By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
On Feb. 9, 2013, Cullman lost not only a familiar face, but one of its most dependable volunteers.
Mary F. Reese, born Mary Stricklin, in the White City community, near Hanceville, was an inspiration to all who knew her. She was selfless in offering her time and talents to many organizations, including her church, Hopewell Baptist, where she held practically every position, also with the Johnson’s Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department, and for years, the American Red Cross.
She married Douglas Reese at the age of 15. He well remembers the first time he set eyes on her. It was, of all places, in a boysenberry patch. It was love at first sight.
“A couple of friends and I decided we’d pick boysenberries to earn enough money to go to the movies,” chuckled Reese. “She was there picking berries, too, and I told those guys to stay away from that girl because she was going to be my wife!”
It wasn’t long until he let her in on that bit of news. Their courtship was mostly of the “church” dating kind, or sitting on the porch on Sunday afternoons with her parents.
“Her daddy and brother ran a dairy operation,” he explained. “I had just moved into the neighborhood, about a block from where they lived, and I made sure to go and introduce myself to them, so I could work my way up to seeing her.”
As soon as he could talk her parents into it, they were married. That was on Sept. 17, 1951. He was 19, and Mary was 15.
Two weeks later Douglas Reese was shipping out for what was to turn into a military career. The newlyweds wrote to each other every day. “We never missed a day of writing each other, but sometimes it would take longer for her letters to reach me,” he recalled.
They would spend the next 21 years moving from one military base or one country to another. Frequently, Mary would come home to her parents if Douglas was moved into a war zone.
Their first child, Vicki, was born in 1955, in Marietta, Georgia, four years after they were married.
Soon afterward, they found themselves in England, which is where Mary first became involved with the Red Cross. “She was always trying to help in any way she could,” said Reese.
In England, Mary volunteered in a Red Cross clinic while her husband was a weapons mechanic supervisor in the U.S. Air Force. They were stationed there for three years. Their son, Donald, was born there in 1959.
Back in the states, they were assigned to Sheppard AFB, in Wichita Falls, Texas, where Mary would continue her work with the Red Cross.
Likewise, as they criss-crossed the country, she would always find another place to volunteer her services. From Bunker Hill, AFB in Indiana, to Minot AFB near the Canadian border, she found a way to help by volunteering her time.
One of Donald Reese’s first memories, as a child of 10, is of making sandwiches with his mother and sister to feed the workers who were trying desperately to staunch the flood waters near Minot.
Often times Mary and the children would return to Hanceville when Douglas did tours in Vietnam and Thailand.
Douglas Reese formally retired from the United States Air Force after 21 years of service, on June 1, 1972.
The family moved back to Cullman, where Douglas went to Wallace State Community College. It was there he received a degree in drafting. Mary picked right up with the Cullman County Chapter of the Red Cross. She delivered Meals On Wheels, helped with the Red Cross disaster shelter program, and was a member of the Southern Baptist Association’s feeding unit.
“She was never one to brag about what she did,” said her husband. “She just did what was necessary.”
The Reeses went on many mission trips over the next 18 years. They worked with the East Cullman Baptist Association on a trip to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and in shelters after the local tornadoes, or in any way they could, even helping to pay electric bills or buy food for local people in need.
Mary went to WSCC to become an EMT, and was a volunteer firefighter and a rapid responder. Her energy was boundless, and her dedication was admirable. She seemed not to know the words “I can’t”.
She could even be found many times cutting trees away from people’s homes after the tornado, or working in Red Cross kitchens, as well as caring for children while others worked.
“I can remember her being in the kitchen by 3:30 a.m. on those mission trips,” said her son. “Most of the time she didn’t leave there until after 9:30 or 10 o’ clock at night.”
As her age advanced, her abilities and time shifted to the CRMC Auxiliary, and even when her health began to fail, she still continued to work with the Southern Baptist Disaster Association, under the direction of Winford Haynes.
Where she found the free time is anyone’s guess, but Mary loved to go camping, visit the beach, and the mountains. She enjoyed church retreats, music festivals, and she loved Christmas lights, especially those in Gatlinburg. But her first priority was helping others.
“She just dedicated her life to helping others,” said her son, Donald. “They both did. When they dedicated themselves to God, they felt that He called them to help people who couldn’t help themselves at the time.”
They set a wonderful example for others, including Donald, who is now the Red Cross Disaster Association Team Leader here in Cullman County. He and his wife, Lisa, and their son, Chris, and his wife, Sarah, recently helped to feed and shelter 112 travelers who were stranded by the snow storm on Interstate 65. They kept the shelter at the McGukin Civic Center opened for 16 hours, until the last traveler was on his way again.
Part of his duties also includes being the Red Cross liaison for the armed forces, working with soldiers who need emergency leave.
He learned much from watching his parents and now Chris is the third generation to find it in his heart to help those in need.
On March 19, Mary Reece was to have received her 65th anniversary certificate from a grateful Red Cross. Sadly, she never got to attend that ceremony. Mary Reece passed four-and-a-half weeks earlier. She will be mourned by her family and many friends, and the people who were honored to serve beside her as Red Cross volunteers.
However, there are many people, both here in the U.S. and in England, and probably others who are scattered all over the world by now, who will always remember the lady with the Red Cross emblem who stopped to say a kind word, to apply a bandage, or prepare a meal. For Mary, and others like her, it was not the citations, or the rewards that were the goal — it was simply the smile on the receiving end of those small kindnesses that was worth the effort.