer stations designed specifically for adults and for children. There’s even a sunny courtyard for lounging and reading. Classes are available to those seeking to pursue a high school diploma, critical in a community where the illiteracy rate is nearly 20 percent of the population.
I visited Blountstown on March 1 of this year where I spoke before a crowd who’d gathered to honor Miss Kitty Wells for her devotion to literacy. That day was officially recognized as Miss Kitty Wells Family Literacy Day. Recalling the woman who helped train her, the current librarian Rita Maupin said of her former boss: “It was not easy to tell Miss Kitty “no”. Miss Kitty believed in education. She was sure that if every child in Blountstown had a book to read that they would succeed in life and her library would too.”
In that crowd that afternoon was Barbara Wells Clemons, Kitty’s daughter. Without question, Barbara Clemons was the fulfillment of her mother’s vision. I’ve known Barbara for only the briefest of time but adored her from the first moment she toured me through her home, taking care to point out the pieces she’d brought back from Southeast Asia.
Barbara had already read the book I wrote about my father’s death in Vietnam and it had connected us in that way books often do but DNA rarely does. The midday sun added a golden sheen to a perfectly delightful day as Barbara and I sat in her home talking about all the adventures – physically, emotionally and spiritually – that books afford us.
I suppose it comes as no surprise to anyone who knew Kitty Wells that her daughter Barbara loved books so much that just like her mama she committed a goodly portion of her life to promoting literacy.
Long before Pastor Rick Warren wrote the bestseller about living a life with purpose, Barbara Clemons was busy doing just that. She married Gerry Clemons, that handsome Marine she met over in Pensacola. They had five children and a dozen grandchildren in the course of their 58-year marriage. She also managed a 30-year career as a pharmacist during a time and in a place when women druggists were about as rare as female clerics.
It seems Barbara may have inherited some of her mama’s headstrong ways. The gracious people of Panama City and those of us from afar who had the honor of knowing Barbara, if only briefly, are far the richer for it.
Barbara passed away Saturday at her home, surrounded by her family and her books.
Getting over the death of someone as beloved as Barbara takes a lifetime. She did more than her civic duty. Barbara Wells Clemons lived a powerfully good story — the kind that lingers long after the final chapter has come to a close.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide? Zondervan 2010.