Laura Dean Bennett
When I first met Leabelle Pennington Gum, she told me that she’s 97 years old and God sends angels to visit her.
It’s not hard to believe that such a kind and gentle lady would receive heavenly visitations.
Born in 1921 in Randolph County, Leabelle came to Pocahontas County at an early age and has lived here most of her life.
Her parents were Edward and Flossie Pennington.
She grew up on the Elk River in Slaty Fork and was one of 12 children.
“I’m the only one left,” she said.
Leabelle shared some especially memorable stories about her childhood.
“One story I’ll never forget happened one summer when my sister and I were teenagers,” she said. “I was sixteen, and my sister, Louella, was seventeen or eighteen years old.
“We were hanging clothes out on the line one day when some of my family’s relatives, a five year old boy and two seven year old boys, went running past on the way to the river.
“Louella looked at me and she said, ‘Somebody’s going to fall in.’
“Sure enough, she was right.
“After a bit, we heard screamin’ and we took off running. We must have run almost a tenth of a mile along that river ‘til we got to a swimmin’ hole everybody called the ‘Blue Hole.’
“It had big, slippery rocks all around it, and it was dangerous.
“We could see that little boy in about twelve or fifteen feet of water, trying to hang on, but he kept going under the water.”
Leabelle said Louella ran to the river, climbed onto a big rock but was unable to get to him. Meanwhile, Leabelle was searching for anything that might help. She found a long pole and pushed it over to where Louella was waiting.
“Louella used that pole to stretch out toward the boy, and somehow she pulled him over to her,” Leabelle recalled.
“Louella gave him CPR and then she carried him back toward the road. Just about that time, his uncle was coming up the road. He was the taxi driver, Russ Sage.
“He grabbed the boy and carried him in the taxi to the Marlinton Hospital.”
The little boy’s name was Gene Tumblin. He spent two days in the hospital, but thankfully, he survived.
About the near escape, Leabelle gave her sister all the credit for saving the little boy’s life.
“Whenever we talked about it,” Leabelle said, “Louella always said, ‘That pole was meant to be there.’”
Leabelle was 19 when she married Albert Winans – a marriage that, unfortunately, ended in tragedy.
The newlyweds lived in Elkins.
They were married on February 22 and not quite four months later, on the June 13, her husband was killed in a tragic train accident.
He was a brakeman on the Western Maryland train which made the trip from Elkins to Cumberland Maryland.
He fell between two coal cars and was killed.
After that, the young widow went back to her parents’ farm in Slaty Fork.
During the Depression, things were really rough for Leabelle’s family, as they were for nearly everyone.
Her dad was a foreman on the railroad, earning $.28 an hour.
“He worked 10 hours a day for $2.00 a day,” Leabelle remembered.
“The only way we survived was by raising or gathering our food – gardening, raising chickens, picking berries and apples.
“Mom canned everything she got her hands on.
“We walked way up on the mountain to pick blackberries- it was about six miles up there, I think.
“We’d pick enough berries for Mom to put up fifty half gallon jars of jam every summer.
“In the fall, Dad would make twenty gallon kettles full of apple butter. That was a lot of work. Somebody had to stir all day.
“We never had any money, but we always had food on the table. We raised it ourselves,” Leabelle said proudly.
The Penningtons were a church-going family.
“We went to Slaty Fork Methodist Church.
“We’d go every Sunday and usually go about five times during the week. There was always some meeting or service to go to – you know, a lot of young people’s clubs and activities,” she explains.
In time, Leabelle remarried.
She married Harry Gum, and they had 30 years and three fine boys together.
Harry worked as a skidder operator for a logging company in Cass.
“We lived at Cass on a three hundred acre farm, raising cattle, hogs and we gardened, just like my folks,” Leabelle said.
“There’s always work to do on a farm.
“I canned a lot. I probably put up hundreds of jars every year. And we always picked berries and apples, too.
“I took all my boys to church and taught them right from wrong,” Leabelle said, smiling. “All three of them turned out real good. They all got real good jobs and have nice homes and families.”
Norman retired after 40 years with the FBI.
Harry retired from the Huntsville Correctional Center.
And Rick was the General Manager of the Mountain Lodge at Snowshoe for 30 years.
Leabelle worked at the Cass Store for 13 seasons after the railroad at Cass became the popular Cass Scenic Railroad.
“One Labor Day, I think we counted 2,200 trips,” she said. “I even got to meet the governor three or four times! You know he had that pretty farm here.”
She recalled the time that Governor Jay Rockefeller and his security team came into the Cass Store looking to buy Cass Scenic Railroad caps.
“They had ridden the train to Whittaker Station, and they all wanted to buy a Cass train cap,” she said.
“I showed them one kind of cap after another, and they couldn’t decide, so I finally just opened up all the cap drawers behind the counter, and let them all come back and dig through them. They all found caps they liked and they all bought one.”
Leabelle has been a resident at Pocahontas Center for nine years now.
She told, in detail, about the several experiences she’s had with “visiting angels.”
“Once in the cafeteria, when a North Carolina choir was singing for us, a nice baby came to sit on the arm of my wheelchair,” she shared.
“Then, another time, there was a little girl about twelve years old standing by my wheelchair. She walked with me all the way from the cafeteria to the activity room.
“One day a nurse named Vicky was visiting with me in my room, and I asked her ‘Who is that little boy with a cap on?’ She said she didn’t see anybody.”
And then there was the time when her young great-granddaughter was having extensive surgery and Leabelle couldn’t sleep for worrying about the little girl.
“I was so worried, I couldn’t sleep,” Leabelle said, “and I was just praying for her to make it through.
“But then I felt a little child with golden hair, maybe one or two years old, come and lay in bed with me. It brought me so much peace, I finally fell asleep.
“That was God telling me that my great-granddaughter would be all right.”
And she was all right. The surgery was successful.
As I prepared to say goodbye to Leabelle she surprised me, because I had no idea that she was blind.
“You know,” she said, “I’ve been blind for thirty-six years. I can’t see the TV or read or even dial a telephone.
“But I’m still making a lot of new friends.
“I’m on Facebook!
“I’ve got lots of friends, and I had sixty-seven well wishers on Facebook on my birthday. They’re from all over – some from Texas and even one from the Philippines.”
Leabelle said Jackie Friel reads her messages to her and helps her send replies.
Friel is the Center’s Activities Director.
I asked how, being blind, she “saw” the angels that God had sent her.
“I don’t know,” Leabelle replied.
“But I did.”