Today my family said goodbye to a wonderful man who was not only a good friend of our family but also someone who we were proud to be related to.
Arnold Hulsey died Monday. I was leaving to go to the theater for a final dress rehearsal when my father called to tell me. He and mom were there when Arnold left us.
He was a remarkable man, and I wanted to share some of the details of his life, in no particular order:
My mom loved him as her favorite cousin. She was an only child and lived in Washington State until she was 14. She did not remember first meeting Arnold because she was only 16 months old when she and her mother came back to Georgia to visit family. But she heard the stories later about how he was the only one that could hold her and get her to stop crying. (He was about 12 at the time.) She considered him to be more like a brother.
His father, Bill Hulsey, was one of my grandmother’s 13 siblings, and since they were some of the youngest in the family, Uncle Bill and Aunt Daisy were some of the only remaining members of her family I remember meeting. He was a barber in Gainesville. We still have a pair of his scissors.
When I was growing up, I considered Rexann and Arnold to be more like mom’s siblings than her cousin and his wife. Rexann and Arnold were such good friends to both of my parents that it was hard for me to figure out how they were related to us. (I think I called them by uncle and aunt for a while…?) Mom has always had a close friendship with Rexann–they could tie up the phone for hours. In the last few years, my father has spent a lot of time with Rexann and Arnold, so it’s still hard to remember that Arnold is Mom’s cousin, or that Rexann isn’t the one who is kin to us.
Most of my family went to North Hall. When Arnold was in high school, North Hall had not been built. Sardis was the closest high school. None of the county schools had football teams, though, so Arnold went to Gainesville High. He was good, too. He was invited to play in the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Annual North-South All-Star game and was offered a scholarship to play for UGA. Keep in mind that this was in a time when student athletes were expected to go home and work after school, too.
He did neither because he got married instead. (We love this story.) They snuck off to Dawsonville, got married, and he snuck her home. Because she was just shy of 15, she hid her wedding ring. A few days later, her sister found it and started jumping on the bed yelling, “Rexann got married.” My brother reminded me today at the funeral that Uncle Bill’s reaction was just a quiet, “Well, I’ll be damned.” We also got a kick out of their wedding clothes. Back then, flour came in cotton sacks, and the fabric had different patterns printed on it. It was common practice to save the sacks and make clothing out of them. Rexann and Arnold discovered later that her dress and his underwear were made out of the same fabric pattern—they matched.
That was 62 years ago. That tells you a lot about the sort of people they are.
Arnold joined the Marines and was deployed to Korea. He was a sergeant and the casualty reporter for his company and was awarded several commendations for bravery, but he never talked about it. From what we understand, he spent most of his time in Korea gathering up the dead and wounded. Although I have always known he served in Korea, and knew something of his duties there, I didn’t realize until after he was gone that he didn’t speak of it. I’m sure there are people who would say that it’s better to talk things out, but I think that it says something about Arnold that he didn’t. He didn’t allow a horrific time of bloodshed and death in his life kill his joy or mangle his heart.
After he came home, he went to North Georgia College. Today was the first time I heard this—he was the first male student at NGC who was not required to be a cadet because of his service in Korea. (That must have been kind of fun!) He was an exception because of what he had already done.
He worked as an accountant for the school while he was still a student, and eventually became the Financial Aid Director for the college. He earned his MBA there and worked at North Georgia for 30 years. The Georgia Association of Financial Aid Administrators made him the first recipient of the Don Payton Award in 1991. In other words, he helped a lot of people go to school, and he did a darned good job at it.
Somewhere in there, his cousin Donna (my mother) decided to get married. Rexann made her wedding cake and simultaneously launched a career as an event caterer. The woman can cook, and her cakes are amazing. (She doesn’t freeze them. Ever.) She made birthday cakes for me and my brother until we were all the way through high school. Beautiful cakes, and they were always her gift to us. She and Arnold and their children put on a ridiculous number of receptions. When I was in high school I would go help them out for extra pocket money. It was crazy, but always a good time. I loved working with Rexann and Arnold.
My brother worked with him, too, but it was indentured labor: “So many wonderful memories of possibly the most joyful man I’ve ever known. I truly enjoyed every minute I spent with him — well, almost every minute. When he and Pop had the chainsaws out they tried to work Stuart and me to death splitting and stacking wood. (But they had fun.)”
After he retired, he loved working at home. He had cows. He had peacocks. Arnold was tough as nails. We can’t even remember when it was now—eight or ten years ago?—Arnold was bush-hogging the pasture between his house and his parents’ homeplace. I can’t remember the details, but it had something to do with a briar patch and running up on an embankment. At any rate, he ended up getting tipped out of the seat while the tractor was running and he was knocked sideways. The tractor and bush hog ran over both of his feet, cutting them up badly and taking out one of his ankles altogether. He managed to crawl back on the tractor and get the darned thing back to his house, crawl to his door, and ring the doorbell.
His doctors did what they could to put his feet back together, but he was told he would never walk again. (Diabetes didn’t make it easier.) He didn’t listen to that part, apparently. Within the year he was walking. He recovered so completely that I had forgotten about the accident until recently. He had too much life, too much to do, and no time for injuries and illness.
He had wonderful parties until the end of his life. Their house was always full of family and stories and laughs. Every year they host an enormous Easter egg hunt for the kids at their church (and whoever else wants to show up.) As always, there was more great food than you ever want to think about, and we usually went back on Easter to feast on the leftovers. Hardly a holiday went by that we didn’t get invited over to eat.
Things happened on “Hulsey Time,” which meant that things happened whenever they happened. Today, we were all lined up waiting to proceed from the funeral home to the church, and because of some incident in town the city police escort was late. Yes, Arnold was late to his own funeral. He arrived on Hulsey Time. He would have enjoyed that.
He laughed. He could turn a phrase and tell a story. He knew how to have fun. I can’t really remember what he looked like without a smile on his face. He was crazy about his kids and grandkids, and their friends, and all his family, and just about everyone he knew. And he laughed. One of the things that I found most comforting about the funeral was seeing his joy still shining in the faces of his children and grandchildren.
After he died, his youngest son said something to me about how he always did everything he could for his kids. Yes, that was true. But he did everything he could for everyone he knew. He was that sort of person.
I was truly sorry to see him go. They just don’t make a lot of people like Arnold Hulsey anymore.