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In love with “gospel music and clean country music”, Leon began attending country signings in Carroll, Gibson, Weakley, Henry and Benton counties. “Usually there were from one to …
In love with “gospel music and clean country music”, Leon began attending country signings in Carroll, Gibson, Weakley, Henry and Benton counties. “Usually there were from one to three singings every weekend within driving distance,” he said.
“Some were all day signings with dinner on the ground. I know the old-timers know what I’m talking about.”
At the singings, Leon and Gay were called on regularly to sing in quartets made up of people pulled from the audience to “change up” the singing and give the regular attractions a little rest.
“They seemed to call on the same ones nearly every singing, and I said to the other, “We need to get together and practice a little and maybe sing some good ole Southern Gospel songs.
Leon and Gay formed the Happy Five Quartet, name by the late J.T. Jones. Soon, the quartet was offered a 45-minute spot on WHDM radio station Sunday mornings from 7:15 until 8 a.m., a tradition that continued from 1960 until 1995, nearly 35 years. The group was made up of Leon, tenor; Gay, alto; Lewis Garner, bass; and Donna Bates, lead or soprano. Some of the group’s pianists over the years were Nancy Hicks, Linda Lawrence, Kay Joyner and Shirley Wade.
“During those 35 years, we also were usually found singing somewhere in West Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas,” Leon related fondly. “We would usually travel in two or three cars; we never thought we could afford a bus. I cherish those years as the best years of my life. For years our radio program was shown on McKenzie cable TV simultaneously with the radio. It was pretty early to get up around 6:00 a.m. and dress in a suit and tie for these programs, but it was worth it to know we were doing the Lord’s work.”
Just when his days seemed most dim after losing Gay unexpectedly on January 11, 1994, Leon was jolted into renewed awareness by a customer at E.W. James Grocery Store in McKenzie where he was manager in 1994.
“Carolyn said she was just going to forget about you if she could,” Montez Pratt, Carolyn’s sister, admonished him.
He remembered having received a sympathy card from his friend of many years ago. He had received an Easter card from her in April as well: a beautiful sentiment likening Christ’s resurrection with his own loss.
He’d placed the sympathy card in a box along with “two or three other hundred” and, still in shock after his wife’s death, had set the Easter card aside as well after noting its inscription: “I live alone also. If you would like to call me sometime or write, I would like to hear from you.”
“Best I can remember she said to call if you want to,” Leon advised Montez in the store. “I reckon I didn’t want to at the time, but if she feels that way about it, I will.”
He and Carolyn had met when she was just about 15, at a “guitar pull” put on by her brother, Hubert Blackburn, who was a friend of Leon’s.
“She got word there was going to be a nice looking young guitarist up there,” he grinned.
Despite, the six-year difference in their ages, Leon managed to take Carolyn on their first date to the 1952 Huntingdon fair, along with her sister and husband and children who agreed to accompany them as chaperones.
Another date had the couple, chosen from the dance floor, singing “Goodnight Irene” in front of the band, with Carolyn dressed in green taffeta. The dance was held at the National Guard Armory, then located by the old Wilker Brothers factory, which was brand new at the time.
But when the couple ventured to Medina to go skating, which, he stressed in the 1940s and 50s was a long way from home, their time home was “delayed by an awful storm.”
When he pulled up in front of her house of Church Avenue at 11 p.m., her parents were waiting. Hauling her out of the car arm scolded, “Young lady, you’ve got some explaining to do.”
“This probably terminated our dating,” he mused with wide eyes and raised eyebrows. It was just as well since she and her family moved to Michigan shortly afterward.
When he arrived home after speaking with Montez at the store earlier in the day, he picked up the phone and called Carolyn.
“This is Leon Purvis,” he blurted, “since you’ve lived down here we’ve come out of the kinks. We’ve got a Walmart, and we’ve got a McDonalds. Now when you come home to visit why don’t we go get a Big Mac?”
Answering softly, she replied, “I’d like that.”
“I would too,” he said firmly.
Although she returned to Tennessee each year to visit members of her family, the two had seen each other on only three occasions over the years: when she lost her dad in 1968 (Leon and Gay sang at the funeral service); then years after that, when they also sang at her mother’s funeral, and in 1989, when her brother Hubert died.
When Carolyn came for a visit in May, Leon-dressed in a tie and with a nick on his face caused from his nervousness while shaving went to the door of her sister’s house with a dozen roses.
“She looked as pretty as she ever did, she was a doll!” he exclaimed.
After dinner that evening at the home of Carolyn’s niece and her husband, Jane and Kenny Carrell, the two saw each other every day, including a trip to see the Grand Ole Opry.
After getting together as often as possible over the next few years, in April 1996 Leon surprised Carolyn with an engagement ring when she came to visit.
He laughed, recalling how he first struggled down the hallway carrying a shirt box as if it were too heavy to handle. Opening it, she found a man’s shirt.
“Oh, I got the wrong box,” he declared coming back a second time with a box about the size of a shoebox. She opened the box to find another box inside. After the third or fourth box, she finally got down to the ring.
Leon got down on his knees at the sofa to propose. Crying, she said, “I thought I was going to have to ask you.”
“We squalled and hugged so you’d think we lost one of our children,” Leon laughed.
At the end of September, Carolyn quit her job at the American Rubber Company in LaPorte and moved in with her sister until the couple married on October 12, 1996 in the Gleason First Cumberland Presbyterian Church, where Leon was choir leader for 31 years as we as being an elder, Sunday School teacher and Sunday School supervisor.
Carolyn had been alone for 25 years after her first marriage ended in divorce. Her daughters Kim and Shari along with son Rick and grandson Brandon, accepted Leon as their own.
Choked up with love and gratitude, Leon managed to express his feeling: “I Just can’t explain how good it makes me feel. They love their mother to death, they call every week...When we all get together it’s a ball; they keep something going all the time. They come in here with their laughter and it’s the best medicine.”
Carolyn went to work in the dietary department of McKenzie’s hospital for three years before retiring three days before Leon in 2001. He retired from E.W. James Grocery after 23 years for a total of 53 years in the grocery business.
“The Lord has blessed us; he’s still blessing us,” said Leon.
In September 2003, Leon underwent bypass surgery.
They still attended signings regularly, “there’s not as many as there used to be,” Leon lamented, “the young people are not interested and the old people are dying out.”
Leon was the assistant choice director for the Carroll County RSVP Choice while Carolyn was one of its members.
“We sing at eight different nursing homes,” he boosted happily, “We go to one every Monday. We go to those nursing homes expecting to be blessings to somebody and do you know who gets a blessing?
“We do!” he exclaimed.
“We leave with the biggest blessing.”
On April 14, 2017 Leon died at the age of 86.
Jason R. Martin
B.S. • M.A.Ed • MLS
Councilman, Ward II
Rotary Dist. 6760, Asst. Governor
WestStar Class of 2019
Jason Martin is a life-long resident of McKenzie. He graduated from McKenzie High School in 2000; earned a Bachelor of Science in History from Bethel College in 2004; a Masters in Education from Bethel University in 2009 and a Masters in History and Humanities from Fort Hays State University in 2011.