By Henry Hurt, first published in the Star-Tribune, Chatham, Virginia, February 11, 2015.
Forty days into her 100th year on earth, Frances Hallam Hurt died February 5th at The Peaceable Kingdom, her home on Halifax Road at Chatham. The cause of her quiet death was old age, brought on by a long life filled with noble challenges and joyous living.
Born at home in rural Graham, Texas, on December 28, 1915, Frances was the daughter of Robert Gaston Hallam and Mary Taylor Hallam. She was the youngest of two brothers and a sister, none of whom survives. Her father, a cotton broker, school teacher and movie-house owner, died when she was five. The family moved to Dallas.
Brimming with a Texas pioneer spirit, Frances finished college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and headed straight for New York to seek her fortune. She devoured the big city with its theatre and music.
She particularly loved the job she landed with Conde-Nast publishers — especially writing celebrity profiles for Glamour Magazine. (Frances confided to me that Mary Martin of Peter Pan fame, whom she interviewed in her dressing room, wore falsies, but said she left it out of her profile.)
When her family back in Dallas heard Frances was seeing a lot of a young banker from a Virginia family, they had him checked out by a New York detective agency. He passed muster, and a year or so later Frances and Henry were married. A couple of years after that, he corralled her down to Chatham where, by so many accounts, she set about making a Texas-sized difference in her adopted town and throughout Virginia.
Her greatest passions were history, education, music, cultural and basic literacy, travel and the beautification of her natural and manmade surroundings. They were the primary fields where she made a difference.
Frances also considered herself a crack pistol shot and claimed to have once shot a snake's head off as it eased along a gutter of her house. (No surviving reports on what happened to the gutter or the roof.)
She loved working with youngsters to nurse injured birds and small animals. She worked with her children's public school teachers to be sure every child had his or her own bird book with pictures and records of their sightings. (At least a half-dozen of my grade school classmates have told me they still have their bird books 60-plus years later.)
When it came to larger pets, she and my father adored a long line of Irish Setters — as well as a less distinguished menagerie of dogs and cats and rabbits. I sadly recall one possum in our custody who was recovering well from an injury when, having been on a healthy diet of milk and bread, was given up to neighbors for a family meal.
As for larger animals around the world, she rode as many as she could get on, including elephants and donkeys and camels. Back home, she kept horses and loved to tell about Roxanna, a spring mare who would jump the pasture fence, pull open the screen door at the kitchen, stick her head in and nicker and stamp her feet until someone brought her a treat.
“Mrs. Hurt never worried a bit about us on the horses,” recalls Kay Saunders, one of our best childhood friends. “I remember one time Hallam [Frances's daughter] and I rode all the way out past Dry Fork and rode up to the top of White Oak Mountain and then climbed all the way to the top of the fire tower and then looked back and could see all of Pittsylvania County! We were gone all day, like we were a lot of times. Mrs. Hurt let us do what we wanted because she knew if we were on those horses, we were okay.”
Frances was the one who did not always do well on the horses. Over the decades she broke more bones coming off horses than her family can count.
These were the things she enjoyed and did for herself, but they also represented the passionate energy that went into everything else she did. What lay behind her civic and cultural successes was a high-octane optimism rooted in strong commonsense that usually prevailed over the bright-idea crowd.
Her leadership gifts were simple: in any project, she was the first to be out front making things happen and getting her hands dirty, whether grubbing town flower beds or transplanting wild dogwoods from the woods to any yard in Chatham that wanted a dogwood.
Her passion for literacy often found her sitting in the jailhouse teaching an inmate to read and explaining to him, “If you can't read, all you'll ever know is what someone else tells you.”
As for culture, all the way back in the Fifties, she shanghaied the Barter Theatre and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra to perform regularly in her beloved Chatham.
The foundation for her energy and optimism was a respect and love for where she was at any given moment. She taught that basic principle to anyone who would listen — be it telling third-graders about the wonders of local birds, or why our local history was the essence of each of us and that we should all cherish our past and our present right down to the warts and wonders of Southside Virginia.
Always on the look-out for wonderment, she was easily enchanted by a beautiful day, a full moon, a dark moon, a passing train, a magnificent rainstorm, a young bird, an old person with a lot of living in his face, or the beauty of a child. In the fields of education, culture and travel, what she loved most were all things bright and beautiful — including books and music and birds and frogs — and on and on.
Her old friend Whitt Clement, in describing her pivotal role in creating the Governor's School, basic literacy programs, and other endeavors, once referred to her as a genuine Renaissance woman when he nominated her as a Virginia Laureate.
An almost methodical world traveler, Frances wrote extensively of her trips the world over with her widowed sister, Mary Lou Melville. Her countless stories appeared in newspapers and magazines around the state.
Frances's favorite city might have been Istanbul, as she once stated, but the essence of her love for travel is seen in a single sentence about Morocco that she wrote in 1980:
“With the whole world threatening to go gray as technology and television make everybody like everybody else, the traveler who is hungry for strangeness and color, who wants to feel deep in his insides that he is a stranger in a strange land, might well try Morocco.”
And there were travel adventures: Once robbed on the overnight train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, Frances and her several companions had been amply warned about on-board thieves. They took suggested precautions in locking their compartment, but the hooligans managed to gas the travelers and get into the compartment anyway. They took cash and jewelry from the sleeping innocents. Frances was always charmed that they did not take passports or credit cards — obviously wanting the victims to be able to leave the country as conveniently as possible.
Her abiding belief in the power of travel and seeing the world did not stop with her own trips. She took her rambunctious grandchildren to France and England, as well as various destinations all over Virginia. And later she took her extended family on trips to Italy and Ireland. She established and endowed permanent travel scholarships at Chatham Hall and Hargrave Military Academy that each year allow a student and a faculty sponsor to enjoy educational trips to countries in which the student has a special interest. She also established endowed college scholarships in Pittsylvania County in honor of her husband's uncle, John L. Hurt, who founded the Town of Hurt.
In addition to all else, she loved politics and campaigning. A true Independent, she didn't hesitate to support Adlai Stevenson in 1952 when he lost Virginia and most other states to Dwight Eisenhower. She treasured her friendships with several Virginia governors, especially Mills Godwin, and remained delighted all her life over her friendship with William M. Tuck who served as Governor from 1946-1950.
“I was driving for Governor Tuck way back then,” recalled Bobby Hill the other day as he sat in the Chatham Train station during a family visitation. “The Governor and I'd drive everywhere, all over the state, but we loved to wind up at the Hurts' house, setting up there in those old pines…we knew we'd find a drink and a ham biscuit and some good conversation.”
Bobby Hill offered a nice comparison between Frances and Governor Tuck: “Both of them understood it's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice.”
Frances's husband, my father, died 43 years ago when Mother was 57. His life of hard and smart work as a business man sets an example for all of us. The resources he so prudently built allowed her to do what she did for so many and kept the lights on at their house for the rest of her life.
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