“If my parting has left a void / Then fill it with remembered joys. A friendship shared, a laugh, a kiss / Oh yes, these things, I, too, will miss.”
GREENVILLE — In November 1999, these words appeared on the memorial card at the funeral of Mary Lou Hornbrook. More than a decade later, they still ring true to those who knew her well.
The pebbles Mary Lou tossed into the waters of Greenville’s social scene continue to create ripples all these years after her death.
A kindergarten teacher and single parent of five children, Mary Lou understood the crucial role simple human contact plays in our emotional well-being. She grasped, on a visceral level, the age-old maxim that no one is an island; no one should have to be.
In 1978, with the help of a small circle of friends and an accommodating minister, Mary Lou organized the first meeting of the Greenville Adult Singles group. Meeting at the United Methodist Church on Cass Street in Greenville, the group’s mission statement was simple, yet potent: To provide social and emotional support for persons 21 or older who are divorced, separated, widowed or never married.
At Mary Lou’s suggestion, each person attending those early meetings was greeted with a hug, a tradition that continues today, though the hug is now optional. It was that unpretentious token of affection, as much as anything else, that drew Karen Baird of Greenville to those first few gatherings.
In the years since, Baird has served on the group’s board of directors and held various offices within the organization. She remembers Mary Lou with more than fondness, more than respect and affection. As do so many, she remembers Mary Lou with love.
“Mary Lou insisted we greet everyone at the door with a hug,” Baird said. “She hugged everybody; that was her philosophy and it’s something single people often miss, that closeness.”
Longtime member and former group president Mary Jensen also sings Mary Lou’s praises at every available opportunity. As one of many current and former members who says Mary Lou’s work changed her life, Jensen says she can’t overemphasize the positive impact the group — and Mary Lou — has had.
“It was a way to bring singles together so they didn’t have to be lonely and do things alone,” Jensen said. “At first, she had speakers come in; people from the courts, the police, counselors and psychiatrists; lots of different kinds of speakers. From there it grew into outings and camping and going to plays and movies.
“Mary Lou made the group feel like a second family. That’s what it was. If you had no place to spend Christmas, Mary Lou wouldn’t hesitate to open the door to you. If you needed a shirt, she would give you the whole outfit.”
The singles group continued to pick up steam and increase its membership. In short order, the idea of hosting singles dances came up, with profits going to fund community assistance efforts.
“Originally, the money generated from the dances was used for members in need,” Baird said. “It went to people who needed food or rent money. Once, we bought a member a hearing aid. Over the years we’ve provided scholarships for members and their kids.”
These days the dances, held two or three Saturdays each month at American Legion Post 101, have brought in upwards of 300 people, though half that number is more typical. That’s a lot of introductions, some of which have resulted in lifelong relationships and even marriages.
“People come back again after a divorce or the death of a spouse,” Baird said. “The Greenville group has a reputation for holding the friendliest dances. We’ve had people come to the dances from as far away as Canada.”
In addition to the myriad romantic relationships sparked by introductions at Greenville Adult Singles events, many lifelong friendships also have blossomed, such as the one between Baird and Jensen. Both women have lost children and both have gleaned comfort during those times from their abiding friendship. For that, they thank Mary Lou.
“If not for Mary Lou, I wouldn’t have known Karen,” Jensen said. “Karen would never have come to my door and held me the day my son died.”
“And Mary wouldn’t have shown up at my door when my son died,” Karen added. “If not for Mary Lou starting all this over 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have the group of wonderful friends I have today. If it hadn’t been for her, we would have none of this.”
Mary Lou’s son, Greenville business owner Andy Hornbrook, says he often still hears people speaking of his mother and the impact she had on their lives.
“It is incredible people are still talking about her after all this time,” Hornbrook said. “At least three times a month, someone will come up to me and tell me what a great woman she was, how she affected their lives. She did everything for everybody, except maybe herself.”
Her family and immediate circle of friends, who, according to her son were really extended family in Mary Lou’s eyes, took up most of her time. Though a lifetime subscriber to The Daily News, she rarely had time to read the paper.
“But she saved every issue,” said Hornbrook. “We used to tease her about it. She said that when she retired she was going to go back and read them all and find out what had happened, what she had missed.”
Mary Lou never got the chance. Cancer claimed her life shortly after she retired from teaching and the age-yellowed editions were tossed away unread.
But her legacy lives on in the many lives she touched with her own gentle, caring spirit.
The ripples spread.