Grisamore: Where have the guardian angels gone?

May 31, 2014 

On a May evening in the spring of 1971, Judy Heath received a marriage proposal in the lobby of the main post office on College Street.

It did not follow the script she had imagined. It was not a romantic moonlit night. He did not drop to one knee under the stars and ask for her hand.

No, it took place on a pale marble floor, in a room that echoed, witnessed by the stamp machine and hundreds of mailboxes with tiny gold numbers.

Judy was working as a secretary at Robins Air Force Base. She had known Tommy Groce for about a year. They had gone out on a blind date, and Cupid started slinging his arrows.

At 6-foot-7 and a solid 285 pounds, Tommy was so big he practically blocked out the sun. He was in the Marine Corps Reserves and had worked in law enforcement in Macon and Gordon.

Although they had talked about getting married, Judy was surprised by the time and place of the proposal. Tommy had bought the ring in Atlanta. He said if they were going to get married, there would be some days when she might need to pick up his mail for him at the post office.

They had supper that night with her parents, Arthur and Frances Gay. Judy’s mother fixed fried ham, fried okra, butterbeans and cream corn.

They took his yellow Dodge Charger and left the house on Worsham Avenue in Lynmore Estates, sometimes known as the Peach Orchard.

Tommy drove to the post office and handed her the key to his mail-box. She noticed a small package with her name on it.

“Aren’t you going to open it?” he asked. Inside was her engagement ring. He slipped it on her finger.

“Of course I said yes right then,” Judy said. “I loved him.”

He asked if she wanted to celebrate by driving down the hill for a Coca-Cola at The Varsity drive-in.

But she was so excited she wanted to go back to the house to show the ring to her parents.

It was only 5 miles to Worsham Avenue if they took Broadway, but Tommy had another idea. There was a section of Interstate 75 that was almost complete but had not opened. Tommy, an amateur race car driver, slipped the Charger around the barricades.

They had the road to themselves.

A mile ahead, he hit a section of the guard rail that was lying in the road. Witnesses said the car flipped seven times and careened down the embankment at Anthony Road.

The force of the wreck caused Tommy’s seat belt to snap. He was thrown through the windshield, broke his neck and was pronounced dead at the scene.

Judy was trapped in the car. Some men were standing outside taking a break at the Macon Area Vocational Technical School (evening classes were being held at Ballard-Hudson). They scaled the fence and pulled Judy to safety only moments before the car burst into flames. They had to cut her seat belt with a pocket knife.

Judy spent a week in the hospital recovering from multiple injuries. She was bruised from her shoulders to her knees. She was cut on her face and still carries a scar on her arm. Because of her internal injuries, doctors told her she would never be able to have children.

She has always regretted not being able to thank the brave men who saved her life. But her family was never quite certain who to identify as the heroes.

A newspaper article in The Telegraph two days after the accident credited four Montezuma men with the rescue -- Jesse Warren, Willie Sparks, Thomas Meadows and Curtis Ezell. Then, a few weeks later, three Macon men -- Donald Bass Jr., Eugene Amerson and Billy Strowder -- were recognized at a Macon City Council meeting for their acts of heroism after the May 18 wreck.

As much as she was grieving, Judy tried to put her broken life back together.

She returned to work. She began the healing process.

But she never recovered the engagement ring on her finger. And, to this day, she will not ride in a yellow car.

The following February, three days after Valentine’s Day, she met Bruce Heath. Her brother, Terrell, introduced them. Although he was a few years older, she was familiar with his name. He had graduated from Willingham High School and had dated one of her friends from McEvoy.

There was a measure of irony in their relationship.

Bruce worked at the main post office. He was a letter carrier.

The wedding bells came on Labor Day weekend in 1972. They were married for 34 years. Bruce had a heart attack and died Oct. 26, 2006.

Judy cared for her mother until Frances Gay passed away last July. She will never forget the last conversation she had with her mama.

“She thanked me for taking care of her, told me how important I was to her and how much she loved me,” Judy said. “Then she made me promise I would find those men who saved my life and thank them.”

All she has is their names. She has never been able to locate them. Last week, Judy was able to get in touch with the son of one of the men, who is now deceased.

She admits it’s like solving a mystery, like finding a needle in a haystack.

But she wants to thank each of them for the gift of life.

“I know I’ll probably cry,” she said. “I want them to know about the things I’ve done and the lives I’ve touched, all because of them. They put their own lives at risk to save mine. Because of them, I have been able to live a fruitful life. They were my guardian angels.”

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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