To Extended Family, Friends, and the Wonderful Staff and Residents of the Forest at Duke:
The sun lost one of its bright, golden rays as our Mom, Sherry Townsend (86) departed this earth February 29th, 2020. Mom died of the recurrence of a cancer diagnosis she received in 1999 when her family was told she had a 5% chance of surviving a cholangiocarcinoma tumor in her bile duct. At that time, with four new grandkids (and three yet to come) in her midst, she assured us she would fight her diagnosis with everything she had saying, “I just don’t think it’s my time yet.” Through the remarkable efforts of Doug Tyler, Ted Pappas and Herb Horwitz (her doctors at Duke Cancer Center) and our Mom’s determination, faith and joie de vivre, she beat the 5%-survival prognosis in late 2000 and remained non-symptomatic until this past November.
When a tumor was found on her liver this past December, she told the entire family, “I got a 20-year hall pass the last time. I promised I would make good on every minute of it and I have. So, it’s time for some one else’s name to go on that hall pass.”
If measured by one’s ability to show and breed compassion, friendship, care, love and loyalty, with a quick sense of humor and a side of sass, our Mom was a Nobel Prize winner of the first order.
She and our father Bill were married for 62 years. However, dear Sherry was actually engaged to be married in June of 1957 to her high school sweetheart from her hometown of Scarsdale, NY (graduated Scarsdale High in 1952 and Centenary College in 1956). In the summer of that year, she and her Mom left New York for a 10-day trip to the Bahamas. On the way south, they planned a two-day stop in Durham to visit long-time family friends, Kenneth and Mildred Cobb. At the Cobb’s handsome home on Club Boulevard, there was a young Citadel graduate from Bennettsville, SC who was renting the guest house from the Cobb’s having just started as a management intern at Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company. The North truly met the South that summer evening in 1957…so much so our Mom hid her engagement ring, convinced her Mom to extend the stay at the Cobb’s for an additional day and a romance commenced. Upon her return to Scarsdale a week later, Mom broke off her engagement and professed her love for this lean, dark-haired South Carolinian who loved to dance. Dad, likewise, declared his love for Mom, took the risk of buying her second engagement ring in as many months, and they were married in Chevy Chase MD just nine months later.
And with that, our Mom moved to the Bull City and immediately started a family in January of 1959 all while engaging herself into the Durham community. Mom possessed a subtle gravitational pull that combined her genuine caring nature with her vivacious, warm personality that endeared her to so many. She made friends easily and because of her loyalty and trueness of spirit, kept those friends for life. Mom was someone that you always looked forward to seeing because you trusted in her sincerity and knew you would share a smile and a laugh, and leave feeling a little brighter and refreshed. Even with her terminal diagnosis, many visitors would remark how Mom’s positive and peaceful attitude was inspiring and uplifting allowing them to leave emotionally and spiritually more positive than when they arrived.
Mom was content to be a homemaker for the first 12 years of marriage. In circa 1972, as the costs of educating and raising three kids collided with a growing public concern over the safety of cigarette smoking and L&M’s long-term survivability, our Mom went to work for the first time. A long-time member of the Junior League of Durham and Orange Counties, she initially dipped her toes into the professional world by administratively managing the Hill House (JLDOC headquarters). With activity a little slow at Hill House, Mom transitioned to work as the Executive Assistant to a budding young NCNB city executive named Robb Cadwallader. Mom and Robb worked hand in glove for approximately five years as Robb built impressive market share in Durham for the Charlotte-based bank. “I didn’t even know how to keep a respectable checkbook, much less anything at all about commercial banking. I told Robb that when he asked me to come work for him and he just laughed and said he’d teach me the banking part, but he would never have to teach me how to manage relationships with his customers. I stayed there as long as I did because harassing young Robb became as fun as the work. He was a good man.”
Mom’s last stop off prior to becoming a full-time wife for the second time and full-time grandmother for the first time, was at Durham Academy. Robb Cadwallader had left NCNB to start a career in commercial real estate development. Chairman of the Durham Academy Board of Trustees at the time, Robb introduced Mom to an enterprising young headmaster the school had just hired named Rob Hershey. Rob asked Mom to take the role of Assistant to the Headmaster. Mom spent close to seven years with Rob, including four fun-filled academic seasons when her youngest son Cab attended DA’s Upper School. She likely had a couple of unwanted occasions to see young Cab in Rob’s office. “Rob and I had one great working relationship,” said Mom. “He knew when to stay out of my way and I knew when to stay out of his way. We worked really well that way which made Durham Academy and Rob such a wonderful experience.”
Mom ultimately retired and focused on her growing crew of grandchildren who she considered one of her life’s greatest gifts. She delighted in all seven, spoiling them with her love, laughter, time and attention. In doing so she gave us her greatest gift as she further intuitively and instinctively, taught our children the joy and power of family.
In addition to her six children, (three natural-born, and three in-laws), Mom adopted a seventh child at the age of 74, Jonah Kendall, the Rector at St. Philips Episcopal Church in Durham. Mom served on the Search Committee that brought Jonah to St. Philip’s and she counted his hiring as one of her proudest accomplishments. “When I first met Jonah, I told the Committee he was too good looking to be a quality rector,” said Mom. “But the more I listened to him and continued to look at him, I decided he could do both.” Our family will be forever grateful to Jonah and the loving relationship he established with Mom. Our Mother’s ability to take her diagnosis so strong and confidently was, no doubt, due to her strong faith in God. This faith strengthened immensely over her declining years with Jonah at her side.
Mom’s life over the last seven years, and especially over the last 12 weeks she was sick, was changed immeasurably by her and Dad’s move to the Forest at Duke. As a part of this community, Mom met and befriended any number of residents with whom she built lasting relationships. In addition, so many of Mom’s wonderful friends from her early days in Durham were also residents at the Forest which pleased and entertained her to no end. In Mom’s last days, these friends were always right at her side.
Lastly, Mom seems to have adopted one last collective child and that was the wonderful staff at the Forest. It would warm anyone’s heart to see the daily visits by so many of the staff just to kiss her on the cheek and tell her they loved her. To her three kids, it was a remarkable sight to see just how simple and pure true love could be demonstrated through these visits.
Mom kept her sense of humor to the end. In those final, emotionally heart-wrought days of dying, one of her nurses (while administering morphine doses) asked her how she was feeling. Mom whispered in a very soft whisper, “Not so swift, how about you?”
We’ll miss our Mom, but we are comforted in the knowledge she is resting in God’s peace and is enjoying the company of her much beloved and revered father and brother (Percy Paul Pratt and Benjamin Cabell Pratt, respectively), whom she was so looking forward to seeing. Mom gifted us full hearts and we now turn those to our Dad, her loved and true partner, Bill survives our Mom at 91 years of age. He, too, is a resident in the Olsen Center skilled nursing facility at the Forest.
Due to Dad’s fragile health, we have decided to hold a private family service for Mom where her remains will be interned in the columbarium at St. Philip’s Church. Our Dad has been very forthright and intentional with us that he plans to “check out” right after Mom. So, our family has decided to hold one memorial service honoring both of our parents shortly after Dad “checks out”.
If you are so inclined, our Mom would very much appreciate any donations being made to:
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church
403 East Main Street
Durham, NC 27701
2625 Pickett Road
Durham, NC 27705
The Townsend family is under the care of Hall-Wynne Funeral Service, Durham, NC. Online condolences: www.hallwynne.com; select obits.