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Third row has precious memories

The Dixie Diva column

To be just downright honest, I never expected to miss him this much. And, if the deeper truth be told, perhaps it isn’t just the loss of a singular man, though great and admirable he was.

Maybe it’s the combined losses of those three who sat together on the church pew in the third row. Perhaps that’s what makes the grief so profound and long lasting.

Mr. Gene Bobo was special. There’s no denying nor disputing that. He was a courtly Southern gentleman, his manners impeccable and his vocabulary belonging to a genteel past where people used worthy words and eschewed pointless ones like “uh,” “you know” and “like.”

“I commend you on such a magnanimous choice,” he said once over something I had done that won his approval. “My heart brims with admiration whenever I witness someone — such as yourself — who answers to the siren of a higher calling.”

We became friends by accident. One Sunday, I had hurried in to church and slid in next to a man named Gary. We bonded instantly and from then on, Gary saved me a seat saying to anyone who dared to sit by him, “No! I am saving this for my friend.” Gary had tremendous physical challenges and had them since birth. Walking and talking were both difficult and managed only through a superior effort and determination.

Mr. Bobo sat by Gary — until I claimed that place — so I found myself seated between them on a weekly basis. Then, Mama joined us. Mr. Bobo would graciously rise from his seat, step into the aisle and whisper, “Someone is anxiously awaiting your arrival. I am delighted that he will not be disappointed this morning.”

I sat next to Gary, Mama sat next to me and Mr. Bobo sat on the end. We all became friends. Good friends. The kind of friends who celebrate with you, mourn with you and pray with you.

Mama died first. Then Gary. Then, most recently, Mr. Bobo just up and died without warning. He was 94, but vibrant when he went to bed that night. He could not be awakened the next morning. I sadly learned of his death when I was in California and reading the local news online. His death was the lead, front page story. I couldn’t believe it was true. But it was.

Mr. Bobo was a textile pioneer. He co-invented pantyhose in the mid-1950s, which was a bit ironic because he was such a gentleman that he still blushed when he said the word. It was too intimate and unseemly for such a dignified gentleman. He had shepherded a young Sara Blakely toward her dream of a product called Spanx, helping her to locate the necessary knitting mills and introducing her throughout the industry. A noted philanthropist, he used his wealth and good fortune to help many.

Typical of Mr. Bobo, I did not have a clue to such past successes for a few years despite the fact that I spent a good deal of time with him. We dined together often and after a couple of falls put him into an assisted living facility, I visited regularly. His eyes pooled with tears the moment he saw me and he would squeeze me so tightly that it hurt.

“You are the daughter that the good Lord never saw fit with which to bless me,” he said often. “You have no idea the extent to which I hold affection for you in my heart.”

I had a surprise for him. I had written about him in my new book, “There’s A Better Day A-Comin’.” I decided to show him the book rather than tell him, but that opportunity is now lost to eternity. I mourn the missed joy over seeing his happiness.

Still, this much I know: Mr. Bobo has found an even better day.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “There’s A Better Day A-Comin’.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.