MARSHALLVILLE -- Dennis Draines was born in the summer of 1922, about the time the last peaches of the season were being picked from the orchards around Macon County.
He died two weeks ago in a Warner Robins hospital. It was Pearl Harbor Day, the anniversary of a war where he was once called to serve his country in the Army.
His “sunrise” and “sunset” -- as the dates were referred to at his memorial service this past Saturday -- were the bookends of a life devoted to others. He made every one of his 92 years count.
They don’t place statues or name streets in small towns for folks like Mr. Dennis, but perhaps they should. He made a difference in his corner of the world.
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“He was a good man who worked hard,” said his daughter, Annie Phelps. “He was a people person.”
At his “homecoming celebration” at Bethel Baptist Church, just a block from his home in Marshallville, he was remembered for his wisdom, humor and loyalty.
He was described as having a “heart for people from all walks of life.” He dug deep and stretched wide to help others. He may not have been a preacher, but he was always sermon-ready.
For Johnny Walker III and his sister, Bebe Reichert, his death was like losing a member of the family. Bebe, the sister-in-law of Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert, called Dennis “pure gold.”
“He was there at our births, on the front row when we got married and helped us bury our parents,” said Johnny, who spoke at the funeral at the request of the Draines family. “His life was an example for everybody. He lived it the right way.”
Dennis worked for three generations of the Walker family at the Massee Place Farm, on Ga. 49 between Marshallville and Fort Valley. The farm has been in the family since 1827 and was one of the first “centennial family farms” recognized by the state in 1993.
Part of the former property across Ga. 49 is now Massee Lane Garden, home of the American Camellia Society. (Two of Laura Massee Walker’s brothers, Jordan and Jack Massee, built the Massee Apartments in Macon, and Jordan is believed to have inspired the “Big Daddy” character in the play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams.)
When Dennis was 10 years old, his family lived behind the Walker farm on Sleepy Hollow Road. One day, he knocked on the door, looking for work. It was the Depression, and he was hired to do odd jobs on the farm.
It was the beginning of a long relationship and beautiful friendship between a white family and a black family.
Dennis married his wife, Mary Lee, at a house on the farm before going off to fight in the Phillipines during World War II. They were married for 56 years until her death in 1999.
They had six daughters, all born in the same house. The oldest are twins. Annie Phelps still lives in Marshallville, a few doors down from the home her father bought when he moved into town. Fannie Davis now lives in Rochester, New York. The two youngest daughters, Frances Mae and Elizabeth Ann, passed away seven years ago. The other two girls died at birth.
Dennis and John Walker Jr. were the best of friends, and Dennis later became the family’s caregiver. Johnny was like the son Dennis never had. Dennis raised him on country wisdom and a keen sense of humor.
Once, while hunting together, Johnny shot and killed a rabbit.
“I don’t know if you can eat a rabbit this season of the year,” he told Dennis.
“Yes, you can,” said Dennis. “There are only two seasons on a rabbit -- salt and pepper.”
He carried that humor with him like coins in his pocket. He once planted a cornfield. The rows were so crooked he admitted a snake might break its back slithering across the ground.
“I don’t think he ever had a bad day,” Johnny said. “And if he did, you would never know it. He was faithful to his wife, loving to his children and grandchildren, trustworthy and honest as the day is long.”
He handled almost every task on the 500-acre farm. He worked the land and harvested the crops. He drove the Walkers whenever they needed to go somewhere. Along the way, he picked up the nickname “Roller” because he liked to roll down the road in his gray and white 1956 Chevy.
Although he later took jobs with a lumber company, a flour mill and the Blue Bird plant in Fort Valley, he still continued to work for the Walker family. Their association lasted 82 years.
“He was always there when we needed him,” said Bebe. “I could call him at midnight, and he would say he would be right there.”
He loved dogs, cowboy movies and supper tables piled high with butterbeans and collards. Until a few months ago, he was still driving.
Even as his health declined, he kept his spirit in a good place.
Johnny called him every morning at 7 a.m.
“When I asked him how he was doing, he would always say, ‘Pretty good ... so far.’ I would call him back at night and ask what he was doing. He would say, ‘Well, I was watching TV, but now it’s watching me.’”
The final months were a difficult, downward spiral. He battled pneumonia. He had congestive heart failure.
His final journey past the Walker farm was in a hearse.
Johnny recalled his trips from Macon to visit. He would take him by the hand.
“I would tell him I loved him,” he said.
Mr. Dennis looked up.
“And I love you, too.”