(Picture, compliments of Pauline Bryan, Cleveland, GA, widow of Jimmy Bryan, first cousin of the poet. Jimmy was a son of Mrs. Emma Lance Reece's sister, Eula Lance Bryan. This and other valuable Reece family pictures were in Mrs. Eula Bryan's collection, and passed on to her son, Jimmy.)
By brief recapitulation from last week’s column, and continuing the saga of the Reece family in Union County, let me review by listing again the seven known generations in America of poet/novelist Byron Herbert Reece (1917-1958):
(1) William Reece (wife Mary, maiden name unknown)Since our place of birth and time of birth are out of our hands, we become a “citizen,” (as Byron Herbert Reece liked to refer in his poetry to persons in residence here upon earth) of wherever we are when our earthly parents welcome us into their household. And this baby was born in a log cabin that had been on his maternal side of the family—the Lances—for a long time. The cabin in 1917 stood about in the middle of where Lake Trahlyta at Vogel State Park, in the shadow of Blood Mountain, is now located. The baby’s great grandfather, John Reece, was an early settler of the county and had been listed in the 1834 Union County census.
(2) Valentine (called “Fella”) Reece (wife Christina Harmon Reece)
(3) Jacob Reece (wife Susannah “Hannah” Silvers Reece)
(4) John Reece (wife Mary Anderson Reece)
(5) Simpson Reece (wife Emmaline Sampson Reece)
(6) Juan Wellborn Reece (wife Hannah Emma Lou Lance Reece)
(7) Byron Herbert Reece (poet and novelist, never married)
Byron Herbert Reece was born September 14, 1917 into the household of Juan Wellborn Reece and Emma Lance Reece. Already born into the Reece household were these siblings of the future poet: Sister Alwayne Reece, born May 16, 1908, died of meningitis June 15, 1909 at age thirteen months. Her gravestone in the Old Salem cemetery in Union County reads “Waynie,” her nickname. She was buried near her maternal great grandparents, the Rev. John H. Lance (1834-1888, killed by moonshiners) and his wife, her maternal great grandmother, Caroline T. Lance (1842-1916). So the poet never met this older sister, “Waynie,” who died eight years before he was born.
Sister Eva Mae Reece, born August 25, 1911, grew up to become a teacher; she never married. She lived at home and taught mainly at local schools near the Reece home. She was present to assist poet Reece later in the care of their parents (and the poet himself), all of whom contracted dread tuberculosis, a disease that seemed to plague this particular family of Reeces.
Sister Nina Kate Reece, born June 15, 1914, married in 1934 and moved away to North Carolina. This writer needs to do more research on Kate’s family and learn the name of her husband and children, for I seem to recall that she did have a family. Kate’s family was not listed in the Reece sources I’m using for this series.
The poet’s brother, Thomas James, known by his initials, T. J., was born July 30, 1915 and died November 11, 1989. He married a neighbor young lady, Lorena Duckworth, in 1939. T. J. joined the Civilian Conservation Corps when that work group was formed by then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After T. J. and Lorena married, they lived in various places in the United States as T. J. followed jobs. But then they came back to Union County and settled on Lorena’s family homeplace and reared their family near her aging parents and his aging parents. T. J. and Lorena had four children, Tommy, (named after his father, T. J.), June, Terry and Connie.
Byron Herbert Reece was next in line of the five Reece siblings. When asked if he was named for the famous English poets, Lord Byron and George Herbert, he laughingly told his inquirer that he was named for Byron Mitchell, a hog-trader from Gainesville, Georgia, who stopped by the Reece farm to dicker about hog sales, and for Herbert Tabor, an insurance salesman, who also was an acquaintance of the Reece family.
The youngest of the Reece siblings, the poet’s sister, Emma Jean Reece, was born March 19, 1923. She grew up to be a beauty, and met a young man in the Civilian Conservation Corps who was stationed at the present Goose Creek location when a CCC Camp operated there. His name was Thomas Daniel Rispoli and his home state was New York. Jean and Thomas Daniel were married in a lovely ceremony in New York. He served our country admirably during World War II and lost his life in that conflict. Jean Reece Rispoli and Thomas Daniel Rispoli had one child, Patricia Katherine Rispoli. After Thomas’s death, Jean and her baby, called “Patti,” returned to Blairsville, where they lived. Existing pictures of Juan and Emma Reece welcoming their little granddaughter “Patti,” and her mother, their daughter Jean, after the soldier’s death, are touching, indeed.
Life proceeded as it did in most every farm home in Choestoe as Byron Herbert Reece was growing up. There were not a lot of this world’s goods to enjoy, but the Reece’s well knew how to “make do,” and live frugally on what the narrow patches of their farm along Wolf Creek yielded. Though poor in property and money, they had a super-abundance of love. The five surviving Reece children were tutored from an early age by their mother Emma, even before they were old enough to walk the four miles to nearby Choestoe school where they were instructed in grades Primer through Seventh Grade before going on to Union County High School at Blairsville, the county seat town some ten miles north of the Reece home. Mrs. Emma and Mr. Juan, well-grounded in the Christian faith, had daily devotionals, reading to their children from the King James Version of the Bible. They didn’t have many books in their household, but those they owned, and the local newspaper and “The Progressive Farmer” magazine were read avidly. It is said that young Byron Herbert, by now called “Hub” for short, could read from the Bible and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress before he entered Choestoe School in the Primer/First Grade class. It was from this home training that he began to fall in love with the rhythms of the English language that he would later use so effectively in his ballads, in particular, and in his sonnets and lyrical poetry.
I grew up Baptist, going to Choestoe Baptist Church. The Reece family was Methodists, members of Salem Methodist Church in the same community. Each of these churches was what we called “part-time.” That is, we only had preaching two Sundays each month, but Sunday School every Sunday. It was our habit for members of one congregation to go to the other church, for in that way, we could attend “preaching” every Sunday. It was at Salem Church that I heard Byron Herbert Reece, an approved lay preacher in the Methodist Church, teach and preach some Sundays if inclement weather prevented his own pastor from getting to Salem. So I was privileged, too, to hear the poet as preacher at times. And I treasure those memories of him as well.
The space for this account does not allow all the remembrances, as a neighbor to the Reece family, that I could recount of his life and times, and of his beloved family. But in the home of this humble, unassuming, hard-working, God-fearing potential poet were established many of the characteristics Reece portrayed in his life and work. He had a strong work ethic, borne of hard times and emulated by him in what he saw in his parents.
His poems began to be published in the 1930’s. Then his book, Ballad of the Bones and Other Poems was released in 1945 by E. P. Dutton, New York. Reviews and news frequently published in “The Atlanta Constitution” that came daily to my house when I was growing up in the same community with Reece, led us, his neighbors (at least in the Dyer household) to be amazed that our neighbor farmer/teacher had turned poet and was recognized on a national level.
When the poet met death at his own hand June 3, 1958, after much illness from tuberculosis and deep depression, I was devastated when I heard the news. For months I thought that if I had been able just to talk with him before the tragedy, perhaps I could have said something to turn the tide of his intentions to take his own life. His death certainly diminished me. I have been his admirer, a student of his inimitable prose and lofty verse, and a pursuer of “all things Reece” since, when I was 15, my teacher, Mrs. Grapelle Mock, took me to interview Reece for a column I wrote then for the school page in the local paper. I began to really aspire to follow in his footsteps as a writer. I had neither the inherent talent, expertise with language, nor ability to capture thoughts “from airy nothingness” as Reece did. But he was then and is, even to this day, my mentor, my literary hero, and my one-time mountain neighbor and friend. And I am richer, much richer, because of this association with Byron Herbert Reece (1917-1958), poet.
c 2010 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Feb. 11, 2010 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.