If angels roam the earth, the late Icie Pilgrim may have been chief among them.
The unofficial matriarch of New Holland in her day, Pilgrim, who died at 67, is remembered as a kind-hearted, God-fearing maternal figure to generations of the village’s children. Upon learning her grave at Alta Vista Cemetery had remained unmarked from the time she was laid to rest there in November 1981, a rag-tag group of boys — who’ve since grown into men in their 60s and 70s — rallied to pay homage to the woman whose life shaped much of their own.
Bearing the inscription, “An angel among us,” a memorial plaque was recently installed at Pilgrim’s grave, with a dedication ceremony held Monday, March 13.
While her death was more than 40 years ago, Vic Wilson said it wasn’t until recently that his nephew, Darryl Wilson, was visiting some loved ones’ graves at Alta Vista and couldn’t locate Pilgrim’s. He went to the office and learned the grave had never been marked.
“It just made me sad,” Darryl said.
“I heard a little fire in his voice,” Vic recalled. “He said, ‘Vic, we’re going to get a grave marker for her.’ We went on a mission. We got together, made a few phone calls (and) everybody said, ‘We’re in, whatever it takes.’”
Robert Pilgrim said he wasn’t sure why his aunt’s grave was never marked until now, and can only assume it was an issue of affordability at the time.
While Icie would likely prefer the men “find something else worthwhile” to spend their money on, Vic, who grew up in the house next door, said the gesture is simply “what we think is acceptable and appropriate.”
“She was instrumental in making us feel loved (and) appreciated,” he said. “She’s one person you’ll never forget. She was the heart of the neighborhood.”
“She deserves that much,” Kenny Burnette echoed. “I think it’s part of our calling, but it’s also payback.”
Pilgrim was robbed of a normal life by polio, which later developed into multiple sclerosis, resulting in the amputation of both of her legs. According to Robert’s best recollection, Icie “was OK until she was about 15 or 16 years old. Then the MS struck her. Through the years, it gradually got worse. The middle to latter part of her life was when she started losing her legs — circulation and all just went away.”
Vic’s earliest memory of his neighbor is a young Icie, clad in a nurse’s uniform, emerging from a cab after her shift as a doctor’s office receptionist. She walked with a cane at that time, “then a couple of years later it became a walker, and then, suddenly, she had resigned from that position because she could no longer move her legs” and was confined to a wheelchair, Wilson said.
Icie underwent three separate surgeries to remove both of her legs, starting with her feet and continuing just above the knees.
Despite her maladies, Icie’s demeanor remained bright, her faith steadfast and unwavering.
“She told us at an early age she knew she had a calling … to minister to people, to welcome and to love people,” Wilson said. “She was the epitome of what love is. If anybody had the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness — it was her.”
“She was the happiest person you ever met in your life,” Darryl Wilson said. “I never saw a side of her that wasn’t smiling.”
Burnette concurred: “She never let anything get her down.”
“The thing about Icie, I think she was a trooper,” said Ricky Davis. “I was thinking of a word that I could describe her as, and I came up with many things. She’s a diamond. She’s a trooper. No matter what was going on in her life — and she had many things going on — she always had a smile and a twinkle in her eye that you won’t forget. She struggled every day, but we never knew it. I could see in her eyes that she wanted to be out there playing with us and doing the things that we were doing, but she did it from the porch. She lived it through us.”
A member of New Holland Baptist Church, Icie also maintained an extensive phone ministry, regularly calling folks to check in and pray with them.
“She had a ministry. She not only loved us kids, she loved everyone. You’d drive by her house and she’s just sitting out there, no longer able to work, always waving and smiling (at passersby),” Vic said.
While she required help with some tasks, Icie lived alone and was largely independent, regularly sitting by the stove in her wheelchair to stir homemade fudge and divinity candy for the neighborhood kids. Some, like Burnette’s sister, learned to make the sweet treats from Icie’s lap.
Though she had none of her own, children seemed to be drawn to her, Burnette said.
“Every kid went to Icie’s,” he said. “We were a pretty rough bunch growing up; she kind of put the kindness in our hearts, I think. I don’t know how many generations she actually touched.”
“I know we didn’t appreciate it at the time, but later on, we understood: This was a safehouse,” Vic said. “She was a mother to us. I can’t say enough about that woman’s place in my life.”
Vic remembers occupying Icie’s porch swing with a few other neighborhood boys, who asked why she was so selfless and caring toward others, to which she responded, simply: “It’s my calling.”
“I remember us blurting out in unison, ‘Calling? What’s that?’ She explained her calling was the reason she was put on this earth. It didn’t blow me away then, but it blows me away now,” Vic said. “We knew where we were accepted, we knew where we were loved, we knew how safe we were (at her house). She was kind and sweet — kind of like Jesus. Kind and sweet and loved everybody.”
According to Darryl, Icie Pilgrim was “the most uncompromised person” he’s yet to meet.
“It’s infectious (when) you hang around somebody that’s positive,” Darryl said. “That’s why everybody was drawn to her, I’m sure — you fed off of it. She was definitely a glass half full, there’s no doubt about that.”