In the fall of 2013, I was walking across the campus where I’d worked for a little more than a year when an inscription on a concrete bench caught my eye. It said simply that a man and woman named Tiny & Lula had met on this spot in 1915 and married in 1917. Curious, I looked them up and found that their youngest son, Jim, was still alive. I called him up.
A month later, I sat on a bench by a fountain with Jim and his wife Theresa, both now in their 80s. Jim was slowed by Parkinson’s, so Theresa held his arm to be sure he made it safely over the uneven bricks. We looked at old photos and talked for an hour, and then I wrote a column about the love stories they told. There was more than one.
I spoke with Theresa again by phone this morning. Jim died a few months ago, so she’s been going through his things and came across some memorabilia she thinks the university might want. And then she told me that the column meant the world to Jim when it came in the magazine. And then she told me something that I don’t deserve to hear but will never forget.
As Jim’s health continued to fail, she told me, he often pulled out the column to read it. When his eyesight went, she started reading it to him. Over and over, she said. She couldn’t say how many times.
Ask me sometime about my best days as a writer, and this will be one.
Here’s the column, from the Winter 2014 issue of University of Richmond Magazine:
Where Tiny met Lula
One day in 1915, four-sport athlete “Tiny” Wicker was cutting class when he canoed right up to Lula Puckett, a Westhampton student sitting on the bridge that stood where Tyler Haynes Commons is today.
Family lore offers variations of what followed. Tiny may have tapped the bridge with his paddle. He certainly called Lula either “cutie” or “sweetie.” Equally certain, Lula turned down the corners of her mouth and let him know that such a fresh young man would never get anywhere with her.
They told that story to their children and grandchildren for decades.
I learned its vague outlines before I ever met any of them. They are inscribed on a cement bench near where the bridge once stood: “J. Caldwell ‘Tiny’ Wicker RC’17 and Lula Jones Puckett WC’17 met nearby in 1915 and were married in 1917.”
I’ve been noticing benches on my walks all over campus. They preserve with elegant brevity the names of alumni and celebrate entire graduating classes. It’s hard to find a bench that doesn’t mark someone in whose footsteps we walk, not just metaphorically but physically. A campus with a tradition and community like ours is like that.
A few weeks after I first noticed Lula and Tiny’s bench, I called up their youngest son, Jim. Now in his 80s and slowed by Parkinson’s, he brought his bride, Theresa, to campus to share family photos and stories with me at the fountain in front of Puryear Hall. I learned that all the grandkids had come to call Tiny “Gaggy” when one couldn’t say “Grandaddy.” I heard about the old-time car Tiny and Lula rode around in to celebrate their 50th anniversary with family and friends.
I heard that Lula kept turning down the trademark corners of her mouth all her life. Jim, his sister, and his brother all followed Tiny and Lula to UR. So far, at least one of the next generation has, too.
The story behind their bench begins with Theresa’s open-heart surgery 20 or so years ago. As she recovered, the couple started gingerly walking around Westhampton Lake. On one of those walks, a memorial bench with a friend’s name caught Jim’s eye and made him recall a pledge his father had made many years before. Jim helped him keep it.
“One day,” Tiny had said, “I’m going to put on the bridge a bronze plaque with the words: ‘I met her here.’” •