The Real Book 

This is a story of courage, loyalty and love in the face of adversity.

It’s the story of Waddie Welcome and his friend, Addie Reeves. They were two unlikely heroes, but their story continues to touch many lives years after their deaths.

At one time, Welcome’s future must have seemed bleak. He was born on the Fourth of July, 1914, in Sylvania, Ga., with severe cerebral palsy.

Welcome never learned to stand or walk and spent much of his life lying flat on his back. He was not able to speak clearly and could barely communicate. Because of his disabilities, he was never allowed to attend school.

Yet Welcome had a quick mind, and he loved people -- especially women. He found ways to make others understand him.

Once people met Welcome, they never forgot him. “He was a very magnetic person,” says Susan Earl. “He was very energetic, very beautiful to look at.”

With Tom Kohler, Earl is the author of a book, Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community. “He had the most lively expressions,” she says. “He communicated so well with his face. He was so responsive and so clear in what he wanted.”

Welcome’s family moved from Sylvania to Savannah in a mule-drawn wagon. They settled on Battery Street in the Cuyler-Brownsville community in the mid-1920s. For a time, Welcome’s mother operated a small treats store with cookies, candy and pickles on their front porch. He helped out by keeping an eye on the money jar.

Welcome’s parents, Henry and Carrie, cared for him until their deaths. Then his brother, Willie, the only sibling left in Savannah, cared for him.

After a time, neighbors who were concerned about Welcome’s quality of care notified Adult Protective Services. He was taken from his brother’s home into a nursing home.

Over the next several years, Welcome was transferred to other nursing homes, including one in Abbeyville, three hours away from his beloved Savannah. He hated being in a nursing home, and, even more, hated being away from his old neighborhood.

Tom Kohler met Welcome in 1986 at Savannah Health Care Nursing Home through his work as coordinator of Chatham-Savannah Citizens Advocacy. He remembers at their first meeting that Welcome was “a man with piercing eyes.”

It soon became clear that Welcome desperately needed a citizen advocate to get him out of the nursing home. Kohler asked 39 people, but not one said yes.

Then Kohler found a letter in Welcome’s nightstand. It was from someone named Addie Reeves, a family friend of the Welcomes.

Kohler called Reeves and went to her home in Yamacraw Village. She told him that when Welcome’s mother died in 1974, she’d asked Reeves to watch over her son.

Reeves, who was 100 when she died in October 2001, had grown up on a farm as one of ten children. On the farm she learned the particular value of two things -- work and cooking.

Her pastor, the Rev. Bennie Mitchell of Connors Temple Baptist Church, says she was unforgettable. “Most of the members of our church can remember Mrs. Reeves,” Mitchell says.

“She embodied the scripture, John 3:16 -- ‘For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son.’ Mrs. Reeves demonstrated what God did for the world. She loved the unloved, the crippled and the ugly.”

Reeves had an unusual hobby. Over a long period of time, perhaps longer than 25 years, she lovingly crafted a handmade telephone and address book by cutting thousands of letters and numbers out of magazines.

These letters were carefully stored in a cardboard box she had sectioned into compartments. Each letter was taped or glued into her phone book to spell out the names, addresses and numbers of the people who were important to her.

“As she was sitting there, she was probably cutting some letters out. She made sure she had numbers and names of people she could call,” Mitchell says.

“She always had something to share. She baked cookies. Every Sunday morning, she made sure she had peppermints, which she would give to the kids.”

Not only did Reeves keep a stash of peppermints to give out, she literally threw them at people.

“She would throw those peppermints overhand,” Earl says. “She would hit people! She’d see someone across the room she didn’t know and throw them a peppermint.”

Connect Savannah columnist Jane Fishman was a friend of Addie Reeves.

“When you know someone like that, you don’t realize how special they are until they aren’t here any more,” Fishman says. “I can’t really say I’ve met anybody like Mrs. Reeves. She was a quick read.”

Although loving, Reeves could be sharp with her tongue. “When I didn’t call her back immediately, she called me and said, ‘This is old lady Addie Reeves. I ain’t dead yet,’” Fishman says.

“She was kind and good, but she could also throw a zinger at you. She could speak from the heart, but also very honestly.”

Everyone who met Mrs. Reeves remembers her cooking. Fishman once took her mother to Reeves’ house for dinner.

“She made smothered chicken and greens and biscuits,” Fishman says. “She had to send us home with something. It wasn’t about food, it was really about sharing.”

When Welcome was transferred to Abbeyville, Reeves wanted to go visit him. By that time, Kohler had asked attorney Lester Johnson if he would become Welcome’s citizen advocate, so the three went to Abbeyville.

Johnson quickly agreed to become Welcome’s advocate, and Reeves added Johnson to her phone book.

“She would always say, ‘Come by and pick up some biscuits or sweet rolls.’” Johnson remembers. “I got so busy at times, I’d forget to stop. The next day, I’d get a call and she would bless me out.

“One day she called and said she had some money in the bank,” he says. “She wanted me to get it. I said, ‘How much?’ She had $100. It had been there forever.” Johnson had trouble finding the time to go to the bank and fight the red tape that would be needed to get the money.

“I even said, ‘Mrs. Reeves, let me give you the money,’” he recalls. “She said, ‘No, I want my money.’ Jane finally ended up going and getting her money for her.”

Reeves had trouble getting around, so she used an office chair to roll around her house. She kept her trusty scissors tied to the table near her telephone for efficiency.

Earl recalls:

“She had a very strong value system. One time I took her to see Mr. Welcome. She’d been hit by a car and used a cane, so she always wanted people to take her places.

“I told her I would pick her up on my lunch hour, take her over to the nursing home and she could stay and I would pick her up. So we drove out to the nursing home. She had cooked for him. He loved her cooking.

“She sat down next to him to help him eat,” Earl says. “I started to leave, and she said, ‘Where are you going? I have something for you, too.’ She had this big shopping bag with dinner for me. I took it back to the office. There was enough there for two to three people -- fried chicken, biscuits, collards.”

One time, Earl took Reeves some flowers for her birthday. They were not appreciated.

“She was really angry. She thought I was wasting money by giving her something that would just die and that I should have brought her bananas. She’d tell you exactly how things should be,” Earl says.

“ But she was so giving. If you took her to the bank, she’d bake you some cookies,” Earl says. “She was always baking something, in a not very big kitchen. And she didn’t measure anything.”

Sometimes, Reeves’ gifts came with strings attached. “One day, she called me and said she had a bag full of biscuits for me,” Kohler remembers.

“On the way between her house and mine, I ate all 12 biscuits,” he says. “Mrs. Reeves had called my house, and when I got home, my wife asked, ‘Where are the biscuits?’

“When I came by for biscuits again, Mrs. Reeves had them in a brown bag,” Kohler says. “She had sewn the top of the bag shut with a note saying how many biscuits were in there.

“We now have ‘Biscuit Bag’ as an artifact of Addie Reeves,” he says. “She had a one-two punch and she never lost it.”

Reeves kept that “punch” until the end. “It was hard to see her in the hospital,” Fishman says. “When you saw her not eating, you knew.

“There was a big party planned for her 100th birthday. She wasn’t really up to it, but she rose to the occasion. She looked beautiful, very gracious throughout the day,” Fishman says. “That was probably the last time I saw her.”

“Who was Addie Reeves?” Kohler asks. “Addie Reeves was one of those people who always changed the people she met.”

Before she died, Reeves insisted that Kohler be given her phone book. He recently lent it to the Telfair Museum of Art, which has displayed it.

“It took time to absorb it,” says Hollis Koons McCullough, Curator of Fine Arts and Exhibitions at the Telfair.

“I pondered it a little while. Mrs. Reeves completed it slowly and lovingly,” McCullough says. “In the end, she created a magical work of art. Once your name got in the book, you were in there. Art in many ways is about community.”

“When does a phone book become art?” asks Harry DeLorme, Senior Curator of Education at the Telfair.

“What is it about this book that makes it stand out? She was very immersed in her community. It was a living, growing project.”

Reeves was determined to help her friend Waddie Welcome get out of the nursing home. But because she was not very good at battling bureaucracy, another source was sought.

Welcome found support and help from a group called The Storytellers.

“The Storytellers started as a way to help two young men who had been living in nursing homes,” says Earl. “They had a group of people who knew them who formed a support system and helped them to leave the nursing homes.”

Earl, together with the two young men, Kohler and the late activist Debra Selman, met and talked about ways they could help others. The Storytellers was born from that.

“We met once a month for four to five years,” Earl says. “It was a covered-dish event. Everyone who came brought food. That was very strategic. We wanted people to sit down and have a meal together, and we also wanted to get help for those people who needed help to eat. When you help someone, you learn a lot about them.”

After eating, the group would gather in a circle. Each month, one member would tell his or her life story.

“What happened over a period of time was that it started to become a circle of circles,” Earl says. “Smaller circles began forming to focus on one individual. That’s how I got into Mr. Welcome’s circle.”

After two years, the circle found a way to get Welcome out of the nursing home by having him declared eligible for a Medicaid waiver program that allowed him to go to a private home for care.

Welcome’s biggest desire was to move to a home where he could smell food cooking and hear children playing. He moved in with friends Jeff and Kathy Alden. Welcome moved to other homes over the years, but eventually returned to the Aldens’ home, where he died at age 86 of liver cancer.

He was believed to be one of the oldest Americans with cerebral palsy.

Even after he left the nursing home, his circle of friends continued to provide support. “One time, we took him to get some clothing,” Earl says.

“He loved clothes,” she says. “He was the kind of dresser who had to have the blue pinstripe suit with a matching handkerchief and tie. He was a very flashy dresser. He had charisma.”

In 1997, the documentary Waddie Welcome: A Man Who Could Not Be Denied, was produced by the University of Georgia.

It won top honors at three video and film festivals nationwide, as well as a 1998 Collaboration Award from the International Association of People with Severe Handicaps.

Welcome traveled to Seattle to accept that award.

“From what I’ve heard, a thousand people in the auditorium gave him a standing ovation,” Earl says. “On the plane back, people recognized him and asked for his autograph.”

In December 1999, Connect Savannah named Welcome one of Chatham County’s ten most influential people of the decade. His story continued to grow, even after his death in January 2001.

“I’m surprised the story has grown so big,” Kohler says. “However, I’m not surprised it has moved individual people.”

At first, Earl, too, was surprised at Welcome’s sudden fame. “When they made the video, he was a movie star,” she says. “Then it won awards and his story kept getting bigger and bigger.”

Kohler created a slide show about Welcome, and Earl wrote a reflection to go along with it.

“The first time we showed the slide show, I knew it moved the room,” Kohler says. “I thought then maybe this was a story that had a certain power to it.”

Kohler and Earl were convinced by others to turn the slide show into a book. Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community won the 2005 Collaboration Award from the International Association of People with Severe Handicaps -- just as the video about Welcome had seven years before.

The title comes from a statement by the Rev. Jim Lawson, a California-based civil rights activist:

“The beloved community is not a utopia, but a place where the barriers between people gradually come down and where the citizens make a constant effort to address even the most difficult problems or ordinary people.”

Once upon a time in Savannah, the community came together -- across racial barriers, across income lines, in spite of prejudice against the disabled -- to help a man who could otherwise have easily been overlooked.

The community gave Waddie Welcome his life back.

“The legacy we leave is our story. The real legacy here is less about independence and more to do with interdependence,” Kohler concludes.

“What everyone wants to be is living in a community where people respect and help one another. We need to help people revisit the idea of independence as a goal,” he says.

“Interdependence may really be the goal.”

Mrs. Reeves’ phone book is on display at the Telfair Museum of Art. Waddie Welcome and The Beloved Community can be found at local bookstores and at www.inclusion.com/.

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Linda Sickler

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