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Column: Oakwood man recalls 57 years of funeral rites
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

Charles Townsend of Oakwood completed a 57-year career as a funeral director, serving most of that time with Ward’s Funeral Home on South Main Street in Gainesville.

He followed in the footsteps of his father, Sid Townsend, who was associated with Ward’s for years.

That many years in any business, one can accumulate a lot of memories and stories.

The one that stands out for Charles Townsend is the familiar “Lady of the Lake,” as was called the mystery of two Hall County women who went missing in 1958 after a night of dancing in Forsyth County. When they didn’t return to their homes, there was speculation the women had run away to Florida, met with foul play, or, as it turned out, their car had plunged into Lake Lanier.

In the years following, stories proliferated about drivers on the highway seeing a ghostly figure standing on the bridge or voices calling for help beneath the waters.

A fisherman found the body of Delia Young when it surfaced at Holly Park, 18 months after she and Susie Roberts disappeared April 12, 1958. Susie Roberts’ body wasn’t found until workers on a new bridge on Ga. 53, the Gainesville-Dawsonville Highway, discovered their 1952 Ford 90 feet deep in Lake Lanier in November 1990.

Townsend, who witnessed the recovery of both women’s bodies, recalled the white sweater Roberts had on was still in good condition, considering how long it had been the murky waters of the lake. Her shoes were still on her feet and a watch on her wrist.

Young’s body wasn’t identified until after the car was found and Roberts identified. It had been kept in a special sealed casket at Ward’s Funeral Home until finally buried in an unmarked grave in Alta Vista Cemetery. Townsend said after Roberts’ body was found, he and gravedigger Ed Broome had trouble at first finding where they had buried Young. 

Young’s family then conducted a funeral and placed a marker at her grave. Roberts was buried Nov. 10, 1990, in Alta Vista Cemetery. The story made national news, including Paul Harvey’s “Rest of the Story” and an article in The New York Times.

Townsend also remembers vividly the burial of Sonny Carter, an astronaut who never lived in Gainesville, but had Hall County relatives. Carter died in a plane crash on his way back to NASA headquarters in Washington from Brunswick. It was quite a production, Townsend said, with swarms of Secret Service agents and Vice President Dan Quayle present for the impressive ceremony. Carter’s grave has a simple marker in Alta Vista Cemetery.

Townsend started hanging out at Ward’s at age 10 when his father worked there. By age 15, he was working his first funeral with Billy Bob Strickland, now owner of W.R. Strickland Funeral Home in Clermont. 

Before he began his long career with Ward’s, he and his wife, Phyllis, lived upstairs in the old Vickers Funeral Home on Broad Street, now Jesse Jewell Parkway. The apartment was part of his compensation for working there.

He collects articles about notable funerals and history. They include newspaper clippings of President Franklin Roosevelt’s death and funeral in 1945, Mark Trail cartoonist Ed Dodd and the program from Coretta Scott King’s funeral in 2006. He says Gainesville’s first funeral home opened in 1882, operated by A.B.C. Dorsey, who started Alta Vista Cemetery, served as city clerk, chief of the volunteer fire department and was a real estate agent.

Ward’s once operated in the old Sears catalog office building at the corner of Maple and Washington streets. It later moved into the former home of Congressman Tom Bell on South Main Street, at the corner of Summit, across from its present location.

Townsend retired from Ward’s, and found himself needing more activity in his life. So, he scouted around for part-time funeral home positions. He had five job offers, but eventually joined Bearden Funeral Home in Dawsonville on a part-time basis. He worked there more than 11 years before finally retiring for good.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, vardeman1956@att.net or johnny.peggy1956@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.

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