Traditional wedding vows include pledges of love and support for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. The optimism of young love keeps us from dwelling on unthinkable challenges, but sometimes youthful dreams clash with harsh realities.
I went to Carrollton in April to visit two friends I met in 1970, my first quarter at Valdosta State College. Ronnie Williams had graduated in the spring and was teaching in Albany. He made frequent trips to Valdosta that fall, however, to see his fiancee, Claire Culpepper. They both grew up in Crisp County, which adjoins Dooly, so we had instant conversation material.
Ronnie was a charter member and former president of Delta Chi fraternity, an organization I soon joined. His mischievous cheerfulness was contagious. He could light up a room with good-natured joviality. I was especially impressed that his sweetheart was the chapter’s sweetheart too.
Claire, a senior, was gorgeous with a warm gracefulness that endeared her to all of us young pledges. We were further enamored when she offered to help us find dates.
Ronnie retired as Superintendent of Carrollton City Schools in 2001. Claire had stopped teaching in 1997 to care for her mother, who moved to Carrollton after her husband’s death. An unfinished basement was converted to a small apartment for Mrs. Culpepper.
Next to occupy that space was their son, who stayed until a grease fire got out of hand. In the renovation that followed, several walls were removed and the kitchen, eating area, and small den became one room. The back door had always been at ground level, something that would become increasingly important.
Fires are not usually considered a blessing, but perhaps this one was. An aggressive form of Parkinson’s Disease has taken a heavy toll on Claire. In September of 2022 she and Ronnie moved from their spacious upstairs to the compact lower quarters.
From late afternoon to midmorning Ronnie takes care of his wife. Helpers come during the day. That’s when he buys groceries, runs errands, and takes three-mile walks.
At lunchtime he gently lifted Claire from her recliner and placed her into a wheelchair. He rolled her to the table, cut her food into bite-sized pieces, and patiently fed her, saying he’d eat later. When a panic attack came without warning, he consoled her with soft words and warm touches. “Sometimes they only last a few minutes,” he said. “At other times it goes on for a couple of hours.”
Dealing with Claire’s illness has taken them on a journey Ronnie sees as parallel to the five stages of grief. The late psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross suggested that after the loss of a loved one we transition through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. I don’t know many details of Ronnie and Claire’s situation, but it’s easy to envision that progression.
Acceptance, however, comes in many flavors. It can be tinged with resentment or pity, repeatedly asking, “Why me Lord?” Or it can be seasoned with gratitude as Ronnie and Claire have done, thankful for wonderful years together and an abiding faith in God.
My brief time with them only offered a glimpse of their challenges. It seems inadequate to say I love you and I’ll pray for you, and it probably is. Ronnie mentioned a friend who joins him for morning walks, coffee, and short drives. A change of pace helps.
Putting feet to our prayers is perhaps where the focus of friends should be for Ronnie and Claire and many others. He took several pictures during our visit, saying Claire would enjoy them multiple times while reminiscing. It struck me that too often I neglect to make small efforts, waiting instead for perfect opportunities which rarely materialize.
Wedding vows usually come with stellar expectations, which is no doubt a blessing. But when a storybook tale veers onto a rocky path, our fortitude can be severely tested.
In the fall of 1970 I was smitten with Claire’s loveliness. Now I realize she has a beautiful husband too. Ronnie probably won’t get any modeling offers, but the tender care with which he meets his wife’s every need gives perfect evidence of a beautiful heart.
My wishes won’t improve Claire’s health nor lighten Ronnie’s load, but if admiration could bring healing, all would be well. Ronnie made a promise to his sweetheart 52 years ago and he’s lovingly kept it, both in sickness and in health.
Beautiful tribute, beautiful lives.
The story of Ronnie and Claire stands as a fitting example during these days when the opposite takes the headlines.
Neil, l so enjoyed this story. It reminded me of my parents that were married for fifty seven years before my Dads death. It truly warmed my heart and leads me on even more for each and every day that l spend with my husband. We should always honor our vows for better or worse for that was Gods intention when he created us as man and woman.
Have a blessed day in Christ .
Such a beautiful and inspirational love story told in such a kind, loving way. Thank you for sharing such a touching tribute.
Beautiful tribute to your friend!!!!!!!!!