So many of you reading this knew my mother. She was strong and beautiful and smart and she loved people in a very big way. She especially loved “her” kids. How many of you, I wonder, sat in her classroom? How many cleaned transparencies to work off hours after school? How many of you pulled up a chair at our dining room table for tutoring after school in the handsome house on Oakwood Road where I spent my high school years and where my sister grew up? How many of you wondered what was wrong when she missed a Sunday morning church service at Oak Valley? How many of you sent cards when she got too sick to come to work? How many of you called to check in when you heard she’d navigated another sickening chemo treatment or was recovering from surgery again?
She fought a long, hard fight, and so many of you supported her through it. Please know how grateful I am for that.
If you’re reading this and you loved her, you already know the magnitude of the loss. I don’t have to tell you that the world got a little bit dimmer when she passed, and I don’t have to tell you that she made a difference in too many lives to count—and how very many of them passed through the doors at Battle Ground Academy.
When we lost Mama, no memorial seemed to be quite right. She made it known she didn’t want a grave that we would have to maintain and feel obligated to visit. She didn’t want a fuss. There was no real funeral… we waited awhile to decide the best way to honor her as we wrapped our minds around life without her and trying to adjust.
After several weeks, we decided on a memorial service at her home church in Franklin, to be followed by a small tree-planting ceremony at BGA, where she served as a mathematics teacher from 1988 until 2012. She would have been there longer if she hadn’t gotten sick…
The memorial service at Oak Valley was amazing and beautiful. One of my mother’s final wishes was to have Jerre Richards sing at her service… but he left this world before she did. Someone had a recording, though, and that sufficed. There were family and friends, folks I hadn’t seen in years… I got to talk a little about Peggy Burnette as my mother, and that few minutes was nothing short of an honor, a chance to tell people about the wonderful person my sister and my dad and I lost… a chance to say goodbye properly.
… and yet, we had also come to the conclusion that it didn’t feel right not having a physical memorial.
Our family had contacted BGA and was given permission to plant a tree in my mother’s honor. After some conversation, it was decided that we could choose the tree. The school would dig a hole. The tree would be planted and a portion of my mother’s ashes would be as well, poured in at the roots of the tree.
My daughter, Kate, chose the tree and I paid for it: a magnolia that would bloom in a deep pink hue; we were told it would thrive in the environment and grow quickly. My son, Doug, scattered the ashes in the hole once the tree had been placed. A lot of people attended the tree-planting ceremony, including several with whom my mother worked at BGA, and I was grateful for their presence.
Of my immediate family, I live closest to Battle Ground Academy. My home is in Sevierville, a four-hour drive from the new campus. I’m not in Nashville often, but I come occasionally for work, or a concert, or some other event. Whenever I was in town, I would visit the tree.
I noticed during the first visit after the ceremony that the other trees on campus had been mulched, not mother’s. I didn’t think to question this. I assumed perhaps that type of tree wouldn’t do as well with mulch or that you shouldn’t mulch young trees. I trusted BGA to take care of the tree. After all, I had been told they would.
The next time I visited the tree, it still hadn’t been mulched, but it looked somewhat bigger and I spent some time with it, talking to mom, before I left town.
It was some time before I visited again. I regret that… but I’m a single mom, and at the time my son was residing mostly with me and I was working two jobs and freelancing whenever I could pick up extra work. There just weren’t enough hours in the day. I should have made more time; I am so sorry I didn’t… You see, I had brought a placard I’d had made with Mama’s dates on it. I mistakenly placed it by another, much healthier tree. I only realized my mistake when my sister called to tell me the tree in my pictures was in the wrong place… but—sitting at my office in Sevierville-- I couldn’t remember another tree from that visit. When I realized my mistake, I called the school and was assured that Mom’s tree was still there. How could I have missed it? I left work early and headed back to Franklin. My father and sister waited anxiously for word about the tree.
On that day, the tree looked like a tree still—but a sick one, more of a stick in the ground than anything else—and still no mulch. Dad was horribly upset. I drove to Lowe’s in Franklin, explained the situation to a young man in the Garden Department whose mother should be proud of him, and with his help loaded a massive bag of mulch as well as a good fertilizer into my SUV. He explained the pruning process and how to mix the fertilizer with water, how to administer it, and how to pile the mulch around the tree. He even filled a bucket with water for me in case I couldn’t find a water spigot. I drove back to the campus in the dark and using my headlights to see, and still in my work clothes and heels, pruned, fertilized and mulched the tree. Then I prayed for it and went home to get ready for work. I think I managed a couple of hours of sleep.
After asking around, I learned that it was possible the tree was poisoned when pesticides where sprayed around it a few weeks before that. I prayed some more, and went back and checked on the tree. All seemed well enough… and I communicated with the school. They absolutely promised the tree would not be removed until we gave it a chance to recuperate. This was especially important to my father who wanted to make sure Mom’s ashes were not disturbed by removing or replacing the tree.
Another visit to the school revealed that those instructions were either ignored or not well communicated to those who handle the grounds at BGA. I felt completely sick when I drove up to the spot where I should have been able to see the tree. This time, the tree was completely gone.
It so happened that I was visiting on a weekday morning, so I called the office to find out what happened to the tree. A woman walked out to greet me. She seemed to know nothing about the tree but took me into the office to meet the man in charge of the grounds. His name is Paul and he was less than sympathetic. He acted as though he knew nothing about the tree. I called my sister and added her to the conversation on speaker phone and she pointed out that this gentleman had actually approved the tree and even had the hole dug for us. The administrative assistant there was kind enough to agree that she had been present at the ceremony when our tree was planted and the ashes were added.
We all walked out to the spot where the tree was. No real explanation was given as to where it had gone other than, “Workers wouldn’t know not to remove it.” Not only was the tree gone, but the mulch I’d laid had been removed as well.
I asked about the possibility of putting another marker in the place where the tree had stood—my son, who’d joined us, suggested another tree next to the spot where his Nana’s tree had been might be a good option, too. That way the ashes wouldn't be disturbed any further.
I showed the people there the marker that was meant to go with the tree. It didn’t seem as appropriate now and Paul noted that he preferred something flat to the ground. I told him I would be okay with that. I was then told that a small, flat, black marble marker might be approved, and that the school would get back to me with specifics, including the price of such a stone. I left upset and with the original marker, but with something of a game plan, and I began to contemplate how I might be able to put the money together for this second marker.
After I got home, I wrote an email asking that the spot be marked so that we didn’t lose it. I was sent a photo that showed a trio of wooden stakes in a small circle, tied off with caution tape. I was offered an apology and I was assured that Paul Brown would get back to me as soon as he found a “viable option” for a marker.
It’s been almost three weeks. I still haven’t heard back from the school. They’ve recently posted pictures of the first week of classes. Guess what wasn’t in the pictures? Yes, the temporary marker appeared to be gone.
Yesterday, after a personal obligation that including driving a friend to Huntsville, I drove on to Franklin to check on Mama’s spot. Surely, I told my sister, they wouldn’t have taken down the stakes, not after I was apologized to and promised this would be rectified. This, after all, is the place that taught us about honor and respect and that history and human beings should always be handled with care. I prayed I was wrong. I prayed that the stakes had just been obscured from the photos by some optical illusion or a passing child’s legs…
Friends and family, the stakes are indeed gone. By hand, I removed some of the grass in the still visible spot hoping to buy a little time before the grass overgrows it and we lose the spot completely. This is the spot where my mother’s ashes are, where I planted a tree chosen by my daughter. This was supposed to be the place I could visit her. Right now, there is absolutely nothing there. No tree, no marker, nothing. What's worse, even the temporary stakes provided by the school have been completely removed and no one has contacted me or my father or my sister. I feel utterly disrespected personally, but what stings more is that my mother’s memory has been disrespected. She gave so much… and now this.
Few times in my life have I been as ashamed and disappointed as I am today—and I can honestly say I am ashamed of the way my alma mater has handled this entire situation. I am just completely at a loss. My family buried my mother’s ashes here, entrusting her tree to those who would take care of it in a place she loved and to which she dedicated a huge portion of her life. BGA has been known for more than a century as a place of integrity. At least when I attended school there, we abided by an honor code and were taught that right and wrong matter.
BGA has shown no integrity in this matter at all, though, and that makes me heartsick on a whole different level. I am ashamed of and disappointed in Battle Ground Academy… there is simply no other way to describe it. I think even Mom would be disappointed, because—while she wouldn’t want a fuss about this—she would certainly lament a wrong such as this one being done to any family, including ours.
I have debated what I should do next. Me personally calling the school and sending emails seems to do no real good, so I am asking you, in honor of my mother, Peggy Burnette, to email, write, or call Battle Ground Academy and let them you know that you support a memorial for my mother on campus in the spot where her tree should be. Then, please share this as a post on your social media accounts.
Also, if you feel so inclined, please use this Go Fund Me Page to give something towards that end if you are able. Jessica and I will use any monies collected to purchase the memorial marker, and if we collect more than enough for that, we will put the remaining funds into an account earmarked the Peggy Burnette Memorial Scholarship Fund and use the money to make going to college a little easier for deserving high school students. If the school will not allow a memorial marker, all funds will be put towards the Peggy Burnette Memorial Scholarship.
I am setting the goal at $5,000 hoping that will cover the marker and be a good start to an ongoing scholarship fund. Please note that the school has never provided the cost for the memorial they indicated they might approve so I do not know what the actual breakdown will be.
If you have questions or would rather send a check directly, please email me at [email redacted].
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and thank you more for loving my Mama…
- Rich Reed
- Cooper Magli
- Nick Coleman
- Leigh Pettus
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