I’m not sure how many of you have ever heard or sung the song Help Somebody Today. The words were written in 1904 by Carrie Breck, a housewife who wrote over 2000 such ditties. The song was popular during the years that Elizabeth was growing up on the mission field in India. The music is surely one of Charles Gabriel’s worst compositions and can barely be called a true hymn; and the poetry leaves much to be desired. But the sentiment is sublime.
It was one of Elizabeth’s favorite hymns. Martha Jane Stone, our organist for the past 74 years, would occasionally play it during worship services, and I could see Elizabeth, sitting here below me on the front row, her mouth moving, repeating the words to the song silently as it was played.
“Help Somebody Today” was, indeed, her life’s theme song, however old fashioned and childlike the words, and however sappy the tune. Elizabeth, however, was never old fashioned or sappily sentimental, although I do believe she was enormously childlike in her openness to adventure, her enjoyment of life and God’s creation, and her trust in human beings. Ann Harris, a long time friend, noted yesterday how Elizabeth may have touched the lives of more people in Woodford and Fayette County than we might ever know. Despite all the long list of activities, civic engagements and leadership positions she held, the awards and honors that came to her, Ann says the obituary didn’t capture the Elizabeth she knew, who in so many small ways and in small deeds enriched the lives of those who came in contact with her. She was always willing to teach someone how to do something, or to help them, to share what she had in her garden or kitchen.
Until last Christmas, even after she had lost most of her sight, not a Christmas came that I didn’t receive from Elizabeth a huge gift bag of goodies from her kitchen, and when Wag was still living, there was always a fifth of Maker’s Mark in that bag as well. As a pastor, even one who doesn’t drink alcoholic beverages very much, I can’t tell you what a joy it is not to be perceived as immune from such Kentucky pleasures. Many of you have mentioned receiving a jar of her famous Stickles; or some other tasty product of her kitchen. Others have commented about how much she taught them about gardening, antiques, needlepoint.
Elizabeth was truly a remarkable woman: there was little that she couldn’t do, whether it was flying an airplane, big game hunting, golf, tennis, bridge, gardening, needlepoint, cooking, creating a beautiful home. Ewing told me a story yesterday about how her father once took her hunting for a tiger, and when they found one, he handed the rifle to Elizabeth. She took aim, shot—but missed a kill shot, and instead hit the tiger on the rear end, enraging him, so that he came charging toward them. Her father took the gun from her and shot the tiger between the eyes. That tiger skin was among those last possessions in the Adair Road house to be sent to auction when Wag and Elizabeth moved to Richmond Place. Her first husband, Nat Hall, who died in 1956, taught her to fly, and together they volunteered for the Civilian Pilot Training program, with Elizabeth becoming one of the first women in the nation to teach Army and Naval cadets how to fly during World War II.
Elizabeth was a woman with impeccable taste, and incredibly high standards for herself and others. She wanted the past to survive to inform the future, and so she gave much of her time, and Wag’s, to the preservation of bluegrass history. She wanted this little church to survive, and in the last several years, it has turned a corner and will survive at least another generation. She was a woman who knew her own mind, and didn’t mind sharing it. Berry and Ewing yesterday remarked that their mother’s greatest strength was her determination; and perhaps her weakness was that she thought she was always right. Our strengths and our flaws, our weaknesses, of course, give texture and color to the uniqueness of each individual life. And of course, Elizabeth was mostly right. None of us are perfect, thank God. She and Wag, her second husband, with whom she shared nearly 50 years of marriage, were both possessed of sharp tongues. Wag had his own way with language, as those of us who knew him are well aware, but Elizabeth always knew what needed to be done, and if she couldn’t do it, she had just the man for the job. They would snap and bicker with each other, but boy, did they get stuff accomplished. And when they took to the dance floor, as a couple they were grace in motion, and you could see their love for each other.
In September 1983, near their 25th anniversary, the Woodford County Garden Club put together a little silly poem saluting them both: Let me share a few of the couplets:
“Tonight’s the night we honor our Elizabeth and her Wag
(Our tribute’s in the form of verse—we hope it doesn’t lag!)
The female part we first salute was born Elizabeth Moody
And Wag came here from Yankee land and married this fair beauty.
She learned to hunt and kill big game upon the Indian Stage
In a Christian missionary home where she lived till college age.
…[skipping down a few lines]
Meanwhile at Cotillion Dance Wag asked to take her home
Her first refusal came to naught—she did not go alone
Ham and eggs and a big full moon shining on garden fair
She hooked him quick when he inquired, “for flowers do you care?”
“Of course, dear Wag, I love to cook, I love to garden, too.
He then decided on the spot, “Honey, I’m for you!”
25 years have come and gone, 4 kids they raised together
Grandchildren now they number 6, the Wagners nest to feather.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth moves right on with energy galore,
Tennis, bridge, 3 garden clubs—would you believe there’s more?
Again, not great poetry, but an expression of love from good friends who remained so through the years.
All of us are complex and complicated people. Who knows what drove Elizabeth with such passion for her involvement in her community? Certainly, it was a faith she received from her parents, and that she kept for all her days. She knew that faith without works is dead, as the writer of the letter known as James said. Psychologically, perhaps it was coming to the United States as a lonely, shy 17 year old, unsure of her place in this culture that was so different from what she knew. As an aside, she wasn’t tame when she was living in India either. Her parents sent her to a boarding school for children of Americans living in India, and she told me once that she ran away from the place as a teenager, but that her father came and found her and took her back. With an eye for style, for beauty, for what made people advance in life to positions of respect, and an appreciation of history and the past, she threw herself into her life-long theme: help somebody today. What a witness to each of us.
My friends, it doesn’t matter what motivates us, what psychological genesis creates the person we become, what matters is the kind of life we live, the people whose lives we touch, the ways we make the world a better place for others because we have lived. As one of the Transylvania University staff members who knew her wrote to me in apt words echoing her service in the Civilian Pilot Training program during WWII, “her legacy will never fly away.” The world, and we, have been blessed by the long, fascinating, helping, generative and restorative life of Elizabeth Moody Hall Wagner. Thanks be to God for this amazing woman. We send her forth today to her life with God with triumphant trumpet sounds. Amen.