Hailey harnesses power of a smile, strength of positive thinking
December 30, 2002
Ruth Hailey surrounds herself with smiles.
Every day, she's greeted by the happy faces of 160 dolls perched
on chairs, couches, beds, dressers and shelves of her Newbern home.
"When I get up in the morning and walk by this door, they're all
smiling at me," she said, peering into a guest bedroom. More grins
await in each room. "I'm just a little girl at heart with my dolls."
She and her husband, the late Hugh Hailey, purchased some of the
dolls. Others were gifts. And, some were rescued. A ballerina
discovered in a roadside dump has become one of Hailey's favorite
dolls. She scrubbed it, painted its sun-faded face and body, and
then sewed a sequined tutu for the doll.
Another 40 or so dolls are hidden in boxes and under the bed,
awaiting Hailey's loving touch. They need baths, new hairdos and new
"I hope, before I leave this world, to have most of them
dressed," she said.
It may take a while. In Hailey's life, people come before dolls,
and she gives her family and friends the same kind of love and
devotion that she showers upon her dolls.
While her house is filled with dolls today, Hailey had very few
dolls as a child.
Born as Mary Ruth Thurmon on Jan. 5, 1922, she is the middle
child in a family of 11 children. Her parents, Ira and Eugene
Thurmon, were farmers in the Cat Corner/Elbridge area of Obion
"We had a happy home life, a happy childhood," she said. The
children grew up working in the fields, helping around the house and
attending the Rehoboth Church of Christ, which was just across the
street. "We never knew anything but church activities," she said.
Hailey had three dolls as a child. An older sister gave her a
doll with real hair when she was about 6 years old. Then, when she
was about 10 years old, Mrs. Frank Shepherd of Dyersburg, took a
trip around the world and brought Hailey two celluloid dolls from
Determined to make sure the dolls had suitable outfits, Hailey
said she filled a small box with scraps of her mother's fabric and
settled on the moss under a tree to sew for her dolls.
"Oh, those were happy memories," she said.
Hailey continued honing her sewing talents at Cloverdale High
School, where she was crowned the "Spirit of Home Economics" during
her junior year.
In high school, Hailey also developed a passion for one of her
fellow students. Hugh Earl Hailey
was a senior when she enrolled as a freshman. It was love at first
sight, and a love that had to wait. Ruth Hailey said her parents
wouldn't let her date until she was 16 years old. Then, she and Hugh
Hailey often double-dated with Marzell Tickle and her boyfriend.
Tickle, who moved from her childhood home in Ridgely to
Dyersburg, recalled that Ruth Hailey was "a lovely girl and a pretty
girl. She was outgoing. She played basketball. She was one of these
Desperately in love, Ruth and Hugh Hailey decided to get married
on June 7, 1939. They kept it a secret -- and lived separately --
for nearly a year.
"Back in those days, it wasn't an uncommon thing," Hailey said.
She explained that married girls weren't allowed to attend school,
and she had promised her parents that she would graduate.
Hailey said she quit the basketball team and other
extracurricular activities her senior year to concentrate on her
studies. She graduated in the spring of 1940 and announced her
marriage that night. By October, the Haileys were on their way to
Washington, D.C., where U.S. Rep. Fats Everett had secured jobs for
a number of young men. Hugh Hailey worked in a warehouse, shipping
pharmaceuticals to drug stores, and Ruth Hailey enrolled in beauty
The 15-month excursion was just the first stop on a life filled
with travel. Hugh was drafted into the Navy in 1942 and served a
four-year term. After a short attempt at civilian life, Hugh Hailey
rejoined the Navy and eight years later transferred to the Air
Like any military family, the Haileys faced separations and
frequent moves. The family -- complete with the births of Glenn
Hailey in 1943 and Melvin Hailey in 1948 -- moved from Memphis to
Montgomery, Ala., to Victoria, Texas, to Sherman, Texas, to Goose
Bay, Labrador, to Abilene, Texas, to Limestone, Maine and finally
home to West Tennessee. Hugh Hailey, who also was assigned stints in
France and Vietnam, retired in 1968.
Through it all, Ruth Hailey honed her knack for finding "the
best" in every situation. She worked as a beautician and as a store
clerk. She made friends. And, she nurtured a family's love.
"Everywhere we ever were, we had a wonderful life," she said.
"The first thing we did (whenever we moved to a new town), we found
a church home. Then, we always felt right at home. We never felt out
When their traveling days were over, Ruth and Hugh Hailey came
home. They built a house in Newbern, where Hugh Hailey secured a job
teaching air conditioning and refrigeration classes at the
vocational school for eight years.
"It's the last place in the world I ever would have dreamed of
retiring, but I have loved it," she said.
It was here that Ruth Hailey faced the toughest battle of her
Hugh Hailey woke up with an excruciating backache one morning and
was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The cancer spread to every bone
in his body within five weeks and killed him within a year.
"I asked Hugh right before he died, 'Hugh, did you ever come in
contact with Agent Orange,'" she said. "He said, 'Oh, darling, every
In Vietnam, she explained, Hugh Hailey had been responsible for
loading airplanes with Agent Orange and then washing the planes when
"He was the love of my life. Boy, oh boy, we had a good life
together," she said.
After losing her best friend, Ruth Hailey said she turned to the
strongest supporter she had.
"I've always tried to put the Lord first in my life," she said.
But, with her husband gone, Hailey needed more assistance. She
learned how to use a hammer and to do household repairs, asking God
for guidance each time. She'd say: "Lord, me and you can do anything
It worked. "There has never been a widow as blessed as I've been
these past 12 years," she said. Hailey shares those blessings with
others every day.
Her faith and positive outlook shine through her eyes, through
her tenderness and through her actions.
"Anytime anyone needs anything, she's there to help them,"
longtime friend and neighbor Lee Ashcraft said. In addition to
repairing countless garments, Hailey helped the Ashcrafts re-cover
the seats in their truck, a task that Ashcraft wasn't convince could
Hailey told her: "'You get what we need and we'll get the job
done.' She never says, 'Well, I don't know.'"
Then, back in the early to mid-1990s, Ashcraft volunteered to fix
up dolls for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and quickly found
that she couldn't do it alone. She called Hailey, who crocheted
shoes and sewed underclothes, dresses and bonnets for the dolls.
"I was the one who volunteered to do it, but I couldn't do it
without her help," Ashcraft said. "You just can't imagine how
pathetic and pitiful some of these little dolls look, and she just
makes them so pretty."
As a member of the Newbern garden club, Hailey helps collect
artificial flowers and containers and then turns them into miniature
floral arrangements for local nursing homes. Ashcraft, who's in the
garden club, too, said the club makes more than a hundred
arrangements each year and has done so for the last 10 or 12 years.
At West Dyersburg Church of Christ, Hailey has taken an active
She and Aileen Dunn meet at the church early each Sunday to
prepare the Lord's Supper before the services begin. She helps
prepare meals during the church's summer camp for children at
Reelfoot Lake. And, she used to help the "older ladies" when they
prepared the fellowship meal one Wednesday each month.
When the Ladies Bible Class began about 12 years ago, Hailey
quickly joined and became one of the class leaders. At first, she
served as one of the instructors, drawing lessons from the materials
she'd accumulated during nearly 45 years of teaching.
In addition to studying the Bible, the ladies get together once a
month to create teddy bears and then deliver them to the local
hospital, nursing homes, local police officers and rescue-squad
members, and new mothers in the church congregation. Erma Humphrey
said Hailey uses her skills as a seamstress to make sure every bear
looks just right.
Shelley Wellington of Dyersburg described Hailey as a woman who's
always smiling, always well dressed and always capable of cheering
She recalled how much her mother, Nita Walker, loved talking to
Hailey. When Walker underwent chemotherapy treatments in Jackson,
Hailey volunteered periodically to drive her there. Walker always
looked forward to riding with Hailey because they laughed all the
way to Jackson and back, Wellington said. Hailey also visited or
called Walker every Sunday night until her death about a year and a
Through Jane Hendrix, Hailey found a way to help cancer patients
she'd never even met. She and another woman began making turbans for
patients who lost their hair after radiation treatments. Hendrix,
also a longtime friend and neighbor, said she has taken the turbans
to the Cancer Care Center in Dyersburg as well as hospitals in
Memphis and Jackson.
Before the American Cancer Society created the Relay for Life,
most of its local revenue came through Grocers Fight Cancer, an
event that incorporated a huge bake sale and celebrities bagging
groceries for tips. Hendrix said Hailey always generously
contributed baked items.
On a more personal note, Hendrix said Hailey is "just like my
second momma." She said she knows she can confide in her, rely on
her and count on her to help whenever she's needed.
Hendrix said she's amazed at the things Hailey knows how to do.
She can paint, rework pieces of jewelry, restore old picture frames,
sew anything and cut and style hair beautifully.
"She's one of the most talented people you've ever seen," Hendrix
Hailey used to volunteer her services as a beautician at
Dyersburg Manor. For four years in the mid-1980s, she spent every
Tuesday afternoon cutting and styling the residents' hair for free.
"I'm not really doing anything for them," she told a State
Gazette reporter at the time, "they are doing it for me. One day
when I went home from here I told my husband that I am happiest when
I'm doing something for somebody else that they can't do for
themselves. I get a blessing just by helping others."
She still puts her beautician skills to work on Sisters Day,
which the Thurmon family celebrates every Friday. Hailey said she
drives to the Viar Road home of her sister, Rejina Marshall, 89, and
fixes her hair. Then, Hailey, Marshall and sometimes their younger
sister, Ann Seaton, also of Viar Road, head out for a day of
shopping and a light lunch.
Whether she's sharing moments with her sisters, helping others or
rescuing dolls, one thing's evident. Hailey has learned about the
power of smiles, the magic of positive thinking and the love of God.
Dyersburg State Gazette
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