John Rice Irwin and a gift from the heart

By Jadon Gibson - Special to the Claiborne Progress

Photo submitted Thelma Phillips Irwin making her gifts.

It was a pleasure receiving a Christmas well-wish from my good friend John Rice Irwin a few days ago. Irwin is the founder of the fabulous Museum of Appalachia which is located just 18 miles or so north of Knoxville just off of Interstate 75.

Irwin is a great American and great Tennessean. His life is rooted in the mountains and hills of Appalachia. A huge number of individuals have visited and enjoyed the Museum of Appalachia. John asked me to “spread the word, this Christmas story.”

“I found Thelma Phillips sitting before a warm fire watching over the food she was cooking on the hearth – country ham, parched corn, hoe cakes and such,” Irwin began. She graciously invited him to join her.

“I noticed that you often take leave of your culinary chores to make cloth balls, the size of oranges, from strips of worn out sheets,” he told her. “I was curious about the little notes that you write and place at the core of each of the cloth play-balls you make. I’m unable to restrain my curiosity any longer Thelma. If you don’t mind, tell me about the notes you write and place inside each of the play-balls.”

Thelma smiled broadly as if she expected the question.

“We were too poor to have any store-bought toys when I was a child,” she answered. “My Granny Phillips made each of us children a ball out of an old bed cover. What a great time we had playing with it until it finally unraveled and fell apart.

“I was sitting here the other day and studying about my own grandchildren and what I could get them for Christmas. I remembered the rag balls that my Granny made for us kids and decided to make one for each of my ten grandchildren.”

Irwin asked, “Tell me then, what is on those little notes you write and put in the balls?”

“I just write that I‘m thinking about them and tell how much I love them,” Thelma answered. “When the balls eventually fall apart, they’ll get that little extra Christmas wish.”

“Thelma, that’s such a great story and it has such meaning and love connected with it,” Irwin replied. He thought how wondrous it was that a child could be touched at some time later by an unexpected message, a special gift from the heart.

Thelma laid her cloth work aside and poked the fire while checking on her cooking. Irwin was so moved by what he learned he wanted to ask Thelma ‘about her raisin.’ He had been told that she grew up in one of the most remote places.

“They said my people were the first white people to live back there at the top of the mountain,” Thelma answered. “They called the area Sassafras where I was born and raised. There were no roads, or much of anything.

“My mother and daddy both died when I was twelve years old. I was on my own. I would work for a family for a few weeks for my room and board – taking care of kids, cleaning houses, carrying water or cutting wood. Then, for two or three years, I’d go from one family to another to work for a place to stay.

“We hardly heard of Christmas, but I feel blessed for all the Lord has provided for me and my family – all of the wonderful friends and neighbors and getting to meet thousands of people down at your Museum of Appalachia.”

Thelma is now 93 years old and is bedridden but she only counts her blessings and none of the hardships, including two bouts with cancer.

Irwin asked two of his close friends who worked with Thelma for decades, what they thought of her.

“If I had to choose a grandmother, I’d want her to be just like Thelma,” Andrea Fritts said almost immediately. Gene Purcell then responded as if he prepared his answer. “Thelma Phillips is the gentlest person I have ever met.”

Irwin said he hopes readers enjoy Thelma’s story and her special gift from the heart.

Anyone wishing to send this great American a greeting can do so at John Rice Irwin, 111 Acuff Lane, Clinton, TN 37716

Jadon Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate.

Photo submitted Thelma Phillips Irwin making her gifts. submitted Thelma Phillips Irwin making her gifts.

By Jadon Gibson

Special to the Claiborne Progress

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