Many churches across the south have provided safe haven for me as I bicycle home from Austin, Texas.
Wheeling into Newport, Ark. last Tuesday I stopped at First United Methodist Church. A handful of administrators in the office spent about five minutes debating my request for a corner in the church hall where I could throw my sleeping bag.
They mulled what room I’d stay in, who would turn on the air conditioning, and how I would get a shower?
It was five minutes too much for Helen Bullard who was sitting across the room trying to send an attachment with an email. Helen swung her head back and said, “She’s coming home with me tonight. Problem solved.”
Helen was a get-it-done kinda gal.
“Well you’ve just been adopted by the 2010 Jackson County Woman of the Year,” said the pastor. “Pfft,” said Helen, waiving off the recognition and returning to her typing. A small woman, Helen wore wire-rim glasses, had collar-length blond hair and endless energy. She also had a direct demeanor and a common-sense opinion about everything.
“I’d like to know who made the rules about women and makeup,” she said.
We had been talking about her woman-of-the-year award and her invitation to President Clinton’s inauguration. “I mean men have it easy and Kenneth (her husband) can fit into that same tux for years,” she said. There was quite a bit of lamenting about women and fashion until Helen finally ended with “high heels should be outlawed.”
And we were onto other things.
Helen lived on a farm on the outskirts of town. Retired and a grandmother of twin teenage girls, she donated a lot of her time and was adept at volunteering friends as well.
“Hi, it’s me. You’re making beans for this summer cinema we’re doing,” she said, multitasking phone calls while we ran last-minute errands. “Two of my least favorite, beans and potato salad and we’re having both at this thing.” After solidifying a few more details, Helen hung up. “I’m not sure how they like it, but these people need to get involved,” she said. Volunteering came easy to Helen.
Aside from her work at the church, she was vice president of Keep Newport Beautiful, secretary of the local garden club, and head of the Newport Newcomers Club. Helen also started a free clinic in Jackson County and she and Kenneth often took home top prize in an annual catfish cooking contest.
The couple spoiled me with wonderful conversation, a fantastic homemade dinner of ham, coleslaw, cornbread, and a squash and bacon salad.
Kenneth was dressed in his designer of choice; Carhart.
He kept half an eye on the St. Louis Cardinals game as we talked about farming, how I planned to cross into Missouri, and what Helen was going to do tomorrow.
“Well, I don’t want you to fall over when I say I’m going to attempt to clean the house,” she said.
Helen was so dry.
“And I’m not a morning person so don’t expect me to be seeing you off,” she said, speaking in my direction. As I prepared to leave around 6 a.m. Helen was already in the kitchen, offering to whip up bacon and eggs.
After another two hours of conversation about Helen’s attempt to incubate eggs, a fox killing her first round of chicks, and Arkansas’s attempt at generating tourism with the Rock n’ Roll Highway 67…. I was on the road again, knowing if I was ever in Newport I had a place to stay.