Hailey harnesses power of a smile, strength of positive thinking

Monday, December 30, 2002

Ruth Hailey surrounds herself with smiles.

Every day, she's greeted by the happy faces of 160 dolls perched on chairs, couches, beds, dressers and shelves of her Newbern home.

"When I get up in the morning and walk by this door, they're all smiling at me," she said, peering into a guest bedroom. More grins await in each room. "I'm just a little girl at heart with my dolls."

She and her husband, the late Hugh Hailey, purchased some of the dolls. Others were gifts. And, some were rescued. A ballerina discovered in a roadside dump has become one of Hailey's favorite dolls. She scrubbed it, painted its sun-faded face and body, and then sewed a sequined tutu for the doll.

Another 40 or so dolls are hidden in boxes and under the bed, awaiting Hailey's loving touch. They need baths, new hairdos and new clothes.

"I hope, before I leave this world, to have most of them dressed," she said.

It may take a while. In Hailey's life, people come before dolls, and she gives her family and friends the same kind of love and devotion that she showers upon her dolls.

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While her house is filled with dolls today, Hailey had very few dolls as a child.

Born as Mary Ruth Thurmon on Jan. 5, 1922, she is the middle child in a family of 11 children. Her parents, Ira and Eugene Thurmon, were farmers in the Cat Corner/Elbridge area of Obion County.

"We had a happy home life, a happy childhood," she said. The children grew up working in the fields, helping around the house and attending the Rehoboth Church of Christ, which was just across the street. "We never knew anything but church activities," she said.

Hailey had three dolls as a child. An older sister gave her a doll with real hair when she was about 6 years old. Then, when she was about 10 years old, Mrs. Frank Shepherd of Dyersburg, took a trip around the world and brought Hailey two celluloid dolls from China.

Determined to make sure the dolls had suitable outfits, Hailey said she filled a small box with scraps of her mother's fabric and settled on the moss under a tree to sew for her dolls.

"Oh, those were happy memories," she said.

Hailey continued honing her sewing talents at Cloverdale High School, where she was crowned the "Spirit of Home Economics" during her junior year.

In high school, Hailey also developed a passion for one of her fellow students. Hugh Earl Hailey was a senior when she enrolled as a freshman. It was love at first sight, and a love that had to wait. Ruth Hailey said her parents wouldn't let her date until she was 16 years old. Then, she and Hugh Hailey often double-dated with Marzell Tickle and her boyfriend.

Tickle, who moved from her childhood home in Ridgely to Dyersburg, recalled that Ruth Hailey was "a lovely girl and a pretty girl. She was outgoing. She played basketball. She was one of these all-around girls."

Desperately in love, Ruth and Hugh Hailey decided to get married on June 7, 1939. They kept it a secret -- and lived separately -- for nearly a year.

"Back in those days, it wasn't an uncommon thing," Hailey said. She explained that married girls weren't allowed to attend school, and she had promised her parents that she would graduate.

Hailey said she quit the basketball team and other extracurricular activities her senior year to concentrate on her studies. She graduated in the spring of 1940 and announced her marriage that night. By October, the Haileys were on their way to Washington, D.C., where U.S. Rep. Fats Everett had secured jobs for a number of young men. Hugh Hailey worked in a warehouse, shipping pharmaceuticals to drug stores, and Ruth Hailey enrolled in beauty college.

The 15-month excursion was just the first stop on a life filled with travel. Hugh was drafted into the Navy in 1942 and served a four-year term. After a short attempt at civilian life, Hugh Hailey rejoined the Navy and eight years later transferred to the Air Force.

Like any military family, the Haileys faced separations and frequent moves. The family -- complete with the births of Glenn Hailey in 1943 and Melvin Hailey in 1948 -- moved from Memphis to Montgomery, Ala., to Victoria, Texas, to Sherman, Texas, to Goose Bay, Labrador, to Abilene, Texas, to Limestone, Maine and finally home to West Tennessee. Hugh Hailey, who also was assigned stints in France and Vietnam, retired in 1968.

Through it all, Ruth Hailey honed her knack for finding "the best" in every situation. She worked as a beautician and as a store clerk. She made friends. And, she nurtured a family's love.

"Everywhere we ever were, we had a wonderful life," she said. "The first thing we did (whenever we moved to a new town), we found a church home. Then, we always felt right at home. We never felt out of place."

When their traveling days were over, Ruth and Hugh Hailey came home. They built a house in Newbern, where Hugh Hailey secured a job teaching air conditioning and refrigeration classes at the vocational school for eight years.

"It's the last place in the world I ever would have dreamed of retiring, but I have loved it," she said.

It was here that Ruth Hailey faced the toughest battle of her life.

Hugh Hailey woke up with an excruciating backache one morning and was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The cancer spread to every bone in his body within five weeks and killed him within a year.

"I asked Hugh right before he died, 'Hugh, did you ever come in contact with Agent Orange,'" she said. "He said, 'Oh, darling, every day.'"

In Vietnam, she explained, Hugh Hailey had been responsible for loading airplanes with Agent Orange and then washing the planes when they returned.

"He was the love of my life. Boy, oh boy, we had a good life together," she said.

After losing her best friend, Ruth Hailey said she turned to the strongest supporter she had.

"I've always tried to put the Lord first in my life," she said. But, with her husband gone, Hailey needed more assistance. She learned how to use a hammer and to do household repairs, asking God for guidance each time. She'd say: "Lord, me and you can do anything together."

It worked. "There has never been a widow as blessed as I've been these past 12 years," she said. Hailey shares those blessings with others every day.

Her faith and positive outlook shine through her eyes, through her tenderness and through her actions.

"Anytime anyone needs anything, she's there to help them," longtime friend and neighbor Lee Ashcraft said. In addition to repairing countless garments, Hailey helped the Ashcrafts re-cover the seats in their truck, a task that Ashcraft wasn't convince could be accomplished.

Hailey told her: "'You get what we need and we'll get the job done.' She never says, 'Well, I don't know.'"

Then, back in the early to mid-1990s, Ashcraft volunteered to fix up dolls for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and quickly found that she couldn't do it alone. She called Hailey, who crocheted shoes and sewed underclothes, dresses and bonnets for the dolls.

"I was the one who volunteered to do it, but I couldn't do it without her help," Ashcraft said. "You just can't imagine how pathetic and pitiful some of these little dolls look, and she just makes them so pretty."

As a member of the Newbern garden club, Hailey helps collect artificial flowers and containers and then turns them into miniature floral arrangements for local nursing homes. Ashcraft, who's in the garden club, too, said the club makes more than a hundred arrangements each year and has done so for the last 10 or 12 years.

At West Dyersburg Church of Christ, Hailey has taken an active role.

She and Aileen Dunn meet at the church early each Sunday to prepare the Lord's Supper before the services begin. She helps prepare meals during the church's summer camp for children at Reelfoot Lake. And, she used to help the "older ladies" when they prepared the fellowship meal one Wednesday each month.

When the Ladies Bible Class began about 12 years ago, Hailey quickly joined and became one of the class leaders. At first, she served as one of the instructors, drawing lessons from the materials she'd accumulated during nearly 45 years of teaching.

In addition to studying the Bible, the ladies get together once a month to create teddy bears and then deliver them to the local hospital, nursing homes, local police officers and rescue-squad members, and new mothers in the church congregation. Erma Humphrey said Hailey uses her skills as a seamstress to make sure every bear looks just right.

Shelley Wellington of Dyersburg described Hailey as a woman who's always smiling, always well dressed and always capable of cheering others.

She recalled how much her mother, Nita Walker, loved talking to Hailey. When Walker underwent chemotherapy treatments in Jackson, Hailey volunteered periodically to drive her there. Walker always looked forward to riding with Hailey because they laughed all the way to Jackson and back, Wellington said. Hailey also visited or called Walker every Sunday night until her death about a year and a half ago.

Through Jane Hendrix, Hailey found a way to help cancer patients she'd never even met. She and another woman began making turbans for patients who lost their hair after radiation treatments. Hendrix, also a longtime friend and neighbor, said she has taken the turbans to the Cancer Care Center in Dyersburg as well as hospitals in Memphis and Jackson.

Before the American Cancer Society created the Relay for Life, most of its local revenue came through Grocers Fight Cancer, an event that incorporated a huge bake sale and celebrities bagging groceries for tips. Hendrix said Hailey always generously contributed baked items.

On a more personal note, Hendrix said Hailey is "just like my second momma." She said she knows she can confide in her, rely on her and count on her to help whenever she's needed.

Hendrix said she's amazed at the things Hailey knows how to do. She can paint, rework pieces of jewelry, restore old picture frames, sew anything and cut and style hair beautifully.

"She's one of the most talented people you've ever seen," Hendrix said.

Hailey used to volunteer her services as a beautician at Dyersburg Manor. For four years in the mid-1980s, she spent every Tuesday afternoon cutting and styling the residents' hair for free.

"I'm not really doing anything for them," she told a State Gazette reporter at the time, "they are doing it for me. One day when I went home from here I told my husband that I am happiest when I'm doing something for somebody else that they can't do for themselves. I get a blessing just by helping others."

She still puts her beautician skills to work on Sisters Day, which the Thurmon family celebrates every Friday. Hailey said she drives to the Viar Road home of her sister, Rejina Marshall, 89, and fixes her hair. Then, Hailey, Marshall and sometimes their younger sister, Ann Seaton, also of Viar Road, head out for a day of shopping and a light lunch.

Whether she's sharing moments with her sisters, helping others or rescuing dolls, one thing's evident. Hailey has learned about the power of smiles, the magic of positive thinking and the love of God.

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