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Johnny Vardeman: Ancestors give Hall woman a lot to talk about
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Gainesville icon Lillie Mae Green will turn 98 July 17.

She is best known as co-founder of Green’s Grocery on Riverside Drive with late husband Frank Green and mother of Ronnie Green, whose estate helped create the Ronnie Green Heart Center at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Lillie Mae also is known for her own contributions to worthy causes.

She perhaps is lesser known for the history within her and the part her ancestors played in local civic, education and religious life.

But first, a review of how she and Frank became the institutions they were in the grocery business.

Frank’s father had a Green’s Grocery himself on Church Street in Flowery Branch before World War II. Frank worked there, sometimes delivering groceries to rural families in a Ford truck.

He also got a job at Chicopee Manufacturing Co., then served a two-year tour in an Alabama shipyard. Frank had bought a new red Chevrolet before the war and had helped drive an ambulance for Vickers Funeral Home. After the war, he swapped the car for a small store on Atlanta Highway near the Chicopee railroad bridge.

Lillie Mae was surprised when her husband came home that night on the Chicopee bus instead of in his car. He explained to her the store owner wanted a car, and Frank wanted a store.

The tiny store at the time had little more than a drink box and ice cream freezer. Frank and Lillie Mae added a meat box and more groceries, and soon Chicopee residents were walking across the bridge and buying all their groceries from them.

In the meantime, son Ronnie came along. Although they had little money, the Greens opened Green’s on Riverside Drive in Gainesville in 1950. The three often worked from the early hours of the morning till late at night and stayed in business despite supermarkets that opened nearby. They sold groceries on credit and would even loan spending money to customers and their children when they came by.

Ronnie Green didn’t care to succeed his parents as owners of Green’s, and they sold to Ed Waller in 1995. Ronnie continued to work at the store, but died of a heart attack at age 55 in 2001. The Greens contributed $4 million from his estate to jump-start the Heart Center.

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Lillie Mae enjoys talking about her ancestors. Her great-grandfather, the Rev. Dave McCurry, coaxed an oxcart with all his belongings four days over Neel’s Gap into Hall County from Rutherford, N.C., after fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Four of his children had died at an early age, three of them from typhoid fever. The only surviving child, Belzonie E. McCurry, came with him.

The Rev. McCurry established or helped start 11 churches in the area and was in demand as a preacher across Georgia and neighboring states. Licensed to preach at age 21 at Wahoo Baptist Church, he pastored such churches as Central Baptist, Dewberry Baptist No. 2, New Holland and Corinth Baptist. He is said to have ministered 63 years, married 1,903 couples, preached more than 5,000 sermons, baptized 4,281 and conducted 1,400 funerals.

Lillie Mae is proud of her great-grandfather’s part in establishing Georgia Baptist Seminary, now Brenau University. She points to James Dorsey’s Hall County history that mentions how communities competed for the location of the school in the 1870s.

Gainesville offered incentives for the proposed college, including a free site and $25,000 in bonds approved by voters. McCurry was on the seminary’s advisory board, along with Mayor D.G. Candler, the Rev. W.C. Wilkes, O.B. Thompson, the Rev. A.J. Kelley, the Rev. A.T. Spalding, the Rev. W.T. Thornton, Dr. J.W. Bailey, the Rev. John Garner, W.P. Price and the Rev. W.C. Smith. Lillie Mae lists those names because she would like to be in touch with descendants of that first board.

The seminary struggled after it opened in 1878 and later reorganized as Brenau College and Brenau Conservatory.

The Rev. McCurry not only had played a part in growing the religious life in North Georgia, he was among those credited with the start of what has become a large and popular university. He died in 1909 at age 79.

Lillie Mae has one of the two pulpits her great-grandfather carried with him on his wide travels to preach. One was for himself and the other for his song leader. She also prizes his gold watch, which turned up after being lost for a while.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.