Still Burning

 

The fire was lit in her hometown of Cordova, brought up by Johnny and Effie Thomas to place her faith in a faithful God. Vicki was raised to be a lady and she was raised to take care of herself. Raised to be Mrs. Queen of Hearts, a crack-shot deer hunter, and a marvel on the tennis court. “She was tough as hell,” says lifelong friend, Buddy Thorne.

At twenty-one years old, the Cordova girl transplanted her roots into Jasper soil and started teaching math and science at Jasper Junior High. The children oohed and ahhed over the bright, pretty new teacher, who looked like a brunette Farrah Fawcett.

Vicki couldn’t have known then, as she looked into the eager faces of those first students, how deep an impression she would make in the Jasper community—that she would come to be known as one of the teaching pillars of Walker County. She never would have guessed that she would stick with Walker High for fifty years; that by 2016, practically every one age 58 or younger would have been taught by her; that she would end up teaching some of those first students’ children and grandchildren. She couldn’t have foreseen that, in a sense, she would go from having no children to thousands.

But any one could see that she had what it took to ring true in the hearts of students. When she taught, students understood. Aside from that, she was just fun to be with. She had the persever-ance and the power to do terrific things, and to bring the people around her along in her victories. Like, for instance, when she coached Walker High girls tennis and led them to their first state championship.

She was one of those people that other people gravitated toward. And when they met her for the first time, she would make people feel like they had known her for years. People mattered to Vicki; in fact, their needs were her biggest inspiration. According to Vicki, if there was a need there was a way to meet that need. She would give the shirt off her back if she had to.

And that is just what she did. One time, a student of Vicki’s was inducted into the honors pro-gram on short notice and hadn’t brought a dress for the occasion. Vicki offered the very dress she was wearing without a second thought. She slipped off her stylish frock and put on the girl’s school clothes.

Vicki made things happen.

She was intensely loving and her students knew it. She had an easygoing personality and had a way of letting things, for the most part, roll off her back. But she had a certain fierceness too—a passionate protectiveness for the things that mattered to her. “When they stepped on her turf—oooh, you’d better back up,” says one of her earlier students, Rene Simmons. “It was not going to be pretty.”

Years later, Rene felt absolutely safe sending her kids into her protection. When Vicki had to drive them places, she would put Rene’s fears to rest with the assurance that she would be their personal bodyguard. “Don’t worry,” she’d whisper, “I’m packing heat.” Vicki always kept a pistol under her seat.

Age didn’t make much of a difference to her way of doing things. At 68 years old, she was still playing tennis (on a different team every day) and still winning state championships. She was as fit and active as ever, and beauty still beamed from her weatherbeaten face.

It’s no surprise that a shock went through the backbone of Jasper when Vicki, one of the spryest, hardiest of ladies, was diagnosed with the deadliest of illnesses: pancreatic cancer. Vicki was not unfamiliar with this illness—she had lost her own brother to its clutches. She had helped him battle it and helped others battle it. Now she found herself being devoured by the same culprit.

For someone who had given so much of herself, Vicki had known all too well the meaning of loss. After being divorced from her first husband, Vicki had nursed her mother and her brother on their deathbeds and had buried them both. But if grief was engraved in the lines in her face, determined joy shined from her eyes. Sadness had marked her soul—but not despair. The God of her childhood still buoyed her spirits.

She met Rene in the grocery store once, and looked her squarely in the face. “I’m going to beat this,” she said. When she died a few months later—when the sickness overran her body and the light faded from her eyes—they knew that she had won the greatest victory. They had witnessed a spirit that had endured the greatest losses possible to humanity—even her own physical death—and had triumphed with faithfulness and love and life that never truly burned out.

The fire lit in childhood was still burning—and had set countless souls aflame. 78

Cover photo: Sylvia Crump holding a picture of her friend, Vicki. Photo by Blakeney Cox.

Originally published in 78 Magazine in Dec 2016/Jan 2017

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