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StarBulletin.com

A Georgia county shares a tale of one man's life and death


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POSTED: Sunday, August 23, 2009

TIGER, GA.—His pallbearers were the six boys who built his plain pine coffin in their high school shop class. They built it right in the middle of the classroom. When they finished, one of the boys crawled inside it while the others toted him around the school to make sure it worked.

Now Sammy Green lay inside the coffin, wearing the overalls he requested, while the boys marched him to his mountainside grave. Two preachers played guitars and crooned the kind of bluegrass gospel Green loved. “;I'm a weary traveler,”; one song began, “;traveling through this land.”;

Only about a dozen people attended Green's funeral on Thursday afternoon in these fog-wrapped mountains, tucked into the northeast corner of the state. None were relatives—they are all dead—and most hardly knew Green, if they knew him at all. The boys who built the coffin never met him. Yet it was the people of the county who made the funeral possible.

For years, the story of Green, a never-married 76-year-old itinerant millworker who could not read or write, and his impending burial had spread through the mountains of Rabun County and beyond, becoming the kind of tale these people have long been famous for telling.

It began two years ago when a couple of students and a teacher from Rabun County High School showed up to interview him for Foxfire magazine, a renowned student-run publication devoted to Appalachian culture.

Since its founding here in 1966, Foxfire has sent students out to interview aging relatives, vanishing craftsmen and all manner of homegrown characters. Subjects run the gamut: beekeeping, moonshining, witches.

The magazine's articles have been anthologized into a popular series of books. With about 9 million in print, they have been adapted into a Broadway play and TV movie.

Green spoke into the students' tape recorder for hours about his hardscrabble life. He was born in nearby Murphy, N.C., one of six children. His father pulled him out of the second grade to grind corn at a watermill. He hunted squirrels for food, smoked “;baccer”; (tobacco) and walked six miles to church, where he was baptized in a river on a 35-degree morning.

He worked for a while at a steel mill outside Atlanta, but returned to North Carolina to cut pulp wood and, as he told his visitors, “;snake logs.”; He paid for his own parents' burials, once walking 16 miles for a headstone (he never had a drivers' license).

Finally too old to work and practically homeless, he met a family of traveling gospel singers at church and they took him in. One daughter eventually moved with her family to Rabun County and brought Green along.

After he finished his life story, Green asked the students to turn off the recorder. He looked troubled. Suffering from a deteriorating lung disease, he said he did not have enough money to be buried. He worried that if he died a pauper, the county would cremate him, an act that he believed would sentence him to eternal damnation. All he wanted, he said, was a pine box and a hole to put it in.

In the driveway as they left, one of the students, Casi Best, turned to the teacher and said, “;Can't we do something?”;

“;I could tell it was burden for him,”; said Best, now a freshman at Piedmont College, in Demorest, Ga.

So Best and some other students started a “;Bury Sammy”; campaign. The school's industrial arts teacher got the six volunteers from his ninth-grade class to build a coffin, pulling a design off the Internet. A bluegrass barbecue was held at a Wal-Mart parking lot. Green showed up briefly, trailed by an oxygen tank, marveling at the coffin on display.

“;He said, 'I don't know if I'll fit in there,”;' recalled Joyce Green (no relation), the faculty adviser for Foxfire. “;I knew he would. My son had already measured him.”;

A granite company donated a headstone. A county cemetery offered up a plot. A funeral home director cut his rate to cost. People dropped change into gallon jugs placed inside gas stations, banks, beauty parlors. The $3,100 needed to bury Green was soon raised.

“;He said, 'That's one thing I don't have to worry about,”;' remembered Sherri Eads Gragg, the woman who had taken him in.

But Green hung on. Hospice nurses visited him for almost two years while he yakked away and watched his favorite TV westerns. The funeral home kept his coffin in storage.

Then cancer moved into his lungs, and Green died, in his bed, on Tuesday morning.

“;Right before he passed, he smiled that crooked grin, sighed, and that was that,”; said Gragg, who was at his side. “;The Angel of Death had come.”;

Accompanied by a sheriff's car, the hearse carrying Green's body wound up and down two-lane mountain roads before it turned into the county cemetery's unpaved driveway. The gravesite was already prepared. Max Watts, a Rabun County commissioner who attends the Baptist church that maintains the grounds, has also built 25 wooden coffins by hand over the years; his oldest daughter put in the lining for Green's.

Then the pallbearers, each wearing a pressed shirt and blue jeans, rolled out the coffin, set it over the open grave and sat as a guitar was plucked into tune. The service of songs and Bible readings lasted less than an hour. Nobody seemed eager to leave.

“;That's what it's all about,”; said Delbert McCall, pastor at the church Green often attended in nearby Westminster, S.C., and one of those who played and sang at the service. “;That's Bible. That's community. That's love.

“;That's what I grew up with.”;