‘A heart bigger than Texas’ (The Daily Dispatch, October 21, 2014)
By David Irvine
The Daily Dispatch, Henderson, NC www.HendersonDispatch.com
October 21, 2014
Lelia Brigham had her funeral all planned out — down to the music.
But then she had a realization.
Brigham has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, John Price said. She worked with David Grissom, a retired United Methodist minister, to plan her funeral.
“But then she said, ‘Shoot! I’ll be dead and won’t hear the band,’ ” Price said.
So, friends and coworkers filled Brigham’s home and yard on Saturday as they celebrated the life of the longtime Vance-Granville Community College art instructor.
So Price and others arranged a celebration that Brigham could enjoy, including the band — a saxophone, keyboard, upright bass and vocalist.
Grissom served as master of ceremonies.
“Lelia wanted to be present,” he said. “She wanted to hear what you all said.”
Brigham taught at VGCC for 45 years and married John Brigham in 1961. He died five years ago.
Before the party, Brigham spoke frankly about her illness.
“I have pancreatic cancer,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to know that I’m going to die. I don’t know when, but I know that I’ll be in a better place. God can grant me that.”
As the street became jammed with cars, neighbor Walter Ellis invited visitors to park in his driveway.
People filed up the driveway, through the house and to the backyard patio.
Teresa Ellis, who worked with Brigham at VGCC, expressed a sentiment heard more than once during the afternoon.
“She just made it so easy for me working with her,” she said.
Grissom remarked on Brigham’s life and career.
“Lee, we are here to honor you,” he said. “You’ve been honest. You have a heart bigger than Texas. Through your art, you captured the beauty of life.”
Addressing Brigham’s friends and admirers, he said, “Anyone who knows Lelia Brigham knows there is only one Lelia Brigham. She embodies what a friend is. She can bring joy out of heartache, sunshine out of rain.”
VGCC President Stelfanie Williams said Brigham has been a fixture at the college.
“You’ve been connected to that college 16 times longer than I have, since the college started in 1969,” she said.
She listed some of Brigham’s accomplishments, including receiving a prize for her miniature pastel painting “Vance County Tobacco Barn” at the 2012 N.C. State Fair. Brigham also helped found the Kerr Lake Art Society. VGCC hosts the organization’s art shows.
But most of all, Williams said, Brigham’s focus was on students, exemplified by the fact that she has established five scholarships at VGCC ( see related article here ).
Eddie Ferguson, who oversees the endowment fund, said her paintings show not just a love of art but also a love of community.
Leo Kelly, retired dean of continuing education, presented Brigham with a large quilt he had crafted. The two of them go back 43 years, he said.
Brigham’s influence extends into the community.
“She is such an asset to our church,” said Christie Twisdale, who worships with Brigham at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.
After the formal remarks, Price and Brigham danced to the band’s rendition of “Santa Baby.”
Brigham has set a precedent, Grissom said, an example of what we all could do.
Noting the quantity of acorns falling in the yard, he said, “Lee has planted loving seeds, or acorns, in our lives.”
Reprinted with permission of The Daily Dispatch.
Above: Lelia Brigham listens with a smile as friends share stories and kind words about her during the celebration (MARK DOLEJS / Dispatch Staff)