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by Suzy Woollums
Recently, the “Look Back” section of the Record News reported that 50-years ago the paper ran three obituaries for William “Bill” Woollums, his wife, Loana “Mitzi” Woollums, and their three-year-old daughter, Jodane “Jody” Woollums who were killed in a car accident on a rural road in northern Missouri on June 23, 1970. As noted in all three obituaries, they were survived by Jody’s twin sister, Suzy Woollums. I am that girl.
The accident occurred on a two-lane highway at noon on a clear day as the family was headed home to Ames, Iowa after enjoying a camping trip in southern Missouri with Mitzi’s side of the family. There were no witnesses to the accident, but according to the accident report, skid marks indicate that the Woollums’ car was hit head-on at the crest of a hill by Theodore Lindsey of Kansas City, who was driving on the wrong side of the road. Bill, Mitzi, and Mr. Lindsey were killed instantly, and Jody and Suzy were critically injured and hospitalized in nearby Sedalia, Missouri. Jody ultimately succumbed to severe head injuries three days later, leaving Suzy, also critically injured, hospitalized while her family was taken to Ames, Iowa for the triple funeral.
At first blush, this is a heartbreaking story, but as with all things, good or bad, there is often more to the story. And while this event was indeed tragic, the “more” in this story proves to be quite miraculous.
This tale begins as a love story between Bill and Mitzi who met in 1965 at work in Mason City, Iowa. Bill was devilishly handsome, and Mitzi was a former beauty queen. At the time, Bill was living with his cousin, Carl Woollums, Carl’s wife, Jessie, and their two teenage daughters, Diane and Cathy. Love quickly blossomed between Bill and Mitzi, and after having met in August, they were engaged in November and married in January 1966. Carl was Bill’s best man. The newlyweds settled into their own apartment in Mason City and were quickly pregnant with twins who were born the following December. Carl and Jessie were named as the twin’s Godparents at their baptism. A year later Bill moved his family to Ames, Iowa where he began pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering at Iowa State University.
Fast forward to Mother’s Day 1970. Bill and Mitzi celebrated Mother’s Day weekend with Mitzi’s parents in Livermore, Iowa. During their visit, Mitzi told her mother that should anything happen to her and Bill they wanted Carl and Jessie to take care of the twins. This announcement seemed odd to her parents because Mitzi had two older sisters from whom to choose. Nevertheless, Mitzi was firm in this decision.
A few weeks later, Bill and Mitzi spent Memorial Day weekend in southern Iowa to attend a class reunion in Ellston, Iowa with Carl and Jessie. Bill and Mitzi stayed with Bill’s parents, Robert and Hazel Woollums, who had recently moved back to Ringgold County from California. During their visit, Bill and Mitzi told Robert and Hazel of their desire to have Carl’s family take care of the twins should something happen to them. Much like Mitzi’s parents, Bill’s parents were surprised because Bill had two sisters who could step in if the need arose. Nevertheless, Bill and Mitzi were adamant that Carl and Jessie were the right choice for their daughters.
During that same weekend, Bill and Mitzi finally asked Carl and Jessie, who, after conferring with their daughters, agreed… never imagining that less than a month later this request would become a reality.
What prompted Bill and Mitzi to make that decision then? After all the twins were three years old – not newborns, when most families make plans for the unthinkable. And why not merely appease the families by choosing one of Bill’s or Mitzi’s sisters – after all, they were a young and vibrant couple with their whole lives ahead of them. Who would have ever thought their demise was eminent?
These are questions to which I will never know the answers, but I am so very grateful that Bill and Mitzi heeded the nudge that I believe God placed in their hearts to make their wishes known – plainly and unequivocally. I am grateful that my grandparents, in the face of such devastating loss, had the courage to honor those wishes, which given the timing, couldn’t be denied. But most of all, I am forever grateful that Carl and Jessie agreed to take me, as broken as I was, despite being almost done with raising their own daughters who were 14 and 16 at the time.
As I grow older, my perspective of the “accident” as it is referred to, changes. I have no memory of it although I’ve been told that I was awake when the ambulance arrived and identified my family as best a three year old could – Momma, Daddy, and Jody. I suffered two broken legs, broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, a broken arm, and a skull fracture that left me permanently deaf in my left ear. My first true memory after the accident is getting the stitches out of my stomach which left a scar that extends the entire length of my torso from the emergency surgery to remove my spleen. However, my scars run deeper than just physical reminders. There is and will always be emotional scars from having lost my family and being the sole survivor of an accident that claimed four lives. Survivor guilt is real, and the pressure to be worthy of having survived when others didn’t is a unique burden I bear. That said, however, I was lucky in so many respects. I was lucky to be brought into a new family full of love and support. I was lucky to be welcomed with open arms as a new member of Carl & Jessie’s extended family, a lot of whom live in Ringgold County. Moreover, I was lucky to remain close with my original extended family which afforded me more family than most with four sets of grandparents, 14 aunts and uncles, and over 35 first cousins. Despite the terrible loss, I truly feel beyond blessed.
So, as you see, the accident isn’t a one-dimensional tragic story; There are so many miracles in this story if you choose to see them. I found that I always have a choice to find God’s blessings amongst the trouble that inevitably comes living in this broken world, and that theology has served me well. If Bill and Mitzi did indeed have a premonition of their imminent demise, they certainly set the stage for me to thrive in such a loving family. So, while I will forever grieve the loss of what could have been, I chose to be so very grateful for what was.