For decades, when my parents, Nelda and Gary Risher, have hosted out-of-towners, my dad has forced most of the guests to join him for a tour of the town where they live and where my whole family grew up — Forest, Mississippi. (population 5,608).
On those tours, my dad shows people around town with more pride that longtime Parisians show first-time visitors the City of Lights. Tour highlights include the court house, various churches, where the Town Theater used to be (now a parking lot) and then the football field.
Out-of-towners are barely able to get a word in as he spouts off facts and figures in his booming voice. My dad only has one volume — the one he used from the sidelines to communicate with quarterbacks above the marching band and the roar of the crowd. (The quarterback heard him just fine, thank you very much.)
After every tour, once he gets the group back to his dinner table, he concludes with the following line: “Yep, we’ve found what the rest of the world is looking for right here in Forest, Mississippi.”
Meanwhile, my mother scurries around their home nonstop, doing all the things that have made guests, from close to home and far away, feel welcome. Both of them resting easy in the comfort of lives well lived.
In October, the mayor of Forest, Nancy Chambers (who was also my eighth-grade history teacher) posted a short message with her phone number on my Facebook page and asked me to call her.
Anyone who ever sat in Mrs. Chambers’ classroom knows there is only one course of action when she asks you to do something — you do whatever she asks as quickly as possible. The woman runs a tight ship.
I called her immediately. She had something important to discuss but explained that I had to promise not to tell anyone until she gave me the go-ahead. I promised and she told me that she wanted to nominate my parents to be Citizens of the Year — could I help provide some details about their service to the community.
So started the journey of the Forest Chamber of Commerce bestowing the honor upon my parents as the 2020 Citizens of the Year. In any other year, my parents would be the grand marshals of the town’s Christmas parade. This year, they will sit in front of the courthouse as the rest of the town drives by.
My parents have spent the majority of their lives in Forest, other than brief stints away for college and three years in Magee, another small town, in the 1980s. Last week my mom told me that they moved away from Forest two times.
“When we came back, it just felt so good to be home,” she said as she and my dad steadily worked on shelling 60 pounds of pecans to give away. (My dad was quick to point out that they throw all the pecan shells in the fire, because it makes the whole house smell good.)
Between the two of them, they have a combined 73 years of teaching. Father Brian Kaskie, a childhood friend and the priest at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in McComb, Mississippi, was a student in both of my parents’ classrooms and a quarterback on my dad’s team. This week, Brian told me something about my dad that I didn’t know. He said he remembered my dad’s “running commentary in the hall between classes” and that my dad would yell out, “Come here, son, and let me hug yo’ neck.”
Brian recognized that I probably didn’t realize everybody’s parents weren’t so demonstrative. He said, “Your dad was the first man I ever received a hug from!”
I figure that in their years of teaching and coaching, my parents have touched more than 15,000 students’ lives.
Service to others didn’t stop in the classroom or on the football field. My parents taught Sunday School, Bible School, exercise classes and volunteered for countless camps and outings for young and old. Back in 1974, my mom and her friend, Patricia Reeves, were the first female Little League baseball coaches in Forest. (I know that because I was on their team in the first summer girls got to play baseball.)
When it comes to parents, I’ll quote Ted Lasso, “I feel like I fell off the lucky tree, hit every branch on the way down and ended up in a pool of cash and Sour Patch Kids.”
Congrats, Mom and Dad! You deserve every honor any of us could give you, but I know none would mean quite as much as this one.
My dad is right. My parents have indeed found what the rest of the world is looking for.