Excerpted From I Hear Music — The Mary Ruth Tolbert Story
By Robert W. Butche
Copyright 2015 Greenbrier Publishing
All Rights Reserved
Sunday-Best Shoes And A New Riviera
In August of 1966 Mary Ruth decided to visit her brother Frank ( Dutch ) Tolbert, then age 59, editor of the Williamson Daily News, at his West Virginia home. The trip was billed as her summer vacation away from the stress boiling around the proposed closing of The University School.
After decades of penny-pinching and self-denial, Mary inexplicably splurged on a new car, her first muscle-car, a 1966 Buick Riviera. She picked it up at the Buick dealership on a Friday afternoon – the day before she and niece Marilyn Arledge planned to leave for Williamson.
That Friday evening Mary showed off her new car to apartment mates Kathryn Burgess and Blanche Verbeck. Mary’s new Buick was big and shiny – accented with chrome trim set off with white sidewall tires. After a show-off ride around campus Mary conspicuously parked the sleek car in her usual spot on 20th street – for all to see.
Splurging on a new car was exhilarating. Showing it to her coworkers proved to be a satisfying experience Mary had not before known. Being Mary Tolbert, a woman well-steeped in keeping one’s private matters private, she said nothing of what the car’s cost – just over $5600, or that she wrote a check for the entire amount. That was her business after all, no one else’s.
No matter her external great joy that day, deep down inside Mary couldn’t shake off her sense of having made a mistake – or done something wrong. After all, she had responsibilities for her 86 year old aunt, Elizabeth Ludwig Young, still living at Mount Oval.
That evening, Mary laid out one of her best blue outfits so that she might look her very best on the trip to Williamson the next morning. Once her bag was packed, she retired. She didn’t sleep well, she said, on account of reliving, more or less over and over again, the moment she gave $5600 of her savings for a big flashy automobile. What at times seemed a foolish purchase bothered her all night.
Euphoria Punctuated With Guilt
The next morning she dropped her bag into the trunk, ran down the power windows, and pulled into southbound traffic on Summit Street. By then the sun was up, the sky blue, and Mary Tolbert exhilarated by the experience. While passing through downtown Columbus she briefly considered closing the windows and trying our her automatic air-conditioner.
No, she decided, she had splurged enough. Some 47 minutes later, crossed the railroad tracks then turned south on Scioto Street. It was, she long remembered, one of the most exciting mornings of her life.
Up ahead, on what was already a gorgeous summer morning, Mary’s niece, Marilyn Evans Arledge, followed by her Aunt Lilian and Marilyn’s two children, James and Krista, were streaming out the front door. There was excitement in the air even before Mary’s car came into view. For Marilyn it was a long anticipated summer road trip – to the wilds of West Virginia for a week-long visit with her uncle Frank, and Marilyn’s only cousin, Billy, age 16.
Marilyn was casually dressed, her aunt Lilian trailing behind, eagerly lugging her bags to the curb when Mary drove up. Although it was a Saturday morning, the first day of Mary Tolbert’s summer vacation, she was dressed in what appeared to be her Sunday best – a smart, dark blue suit nearly matching her new Buick. Mary was smiling ear-to-ear when she came to a stop at 417 S. Scioto street.
“Wow,” Jimmy Arledge, then age 11, enthused, rushing toward the passenger side window to get a close up view. Mary smiled, briefly, “We better get going,” she purred toward Marilyn, “. . . looks like it might get hot this afternoon.” By then Miss Lilian was in the street swooning over Mary’s shiny new car. After no more than two minutes of hugging, laughing and kerfuffle Marilyn was in the car, aunt Lilian chattering away window side.
At age 41, Mary Ruth Tolbert looked smart in her mid-sleeve outfit, sheer hose and Sunday-best black shoes. By the time Mary was searching her obese purse for her keys, Lilian complimented her for her classy outfit and appearance. With good reason, for Mary Tolbert was made up impeccably, as was her habit – hair neatly combed and pinned in place, her cheeks radiating a youthful glow, her eyes perfectly lined, her eyebrows deeply black . . . set off in Mary Tolbert’s favorite crimson-red lipstick.
It was near on to eight o’clock when the last goodbyes were said that morning. Moments later, Mary’s Riviera came to life. In a flash, the blue Riviera lurched into motion.
The adventure had begun. And what an adventure it would be.
Turn Left At Lousia
The 170 mile drive to Williamson was not especially long, but once Tolbert crossed the Big Sandy River at Lousia, Kentucky, U.S. 52 turned twisty and winding. In the mid-day heat, Tolbert was miserably hot and getting tired by the time they sped through tiny Crum, W. Va., population 57.
“I think we ought to stop somewhere for some lunch,” Mary said, before asking Marilyn, “How far is the next town?”
“Maybe another five miles,” Marilyn said in the stifling heat, holding tight, in the blowing wind, to the map on her lap.
Perhaps two miles later, at the big S curve where the Norfolk and Western right-of-way approaches Marribone tunnel, Mary swerved into the oncoming lane rounding the bend.
“Mary!” Marilyn exclaimed, more than loud enough to be heard in the blowing wind.
“What?” Mary demanded, by then abeam the south end of Marribone. Up ahead, flashing red lights signaled there was a northbound coal train blocking traffic at the route 52 crossing.
“I need to go” Marilyn said, as the big car slowed.
“After the train gets by, let’s see if we can find some lunch,” Mary suggested, fidgeting her hand on the wheel. Then, as if explanation, she added, “Maybe we ought to turn on the air-conditioning after we get some gas.”
Marilyn heartily agreed. No more than a minute later, they were on the move. Once around the next bend, Marilyn spotted a sign: Kermit, W. Va., population 406.
Mary pulled off the road at Kermit’s only restaurant. It was not an auspicious looking establishment, but by time Mary parked outside, both women were in need of comfort, hydration and a cool place.
“Let’s see if they have a soup and sandwich special today,” Mary said, exiting her car. From the moment the women entered the little diner the inside heat gave Mary to gasp. Neither woman would remember what they had for lunch that day, but whatever it was, it was accompanied by several glasses of iced-tea.
When the women returned to their car, Miss Mary carefully checked the gas gauge. Near as she could tell, the hand being on the top-most strike of the letter E, she was nearly, but necessarily completely out of fuel. “How can one tell?” she wondered, how close one is to being empty?
Stubborn Is As Stubborn Does
Just ahead, perhaps a block beyond Kermit’s United Methodist Church, Mary spotted the town’s only filling station. Mary all but careened into what she thought an untidy, two-pump, open bay, Shell station.
The moment Mary saw the price on the pump, 35 cents a gallon, her temper flared.
“Did you see this, Marilyn?” she asked, “… three cents more than when I filled-up last night in Circleville.”
Marilyn said nothing, not wishing to make herself the butt of her aunt’s displeasure.
“Why isn’t anyone coming out to pump our gas?” Mary complained.
Suddenly, Mary was out the door, wiping sweat from her brow, in hot pursuit of someone in authority. She found a young chap in the service bay under a rust-worn pick-up truck.
“Are you the manager?” Mary demanded.
When a dirty-faced attendant appeared from under the lift, Mary pounced like a hungry cat.
“The sign on your pump says you’re charging thirty-five cents a gallon for regular. That can’t be right!”
The youngster looked at Mary as if a visitor from another planet. “You want me to pump gas for you lady?” the chap said, looking at the floor on account of her being a woman.
“Where I come from, regular gas is thirty-two cents,” Mary said, every bit as authoritatively as she could muster.
“Regular gas is thirty-five,” the skinny kid assured her before turning back to his rusty truck.
“Is there another station around here where I can get thirty-two cent gas?” Mary demanded indignantly, as if she might need her banker’s permission to purchase thirty-five cent gasoline.
“No mam,” the youngster assured her, bewildered by the rich, Yankee-sounding woman in a brand-new Buick Riviera pestering him about the price of gasoline.
“Well,” Mary said, not wanting to appear to give in too easily, “. . . as long as I get Green Stamps.”
“Don’t give no Green Stamps here lady,” the attendant hollered back from beneath the rusty Ford.
“I’m not paying thirty-five cents for gas unless I get Green stamps,” Mary said as firmly as she could muster. Had the lad been looking he’d have seen Mary’s angry countenance – stony eyes, pursed lips.
“Don’t got no stamps here, lady,” the boy repeated, wiping dirty oil from his ham-sized hands.
Mary turned on her heels. It was at that moment that Marilyn first sensed that Mary’s legendary temper had gotten the better of her.
Perhaps, Marilyn thought, she could placate Mary, or better yet help her find a graceful exit – one that might include filling the gas tank so that they wouldn’t have to walk all the way to Williamson, still twenty miles down the road.
“Let me buy the gas Mary,” Marilyn enthusiastically offered, hoping her aunt would not be offended.
But she was.
Thereupon, Mary slammed the driver-side door, jammed her key into the thingmajig, and brought her 8-cylinder, gas guzzling machine back to life. Mary looked pensively at the near-empty gas guage. Then, deciding to ignore it, she slammed the transmission handle into drive, and aimed her car toward Mingo street.
It was done. Mary had won. There would be no thirty-five cent gas that day.
Fill ‘Er Up!
While Marilyn held her breath, Mary wheeled out of town. The good news was that they made it all the way to Williamson. Although Mary had every intention of finding a thirty-two cent gas station in Williamson, there were none to be found. Shortly after turning onto West Fourth Avenue, on her way to Frank’s place on Fifth Avenue, Mary’s mighty Buick began to sputter and spit as the last teaspoon of gasoline slipped through the Riviera’s four-barrel carburetor.
Not to worry . . . Mary slung her arm out the driver window to signal what was already a head-spinning left turn into Williamson’s sparkling new, 8-pump, Esso station. The no longer running Riviera, still less than two hundred miles on its odometer, barely managed to coast to the first pump bay. Once she came to a stop, she looked for an attendant.
“How much is your gas?” Mary asked a young man in a white uniform with black stripes.
“It’s Esso premium,” the tall chap politely explained, “Forty cents. Shall I fill you up and check your oil?”
“Is that Ethyl gas?” Mary asked, not at all certain who Ethyl was.
“Yes that our high test mam. It runs fine in Buicks . . .”
“Well, I don’t want premium gas,” Mary protested, fully aware she had run out of gas, but, falling back onto her American Formalist habits, she saw no reason whatsoever to advertise her mistake.
“If you want regular, pull up to the pumps just ahead,” the young man suggested.
“Oh, well, that won’t be necessary,” Mary assured the young man, fully aware her stylish, blue Riviera was wasn’t going anywhere until she filled the tank. In an instant Mary flashed her Standard Oil credit card.
“Fill us up with Ethyl,” she said. “That’ll be just fine today.”
“You want high-test?” the boy wondered aloud.
“Of course,” Mary explained with an engaging smile, “We’ve a great deal of driving to do this week.”
“Yes mam,” the attendant said cranking the pump handle to clear the reels.
Without so much as drawing another breath Mary leaned out the driver window, to get the young man’s attention.
“And you’ll bring me my Green Stamps when you come back . . . its too hot for me to be running around in all this heat.”
“Yes mam,” the attendant assured her, “. . . we give double green stamps for Esso Extra on Saturdays.”
“Then you fill us up with Extra,” she enthusiastically told the attendant.
Mary leaned back into the driver’s seat. Double stamps. Image that!
“This is going to be a great week,” she assured Marilyn.
Being Penny Wise, Pound Foolish
It took 22 gallons of high test Esso Extra to fill the Riviera’s tank – for which Mary was charged $8.80. Once she signed the purchase slip, the young man handed her a sheet of postage-size green colored stamps emblazoned with the S&H logo. One for every ten cents of her $8.80 purchase earned her 88 stamps.
The double rate promotion earned Mary another 88 Green Stamps. For all her work and risk, Mary received 176 Green Stamps to paste into her collectors book. The stated value of each stamp was not known to most consumers, but for cash redemption each Green Stamp was valued at 1 mill ( $1 / 1000 ).
Mary’s Green Stamps rewarded her loyalty in the amount of 17.6 cents – the cost of which was included in the purchase price. If she saved enough Green Stamps to redeem them for merchandise, the value of her stamps increased about 4 fold – to about 70 cents.
For Marilyn Arledge, the trip got better when the Riviera was started again.
“See if you can turn on that air-conditioner,” Mary suggested as they waited for traffic. “I have no idea how to run all these new things.”
Soon they were on the road again, excited about the trip, especially when the air conditioning made the Riviera cool and quiet inside.
By the time they arrived at Frank’s home on Fifth avenue, the dry, cool air felt so good the women drove around the block several times to revel in the comfort of air conditioning on one of the hottest days of August in 1966. The moment they arrived curbside, Frank was out of the house, Billy close behind, to welcome them and carry in their bags.
Fun With Frank And Billy
After a great deal of chatter and catching up, Frank and Billy hosted their visitors to an informal dinner that night – at Denny’s, a small family restaurant on Third Avenue, owned by one of Frank’s best friends, Dennis Maroudas. Denny’s was mostly-clean and neat diner that featured great coffee and hearty breakfasts, burgers and sandwiches, and, in the evenings, American home-style dishes. The man Denny called Dutch was a regular customer.
Mary was a bit surprised that everyone at Denny’s knew Frank, although they all called him Dutch too. To folks around Williamson Dutch Tolbert was as close to being a Mingo County celebrity as the Mayor. To the people at Denny’s Dutch was the newspaperman two doors up the street who stopped by Denny’s counter every morning for coffee and friendly conversation before going to his office at the Daily News.
Later in the week, Frank too his sister and niece on a jaunt to nearby Chattaroy, W.Va., about five miles north of Williamson. There they picnicked among West Virginia’s tall hills. Bill Tolbert still remembers that park today, telling me, “It was a delightful little park with picnic tables and plenty of green grass. We all loved it.”
“Later than week,” Bill continued, “.. we drove over to Matewan, W.Va., in Mary’s famous Blue Buick – about 14 miles away – so dad could show my aunt the scene where infamous battles were fought between mine operators and union organizers in the early 20th century. My dad wanted cousin Marilyn to see his office at the Daily News, the courthouse – and of course, the public library dad was instrumental in helping to acquire for the Williamson community.”
Before Mary and Marilyn were to return to Ohio, Bill remembered his father hosting a fine dinner party in their honor at the Tug Valley Country Club in Sprigg, W.Va.
“Sprigg’s probably six or seven miles from Williamson, on the way to Matewan,” Bill remembers to this day, “Dinner there was a treat we all enjoyed.”
“Dad even talked aunt Mary into going with him to the First Presbyterian Church, on Sunday – about a block from our home on Fifth Avenue. Aunt Mary seemed very happy to know that dad was a leader of the church, attaining status as a deacon and then an elder. Five years later that church became the place of his funeral.”
Marilyn would remember that week as wonderful and adventurous – her best-ever visit to Williamson. It was a marvelous trip for Mary as well – made all the better by her decision to run her new air-conditioner everywhere they drove that week – and on the trip home.
It’s no wonder that Mary Tolbert had long ago come to love Williamson – and the generous, warm-hearted people who mine coal, operate trains, run shops and mine America’s Billion Dollar Coal Field. Williamson was emblematic of Normal Rockwell’s America – honest, hard working people making the very best of what they had.
Later in life Marilyn would remember well her adventures with aunt Mary for part of what she learned that summer was how much Mary Ruth loved and admired her brother.
And the life he had made for himself in the coalfield community of Williamson – a place close to heaven – nestled deep in the fabled Tug Valley – forever part Kentucky, part West Virginia – all American.
Today, a half-century later, Marilyn still remembers her travels with aunt Mary – and that marvelous August visit with uncle Frank and cousin Billy – family members she so greatly admired. And loved.
Frank died young, leaving Billy an orphan at 18. Billy followed in his father’s steps by earning his degree on his own – and making himself a newspaperman of character and distinction.
Billy’s older cousin Marilyn saw the Tolbert family saga play out even as she came to know and love them all. Especially her mother’s little sister, Mary Ruth Tolbert.
Based On A True Story
Sources: Marilyn Evans Arledge, William F. Tolbert, Jr.