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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009 07:49 pm

Two strong women I knew

The people, the animals and the stories that shape our lives

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Elmer Vaniman, in necktie, with his 22-year-old daughter, Georgina, at his arm, admiring his Illinois State Fair grand champion mule, 1939.
Photo courtesy Blair family

Georgina Blair died last week at 92. When I visited in her home on the family farm in Virden a few years ago, she showed me this picture of her and her father with one of his prize mules, the Grand Champion at the 1939 Illinois State Fair. Over the years Georgina and I had served on church boards together, we’d traveled the state to meetings, and, both in the car and during business, I’d gotten to know her as strong and stubborn like her father’s champions. A person of faith, she was wise in the way she practiced it, skeptical of pat answers, standing for her convictions and saying no to foolishness. A few stories around her kitchen table explained where some of this came from.

Georgina Blair

Her grandfather, George Vaniman, had arrived with his wife, Louisa, in the Virden area in 1866. He helped to build a church nearby, which grew and thrived, but George never actually joined it because he didn’t see the point of their arguments over what form baptism should take, or whether banking was sinful, or whether children should be kept from attending college. Though he wasn’t a member, if a family of the church fell on hard times he would give them a calf or a colt. He lent a team of horses to a destitute Civil War veteran newly arrived from Tennessee. When he read his Bible he didn’t find in it the questions the church was debating. He found Jesus asking: Did you visit the sick? Feed the hungry? Clothe the naked?

Her parents had planned to name their first child after George Vaniman. When the child turned out to be a girl, it took them a few days to come up with a substitute name – Georgina. She grew up shaped by stories of her grandfather, and his view of the church that was always saying a member’s word was as good as his bond. George had made a deal to buy some hogs, which would be weighed and paid for the next day. He told his son to go before breakfast to watch the man he bought them from, a good church member. Sure enough, when the boy arrived, the farmer was hurrying through his lot with large buckets of water to fill up the sold hogs before weighing. “You see, everyone has his temptations, son,” George told his boy, who would become Georgina’s father. “First we must look out for our own, and sometimes we must sort of look out for the other fellow’s too.”

I’m pleased to have known Georgina Blair, and how she got to be a little bit contrary.

Amy Brown

Amy Brown is the young woman I wrote about in March, 2007, just after she had told her success story at the fundraiser for PORA (Positive Options, Referrals and Alternatives). Pretty and vivacious, in person she didn’t match the tale she told of her sordid life of drugs and prostitution. “I thought she had star quality,” I wrote, and others thought so too. Her caseworkers found her irresistible, discarding their professional distance to become friends with her. She had wanted to quit drugs and prostitution for years, but knew she needed long-term help. She found PORA, which shelters its clients and helps them for six months to a year. “I just knew this was where I needed to be,” she told me. “It has the time. You can’t change overnight.”

While a student at Lincoln Land Community College, she wrote an essay called “Falling in love,” about her rescue of a kitten. It bit her five times. “However, this beautiful, undersized kitty was not getting away from my loving embrace. Yes, he was ferocious, but he was petrified; I was love-bitten. Everything about this midget was magnificent.” She took the kitten to the Animal Protective League to be put up for adoption, and left there “confident the orange fur ball was safe, protected, and would soon be part of a family.”

When we see people glowing with recovery, we forget how fragile they are, how much they teeter on the edge between darkness and light. At the time I talked to her two years ago, Amy was clear about her goals. “I want to get my son, to be self-sufficient, to be healthy and happy.” She knew the road would be hard. “I still have a long way to go. I’m not sure how much it will take. I’m going to do whatever it takes.” After she left the shelter, she tried to be reunited with her son, now 13. But somehow that didn’t work out, and word came that Amy Brown, 31, died on Christmas Day, of a drug overdose. At a Jan. 17 memorial service at Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Amy’s many friends in Springfield told her son what a gift she had been to their lives.

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