Bill Townsend, of Durham, N.C., won his battle against loneliness and a broken heart on Sunday afternoon August 9th when he escaped this earth for a permanent heavenly residency with his wife Sherry who died February 29th of this year. In fact, we are most confident that, as of this writing, Mom and Dad are sitting down to lunch, a bloody mary in hand for Mom, and a single beer, (he pronounced it “bare”), for Dad, both their hearts and minds filled again with love and companionship.
Shortly after our Mom’s death, the Health Center at The Forest at Duke had to make difficult decisions; the result being the facility was shut down to all family and friends on March 10. That was the last time Dad was able to see any of his three kids, their spouses, seven grandchildren, three great grandchildren or his many friends at The Forest. He took every meal in his room and the only source of social interaction for this extreme extrovert was two daily walks down the hallway with his mask on tight.
Sunday August 9th was like any other day. Dad was greeted by his wonderful caregivers with breakfast in the morning. An unusual morning phone call to Dad’s circa 2000 flip phone came from his daughter Sheridan (she usually called in the afternoon before dinner). A little bit of lunch and then our Dad, at 91 years of age, decided enough was enough. He was going to surprise Mom. He “checked out” at 6.00 pm that night and, no doubt, “checked in” just in time for dinner with his bride of 62 years.
Our family has nothing but admiration and respect for the hard decisions The Forest made to keep its residents and employees safe and healthy through this Pandemic. At the same time, we absolutely learned quarantine in a skilled nursing facility was no place for a lonely, heart-broken man of 91 years. Truly, one of life’s biggest conundrums to date for the Townsend Family.
As Dad is asking for an additional scoop of chocolate ice cream, we want all of you to know what a kind and gentle soul this man was. Known for his compassion and gracious nature, most anyone who met our Dad was always shocked to hear he was a 1951 graduate of The Citadel back when entry to a military school as a lowly plebe was serious business. After The Citadel, he completed a successful stent in the Air Force primarily stationed in the Philippines where, upon receiving an honorable discharge, he immediately moved to Washington, DC to pursue a dream of being a professional dancer. That’s not a typo; yes, a professional dancer. When his banking account started dipping down to low-three digits, Dad did what he always did in life, adjusted his dreams, moved on and never looked back.
With said funds running even lower, our Dad purchased a one-way train ticket to his hometown of Bennettsville, SC to rewrite his plans. Not one to splurge, he surprisingly and fortuitously, chose to purchase a ticket in the Club Car. On that trip, he met an executive from Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company who was on his way back to Durham from New York. They struck up a conversation and the man encouraged Dad to come back to Durham and interview for a management position at the Company.
Back in Durham two weeks later, he was offered a position with L&M, his employer for the next 35 years until his early retirement in 1990. Dad rented the guest cottage of Kenneth and Mildred Cobb on Club Boulevard when he started in Durham. It was there he met the love of his life, our mother Sherry, who was on her way to the Bahamas with her mother and made a planned stop to see their friends, the Cobbs.
At that chance meeting, Dad and Mom (who was engaged at the time) married shortly thereafter and remained so for 62 years raising three wonderful, smart, gorgeous and accomplished (remember who is writing this) kids. When our Mom was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer 20 years ago, we remember our Dad telling us “This doesn’t look good, but I am going to fight to help Mom fight this every step of the way.” Our Dad did just that driving Mom to every medical appointment, living 24 hours a day in the hospital through three difficult surgeries and sitting with her through chemo and radiation treatments. Our Dad’s love and concern partnered with our Mom’s fight, beat back even cancer. This partnership was tangible evidence of the strength that love and commitment can create.
Upon retirement, Dad turned his kind heart to volunteering He co-founded the St. Philip’s Prison Ministry, steadfastly visiting the incarcerated at the Durham County Jail offering warmth and empathy to the lonely and afraid. Well into his 80’s, he manned the service desk at Caring House, lending a listening ear and companionship to those battling cancer. Most notably, Dad was no one and done, he reliably and faithfully volunteered between the two organizations, two times a week, for three decades.
Dad was conversational, but also a focused, purposeful listener. He was the guy at the party who was thoughtful and attentive to all but watched out for those ringing the outskirts of the room, actively drawing them in, ensuring they felt welcomed. He was about small acts of kindness that softly rippled across the way; subtle, yet potent.
In addition to Mom, Dad had two other loves. First, were his grandchildren whom he spoiled with his undivided attention and infinite patience. One of our spouses fondly remembers how “Poppa” watched one of the grandchildren, then two years of age, delightedly pull clean dishes out of the dishwasher, dropping them one by one onto the floor, while Poppa tirelessly reloaded again, and again, and again, only stopping as the grandchild toddled off. Poppa then laughed, re-loaded and re-ran the dishwasher, while we just shook our heads in tired amazement. His third love was spending time at his beach house, Rest-A-Bit, in Litchfield Beach, S.C. Dad’s favorite days consisted of painting on Rest-A-Bit’s screened-in-porch with Mom by his side, pausing to push the grandchildren on the swing and always stopping to share a cold treat from the ice cream truck before a late afternoon stroll along the water. Thus, when Dad turned his creative juices to painting, he combined his two loves and our hearts and walls filled with pastels of his grandchildren playing on the beach and seagulls cruising the surf.
Turning away from those memories and back to today, our grateful family thanks the wonderful healthcare staff at the Forest, who continually provided a strong and enduring safety net to take care of our Dad, particularly in the last six months of his life. The Forest staff became his attending family sharing a love and care we thought only possible from direct family. We have seen a lot through this Pandemic but seeing healthcare professionals providing skilled care AND love and compassion was inspiring. We are forever indebted to these fine folks who seamlessly became Dad’s family when we could no longer provide that presence.
So Dad, as you are ordering that single “bare” of the first evening of the rest of your existence, please raise a toast to all the great folks at The Forest for a remarkable job well done. Then you and Mom can toast your wonderful kids one more time and reflect on how much they loved and adored you. Here’s to a life well lived, indeed.
With so many headwinds staring down the feasibility of a memorial service, our family has chosen to have a private internment of Dad’s ashes in the columbarium at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church right next to Mom.
If you are so inclined, our Dad would very much appreciate any donations being made to:
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church
403 East Main Street
Durham, NC 27701
2625 Pickett Road
Durham, NC 27705
Posted in: Herald-Sun
Posted on: 2020-08-19
Link to original obituary: https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/heraldsun/obituary.aspx?n=william-ld-townsend&pid=196659315