Monday, October 7, 2013

Marshall Ecker: A tribute

 A tribute to Marshall Ecker
Posted: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 8:15 am
Anne Cockrell/Special to the Journal

I don’t know about you, but I can’t seem to stop weeping over Marshall Ecker’s passing. 

If you didn’t personally know him, you missed knowing an extraordinary human being.  He was such a fine person.  An honorable, noble man.  A devout man of God.  As chairperson of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors, he was a good friend and fierce protector of county citizens.  He took the role very seriously and worked nonstop to represent all the citizens of the county.  His passing has brought many kind words of sympathy from across the state and beyond to offer us support in our time of grief.
  I will share with you my last conversation with Marshall: It was a phone call this past Monday morning (Sept. 23).  I asked him if I was interrupting anything important when I called, and he answered, “I’m cementing, but I can take a few minutes to talk with you.”

Marshall Ecker was all about making time for citizens. 

I asked, “Cementing?  Cementing what?”  He chuckled and said, “It’s a bottle house.”  “A bottle house?”  “Yes,” he replied, “an outhouse bottle house to be precise.”  I had to laugh at the comment and said, “Well, this I’ve got to see.  Invite me to your place when you’re done so I can check out what an outhouse bottle house looks like.” 

We finished our conversation and planned to talk later in the week, but this was not to be. Marshall died while working on his outhouse bottle house this past Thursday afternoon (Sept. 26).  Like many of you, I was stunned to learn of Marshall’s passing.  A friend called to tell me the sad news.  It didn’t really register. It couldn’t be real.  Not Marshall.

So, on Friday, late afternoon, I drove to Gretna, to offer support to a gathering of Marshall’s family and friends. I arrived about 5:30 at Marshall and Ann’s home place.

The Longwayback Farm sign at the entranceway began a long drive down a pea-graveled dirt road.  I imagined, as I drove along, what Marshall’s blue eyes took in every time he drove down his driveway.  The open field with some pea/bean crop to the left and the stand of trees to the right.  Surveying the land, broken by repeating stands of trees and fields along the way, I knew he’d loved the Longwayback Farm and the life he’d made with Ann at the end of the gravel road.

It was so quiet, only the sound of birds and the American flag flapping overhead in the breeze as I exited my car.

 Everywhere I looked, I saw where Marshall and Ann’s hands had been: inlaid brick walkways, flowerbeds with all kinds of beautiful plants and flowers, fences, all old, painted and elegant, both metal and wood, which surely must have once graced some Victorian home or some yard or garden in a setting not unlike one found in historic Williamsburg.

I passed a wheelbarrow set up with flowers, gourds and bittersweet to welcome in the fall. 

The early American farmhouse was a renovated piece of art.  Marshall and Ann, sweethearts since 10 years of age, had taken a dilapidated structure, loved it back to its former glory and turned the backwoods of Gretna into their home.

I visited with Ann, several family members and other visiting mourners around the farmhouse table.

I had brought a homemade apple cake, but, once there, felt it was woefully inadequate to offer to a woman whose husband had given so much of himself to others. 

A man admired by so many.  We spoke of Marshall and his love of Pittsylvania County and how he’d worked so hard trying to do a good job protecting the county citizens.  Ann’s remarks, so honest an appraisal of her husband and the love she felt for him, nearly broke my heart.  As I looked around the room, I spied many shelves, holding collections of all sorts.  I didn’t actually see it, but I knew somewhere within the home, there was a shelf of hearts.  Marshall had a knack of stealing your heart only after a few minutes of knowing him.  Marshall Ecker was all about recognizing and validating your importance as another human being.

After the visit, I walked around the property adjacent to the house, which was all unbelievably beautiful. 

The inlaid brick walkway took me past the gnarled grapevine, past several farm buildings, on to the outhouse bottle house that Marshall had been working on when he died. 

I walked around the circular structure, made of mortar and bottles and marveled at the sun’s glow as it shone through the bottled wall.  I felt total sadness when I spied the damper section of mortar on the wall that Marshall had been “cementing” the day I called and wondered whose hands would now finish the tarp-covered work of art.

I know it was foolish thinking, but I wanted to find Marshall there at his home, but all I found was his many works of art: the hanging tin can man with patriotic red, white and blue buttons, a colorful bottle tree and a tree of antique glass electrical insulators.  Everywhere you looked there was some thing of beauty.  I couldn’t really be sure where Ann’s hands had left off and Marshall’s had begun, but I suspected that Marshall had completed many of these outdoor projects.

I headed back to the front of the house to say my goodbyes to Ann and family, but stopped when I saw a metal archway, down another inlaid brick walkway. 

 It was another work of art: a collection of shiny black and gray pieces of metal, all welded together.  As I walked beneath the archway, I saw chains, cog wheels, pitchforks, wrenches, a plow blade and even the metal framework of a Singer sewing machine incorporated into the piece.  In red, on either side, was the letter “E.”  But most amazing of all was the metal bird atop the archway, painted bright blue.  Marshall had seen to it that he had a blue bird of happiness watching over the Ecker home place.

When I went back into the town of Gretna, I went to the funeral home to say my goodbyes to Marshall.  Alone, standing by his flag-draped casket, I asked, “Did our placing all our worries and concerns, as citizens, upon your shoulders lead to our losing you?”  I just kept whispering how sorry I was that he wasn’t at his beautiful home, working on some project, like his outhouse bottle house.

Over the last few days of grieving, I’ve tried to get my head around the fact that Marshall, our friend, has died.  Was he trying to do too much?  Being the chairperson of the county Board of Supervisors would be a never-ending effort in helping the county run smoothly, but Marshall was also a church deacon and Sunday school teacher, as well as a creative designer, validated by all the many works of art on his farm.  Marshall Ecker was a busy man with many promises and obligations to fulfill, but to our collective sorrow, God called him home.

Now, I know Marshall is headed toward bejeweled walls along streets of gold, but if I had my druthers, as if my wishes counted, I’d have Marshall go home, to the Longwayback Farm, down the gravel dirt road to continue his life on with Ann. 

And I’d see him there, in my mind’s eye, rising, placing on his work clothes to go outside, to set to work on another project.  And as he’d head across the yard, he’d stop briefly along the inlaid brick walkway, smile upward to the metal blue bird of happiness and wink a contented smile.

 Anne Cockrell, a registered nurse, is a resident of Danville.  Her remarks were delivered Sunday, Sept. 30, 2013, at Piney Grove Baptist Church in Gretna, during the celebration of life ceremony held for Marshall Ecker