Last November, Bernard Edwards paid a visit to Townsend, something he’s been doing since the late 1950s.
No one knew it would be his last visit.
Edwards, who hails from Franklin, passed away in February. He was 97 years old and a veteran of World War II.
Accompanied by his son in that autumn, he took a final drive around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park after an honorary breakfast at the Townsend IGA. There, residents came to thank him for his service, listen to his stories and just be around him.
Edwards adored the little city on the peaceful side of the Smokies, honeymooning there and then bringing his family back on a nearly annual basis as the century closed out.
But that love didn’t end with his death.
As a part of his estate, Edwards’ family decided to give $2,000 to the city, money that will be used for a celebration no one could have dreamed of, even in February: a Resident Appreciation Day for Townsendites recovering from the impact of COVID-19.
Love for education
Mayor Ron Palewski proposed the idea of a celebration for Townsend in a letter written during the heat of pandemic closures. He coordinated with IGA store Director Greg Dean and City Recorder Danny Williamson on the idea.
Then Doran Edwards came into the picture.
Doran — a retired surgeon — is Bernard Edwards’ oldest son and was there beside his dad as the two took their last stroll together in the mountains in late 2019.
The family would always stay at Tally Ho Inn, Dr. Edwards said. “That was our place. That was always our place.”
So synonymous was Tally Ho with an Edwards family trip to Townsend that, when they were deciding what to do with the late patriarch’s estate, they immediately thought of both the city and the inn.
But Doran Edwards said owner Michael Talley suggested instead the family donate to the Hearts and Hands Scholarship fund. They did, giving another $3,000 to the fund that helps Townsend residents with college or vocational school expenses.
“He was always a great supporter of education,” Edwards said of his father. “He himself was the first person in his family to graduate high school. And one of his younger brothers was the first to graduate college. I was the first person through professional school and behind me have come veterinarians, doctors, nurses, school principals, teachers. ... He always encouraged us to get a good education.”
Bernard Edwards’ passion for education was only enhanced by his bravery as a soldier who served in Hawaii during WWII, his upbringing in a house with no electricity and no running water and a father who was born just after the Civil War.
Those are some of the things Edwards said he’ll miss the most about his father: those connections to the past.
But coming back to Townsend will always be a reminder to the family about the place their father loved to escape.
“It’s like like coming home,” Edwards said.
The city will put a cobblestone paver engraved with Edwards’ name at the entrance to the new city hall and community center so that, in a small way, he’ll always be in the place he loved to visit.
Depending on whether or not travel and COVID-19 restrictions allow him, Edwards said he might attend the Resident Appreciation Day his family helped fund. It’s uncertain when that will be, given Gov. Bill Lee’s restrictions on large gatherings.
But during a recent meeting, city commissioners said it should be a day of relaxation, celebration, food and company among residents, a day like the city “has never seen before,” Palewski said in his letter. Festivals in town often involve attractions for people from beyond the peaceful side of the Smokies. But this one is supposed to be a little more personal for Townsend.
Until then, residents and businesses are still shaking the impact of the virus off their collective shoulders.
Asked for how he would encourage the town, Edwards reflected on his father’s own work ethic.
“He said that the reason he lived so long was because he walked thousands of miles behind a mule plowing. He lived through the Depression, and a world war,” Edwards said. “His philosophy on life was ‘Get up, put your pants on, go to work: It will get better.’ And that’s what he did. That’s what I’d encourage them to do. Keep your head up and your eyes forward.”