Sunday, March 14, 2010

What A Loss; What A Life

Recently, Ginger's Friend was kind enough to send me the following article about a remarkable woman, Juanita Goggins, who made history here in South Carolina. I admit, I didn't know her history (I'm originally from North Carolina), and what a history it was. Her story is appropriately told during this month of Women's History in this bittersweet article,
Once-revered S.C. Lawmaker Freezes To Death Alone
: Goggins was the first black woman in the S.C. Legislature and helped transform the American education system.

It is not just that Ms. Goggins was the first black woman in the South Carolina legislature. It is what she accomplished in the legislature during her tenure. Her history, and her passing, are woven together in this narrative:
When Juanita Goggins became the first black woman elected to the South Carolina Legislature in 1974, she was hailed as a trailblazer and twice visited the president at the White House.

Three decades later, she froze to death at age 75, a solitary figure living in a rented house four miles from the gleaming Statehouse dome. (AP File Photo, 1974)

Goggins, whose achievements included key legislation on school funding, kindergarten and class size, had become increasingly reclusive. She spent her final years turning down help from neighbors who knew little of her history-making past. Her body was not discovered for more than a week.

Those neighbors, as well as former colleagues and relatives, are now left wondering whether they could have done more to help.

How tragic. Freezing to death might make more sense given the winter parts of our nation have had, but this was the Upstate (as we call it), near the capital. More on this below.

But it was how she lived her life that was so inspiring:
"I'm very saddened. People like her you want to see live forever. She had quite a gift for helping others," said state Sen. John Land, a fellow Democrat who was first elected to the House the same year as Goggins.

Goggins, the youngest of 10 children, grew up the daughter of a sharecropper in rural Anderson County, about 130 miles northwest of the capital. She was the only sibling to earn a four-year college degree. Her bachelor's in home economics from then-all-black South Carolina State College was followed by a master's degree.

She taught in the state's segregated schools, married a dentist and got into politics. In 1972, she became the first black woman to represent South Carolina as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Two years later, she became the first black woman appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

"I am going to Columbia to be a legislator, not just a black spot in the House chambers," she told The Associated Press in 1974 following her victory over an incumbent white man from a district just south of Charlotte, N.C.

Wow - what a stunning statement. I love her spirit in that declaration. And she had a reason for phrasing it just that way:
Voters "were weary of poor representation. They were ready to accept a person who was sincere and concerned about things. Those feelings go beyond color," Goggins said.

She sat on the powerful House budget-writing committee and was responsible for funding sickle-cell anemia testing in county health departments.

The former teacher also helped pass the 1977 law that is still the basis for education funding in the state. Her proposals to expand kindergarten and to reduce student-teacher ratios in the primary grades were adopted after she left politics in 1980, citing health issues.

"She was not bashful or anything. She liked to talk. I used to say she could sell an Eskimo ice," recalled Ilese Dixon, 88, of Pendleton, Goggins' last surviving sibling. "She was just lively and smart. She thought she could fix the world."

That is quite a resume Coggins amassed in the Legislature. Clearly her passion for education was reflected in the law she helped pass, and thankfully so. Education has not been the strong suit for South Carolina, I'm afraid.

But what of her life after the Legislature? Here is more:
Her colleagues say they never learned the specifics of her illness and, since she didn't talk about it, they didn't press.

Several years after leaving the Legislature, Goggins divorced and then moved to Columbia in the early 1990s, renting the brick ranch house in a quiet neighborhood off North Main Street where she lived for 16 years.

Her son said she worked several years as a case manager for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, although a spokesman said the agency had no records of her employment. At one point, she also started a nonprofit tutoring service called the Juanita W. Goggins School of Excellence.

Neighbors said she was always a private person. One neighbor said she would return her waves, but refused to let visitors in the door.

Last year, about the same time the Legislature voted to name part of a state highway after her, Goggins was mugged near her home. She changed the locks on her door and stopped taking walks, according her neighbors and landlord.

Good heavens - how horrible that she was mugged in general, but the injury to insult of it happening around the time her name was associated with the state highway seems obvious to me.

Sadly, Ms. Coggins was alone when she died:
Police found Goggins' body March 3 -- two weeks after she was last seen. Her landlord contacted police after a next-door neighbor realized he had not seen her lights on in some time.

Coroner Gary Watts said she died of hypothermia, probably about Feb. 20, and said he found indications of dementia. When she died, during a cold snap, Goggins was wearing several layers of clothing, yet her heat was working at the time.

She had money to pay her bills, but the utility company said it shut off the electricity for nonpayment Feb. 23. Watts said it appeared Goggins was using Sterno to cook, but her stove was still functioning when police climbed through a window and found her.

Wow, this is just so sad, on so many levels:
"I miss her," said Erskine Hunter, an 83-year-old neighbor who ensured Goggins' lawn was mowed and hedges were trimmed. "I don't know why I didn't go over there and hammer on the door."

Hunter said Goggins occasionally came to his home and visited with his granddaughter. She refused to let anyone drive her anywhere, and refused rides to and from the bus stop, so he often went to the grocery store for her. But he had not done that in several months.

State Sen. John Scott, whose realty company owns Goggins' home, said he and his sister tried to take care of Goggins as best as they could without prying.

"We lost a great trailblazer," said Scott, a Democrat from Columbia. "Our family's very saddened this happened to a person who's given so much."

His sister who manages the property, Linda Marshall, said Goggins declined help from the county.

"She needed someone to assist her, but anyone who tried to get close, she'd block them off," she said. "She was very fragile. This was something I always dreaded."

Why she withdrew remains a mystery even to her son. He attributes it to her illness, which was never fully diagnosed.

"That's something I've been trying to get my head around for the last 15 years," said Horace Goggins Jr., 42, of Powder Springs, Ga.

He last saw her about six months ago. She would not let him help her either, he said.

He wants to focus on her accomplishments and the good times at his mother's funeral Friday in Rock Hill.

"I would like for her to be remembered as a woman who cared about her community," he said. "I want her to be remembered as a positive role model, not only for African-American girls, but also any young girl who has a want and a desire to make a change and do something positive." (Emphasis mine.)(This version CORRECTS the age of Goggins' son to 42, not 43.)

And so, that is how Ms. Coggins will be remembered, as someone who worked hard to make something of herself, but who did not stop there. She went on to live a life filled with good works on behalf of others, especially children, to try and ensure they had the best start in education possible. That is no small feat. Add to that her work on sickle cell anemia, and her contributions were invaluable.

We mourn her passing, and extend deepest condolences to her family and friends. And yet, we celebrate the many gifts Juanita Coggins brought to so many in this state. May she be a role model for all girls, regardless of race,regardless of locale, to let them know they, too, can make a difference with their lives. Juanita Coggins rightfully takes her place in this Women's History Month for her accomplishments, and her efforts on behalf of others. May she rest in peace knowing she lived a life of giving.


SFIndie said...

Oh, Rev, how sad this is. What an amazing woman and what an amazing life. It appears she chose NOT to use her race to get create change, but instead used her mind and her character. What a great role model!

While I can understand people not wanting to infringe on her privacy, which unfortunately led to Ms. Goggins' tragic death, I hope this brings greater awareness to the public about the devastation of dementia. Someone suffering from that disease is not capable of making their own decisions, and help must often be provided despite their protests.

When my mother was initially diagnosed with Alzheimer's (which, for those who aren't aware is actually a form of dementia) she had already, for several years, exhibited the classic signs of the disease. As it progressed (and rather quickly) she became incapable of taking care of herself while also insisting there was nothing wrong with her. She was furious when my sister and I brought in a caregiver. And, when it became obvious that she could no longer live alone, and we had to place her in a facility, she would either cry to us or scream at us every day about how much she hated it and why couldn't she go home, there was nothing wrong with her, etc. etc.

The public needs to understand that when a friend or family member becomes as reclusive as Ms. Goggins, they must step in whether or not their help is wanted.

You're right that it's important to focus on her achievements rather than her death. And, if we can better understand the disease that robbed her of her ability to care for herself, perhaps we can save lives.

I wonder if awareness and education of dementia shows up on any of those 2700+ pages of the health care reform bill? Nah, probably not. It affects seniors, after all, and we know what a drain on the health care system THEY are.

Juanita Goggins had more character and caring and accomplishments in her little finger than our Pretender In Chief has in his whole frikkin' body.

I wonder if the Texas School Board will include Juanita Goggins in their revised text books????

Montserrat in 2012! (I showed that link to both my sister and a friend...both LOVED it!)

Mary Ellen said...

I'm always sad when I hear of a senior citizen who seems to fall between the cracks and no one notices. In her case, a woman who has contributed so much with her career and afterward, makes the sting even worse.

I don't understand why her heat was turned off at that time. In Illinois, even with non-payment, the heat cannot be turned off in the winter months. However, if it is turned off before winter (I think they consider Nov.1st as winter), then they don't have to turn it on again until payment.

My mom said that medicare apparently pays for services that do "well checks" on seniors. The trouble is, the service companies that come around are unreliable and only want to get money from medicare...they don't follow through on their "well checks" but they always get their paperwork in on time to get their money from medicare.

We'll certainly mourn her loss, and I wish that at least Michelle Obama would have mentioned her and given condolences.

Rabble Rouser Reverend Amy said...

SFIndie, thank you so much for sharing the story of your mother and her dementia. You are fortunate indeed that your sister was willing and able to acknowledge what was going on with her, and stood strong with you. Believe me, that cannot be taken for granted (Mom had some dementia, too, probably for a year or two before she actually died. Not all of my siblings were able to accept that, which made making decisions difficult indeed.).

And thank you for helping to educate people on this disease. It is a devastating disease, I know, and must have been very hard on you and your family.

You and Mary Ellen are so right, though - someone should have done more for Ms. Coggins. They should have been there regardless of what she said. I understand her son lived in GA, but still - but to not make sure her bills were being paid and everything? At her age? Sometimes, the kids have to be the parents, even when the parents say no. If they are no longer capable of taking care of basic issues like paying bills and keeping their utilities on, heck yes, someone should step in.

And Mary Ellen, I was surprised, too, that her utilities could be turned off in Feb., especially since we had unseasonably cold weather. Perhaps they have been overwhelmed by people not paying their utilities from lack of income, so didn't think anything abt someone not paying them after SIXTEEN YEARS of being in the same place. Who knows, but it is surprising that they did that. Surely they knew she was a senior citizen (I didn't think they were allowed to cut off a senior citizen's power without some major hoops, etc.).

There is so much that is sad abt this article - that the neighbors didn't keep a better eye on her, that her son didn't keep a better eye on her, that people were not more insistent that she take their help...On down the road it goes.

But what she accomplished in her life was amazing, and no, SF, she didn't play the race card except to say she wasn't there just because she was black - she was there to DO something. What a concept.

Mary Ellen, you need to check out Montserrat, too. I think it's the perfect place for us! :-)

Great comments, y'all - thank you!