The sun shone bright on this year’s Little Levels Heritage Fair, and particularly on Sunday afternoon. The sky was blue as blue could be, with just a few white puffs of clouds, as folks gathered under a tent at the Sydenstricker house on the lawn of the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace to get a glimpse into the lives of Tom and Betsy Edgar.
Martha “Marty” Edgar Ness, of Evans, Georgia, returned to her hometown and did a splendid job of letting the public in on some of the very private moments of this most unique family.
“We can choose a lot of things in our lives,” Ness said, “but we can’t choose our parents and we can’t choose our circumstances. And I never heard my parents complain about their circumstances.”
Ness began with prayer, thanking God for the “brave and good people who came before us to give us hope.” She then proceeded to tell about “two lives well-spent.”
“My mom’s favorite song was ‘Others,”’ she said. “And I think that’s what they did. They lived to help others.”
A lot of that help came about from the fact that Tom was severely wounded in World War II.
He wanted to go into the military, and he wanted to go to war on behalf of his country, but chronic athlete’s foot and a bad eye nearly squashed that dream.
But he was accepted, and he and Betsy traveled around the country as a military couple.
Tom’s first assignment was as Commanding Officer of a Motorcycle Battalion, where he rode a military Harley Davidson with “Betsy” written on the side.
He then became the Commanding Officer of 705 Tank Destroyer Battalion, and fought at Normandy, throughout the European Theatre, Bastogne, Belgium and The Battle of the Bulge, where he was wounded, losing his legs.
Meanwhile, his beloved Betsy was working for TWA in Washington, D. C. Because of her work, she was sure that Tom would be brought back to the states in quick order, but it took months.
She waited and waited, but finally the call came that he had arrived at Walter Reed Hospital. Betsy left work to go see him. But, the wait was not over. It wasn’t visiting hours, so she had to wait another three hours before the couple was reunited.
“It was shocking what happened,” Ness said. “But it happened to thousands of people. Daddy had thirty-seven operations over a period of two years.
“He had such a sense of humor,” Ness said of the double amputee. “He told my mom, ‘Betsy, I finally got rid of that athlete’s foot.”
But he didn’t. He would have phantom itch and suffer terrible pain for the rest of his life.
Tom was unable to use artificial limbs, but as he recuperated he made a lot of friends at Walter Reed and the guys loved to go to ballgames.
The doctors would tell Tom that he needed to keep his artificial limbs with him when he left the hospital for those games, so one of his friends would throw them over their shoulder and carry them to the taxi.
“Daddy was satisfied that his artificial limbs were with him,” Ness laughed.
Laughter and a positive outlook were mainstays of this family.
Betsy had a small apartment in Washington and she was so excited at the prospect of Tom coming “home,” but she didn’t know if he could even get into the bathroom, Ness said. That dilemma continued as the couple moved to Hillsboro and lived for two or three years with Tom’s parents, the George P. Edgars, in what is now the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Museum.
Edgar bought the home from the Stulting family at a time when his wife was ill and his children were of school age. The family lived in the Stulting house in the winter months so the children could attend school and then moved to the “Edgar brick house” in the summer.
“Mom carried Daddy’s wheelchair up the steps every time he had to go to the bathroom,” Ness said. “She was such a tiny thing, I don’t know how she did it.”
Ness’ brother, G. T. was born in the Stulting house, and the family later bought the one-story Bartholomew home just south of present day McCoy’s Market. With all the rooms on one floor, things were a bit easier for Tom. But he wasn’t all that interested in easy.
However, he was interested in farming, and moving to the Edgar brick house, now home to the Jack Wilkins family.
But the house hadn’t been lived in for years, and it was a mess, Ness said.
“So many people came to help. I can’t name everyone because I would surely leave out several of the names. But I remember that the Fowlers built the elevator. The roof of it would settle level with the floor as it moved up and down.”
Before Tom left Walter Reed, he told Besty that he was going to get a car. He knew that cars would be back in production after the war.
Betsy couldn’t drive at the time, but she quickly learned.
Tom had other ideas.
He designed his own hand controlled system using a screwdriver for leverage. He also talked to the people at Oldsmobile encouraging them to make hand-controlled cars available for all handicapped people.
That was the beginning of Tom’s and Betsy’s life work.
“People were living with architectural barriers and barriers of attitude,” Ness said. “My dad’s disability was evident, but other disabilities are not so evident.”
People in the community responded to Tom’s disability in different ways.
Tom’s good friend and fishing buddy Benton Smith would literally pick up Tom and put him in the boat, Ness said. They went to Canada several times, and both of them were comfortable in their friendship.
On the other hand, neighbor Louise McNeel told Ness that she was unsure how to approach Tom or what to say when he returned to Hillsboro. But he had a way of putting people at ease.
Sensing Louise’s uncertainty, Tom called to her.
“Come over here,” Tom said. “I have something for you. When I was wounded, I had some coins in my pocket, and I want you to have one of them.”
He gave McNeel a silver dollar, which, many years later, she gave to Ness – along with the story.
“When it came to his handicap,” Ness said, “they just didn’t go there. I never heard my dad say he was disabled – that he couldn’t do something.”
Tom was a farmer, and Ness was a farmer’s daughter.
“When I went to college,” Ness said, “I got a degree in recreation, because a farmer’s daughter doesn’t know how to have fun. Daddy would come to the foot of the stairs about five in the morning and yell, ‘Punkin Seed, People die in bed. You need to get up and get with it.”’
Ness’ professional career was in rehabilitation and recreation.
Once, at a new facility, Ness, working as a therapist, was told to teach a group of blind people how to make a bed.
“I didn’t know how to teach them,” Ness said. “And in the middle of the process there was a fire drill. I was new, and I didn’t know my way around the building, so the blind clients had to lead me out.”
Humor can be found most everywhere with this family.
Ness told about the time that the family was gathered in the kitchen, and her mother swatted a fly. It didn’t die, but fell to the floor, spinning.
“My mother said, ‘Tom, step on it,” Ness recalled. “They just laughed and laughed. I was thirteen years old and I ran to my room and threw myself on the bed and cried. All I could think was, ‘my Daddy has no legs. He can’t step on that fly.”’
But having no legs didn’t keep Tom from serving his community and county. He spent 15 years in the House of Delegates and never missed a roll call. At the time, there was no handicapped accessible entrance to the legislature. Betsy would wheel Tom into the service entrance and he’d use the service elevator.
“Then, one day, Ness said, “my daddy was gone.”
At the end of his tenure in the Legislature, Betsy called Ness, who was living in South Carolina, to tell her that her dad was retiring and a big party was planned in his honor. The party was going to be held at the Holly Hotel in Charleston.
“I was so happy, and I drove from South Carolina, but just before I got to Charleston, I heard on the radio that my daddy had died,” she said. “It was like a light went out. This inspirational man that I called ‘Daddy’ was gone.
“But my mom was so strong and so brave. She kept right on fighting to help the handicapped.
“If I could have chosen my parents, I would have chosen them,” Ness said. “Wherever they were, that’s where I wanted to be. They were so much fun.”
Tom and Betsy were courageous, confident, full of humor, good and happy people. Ness said. They were involved and instrumental in the development of the Federal Laws that govern today: 1974 PL 94-142 education for disabled, Act, 1973, 504 of the Rehabilitation Act – first legislation protecting civil rights of the handicapped, and were instrumental in helping secure federal and state funds to create the Rehabilitation Facility and Institute, as well as helping individuals and families in and around the county – especially the newly handicapped.
They were always ready to offer help and encouragement.
Their goal of handicapped accessibility continues as funds are now being raised for a metal fold-up ramp with a handrail for the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Museum. The ramp will be placed in honor of Tom’s and Betsy’s work on behalf of the handicapped.