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EDITORIAL: Cathy Etheredge, a beautiful soul, has crossed the River Jordan

Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) 11/18/2020 – I did something I haven’t done in a while Friday. I went and spent some quality time with one of my children and did absolutely no Lexington Ledger work at all. Yes, I took a radio that could hear the emergency channels. Hey, I’ve listened since I became a volunteer and later a career firefighter for Lexington County 40 years ago. It’s an old habit and a hard vice to break. Friday, we quickly got out of radio range in another county and the radio was nothing but static, so I cut it off. I lived through it with no withdrawals. In a short time, I was really enjoying myself again. Let me tell you more about my day because it’s important to set the stage for a story I’m going to tell about one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever known.

My wife went Black Friday shopping with my oldest daughter, her sister, and other family members yesterday. Another daughter had to work, she’s in the hospitality industry, but my youngest daughter invited a friend, we took the two horses, an old Chihuahua named Chocolate, and we went to a friend’s place where there are rolling pastures, gorgeous planted pecan trees, and a large, quite pond.

It was a beautiful day. The sun reflecting off the water appeared as if it were gold but alive; Close your eyes and picture golden flakes drifting in a breeze. There were geese that flew out onto the pond every time the girls road by their feeding spot, and a red-tailed hawk hunting something in the tall grass of a field. He’d sit high atop a nearby tree. I knew he was there but the small rodents didn’t, and every so often, we would take flight and aim, skillfully swoop down at lightning speed from the sky, then power for altitude out of his dive back into his tree with his latest catch clutched firmly in his talons. No radios, not even the local country music station played, and the silence was wonderful sound.

When we returned to the house, I was euphoric. I had rested, thought about my life and the blessing God gifted me. A wonderful wife, family, great friends, my little dog Chocolate, and the beauty of the day are just a few. These things are worth far more than any paper money will very be. Since I was home, when my text alert went off, I reluctantly looked to see what someone wanted. It was a very old friend with a short message. My close personal friend Cathy Etheredge had died unexpectedly.

The news was like a punch in the gut. It took my breathe and in seconds, a flood of old memories washed over me. Sgt. Cathy Etheredge, one of my oldest and dearest friends had gone to be with God. I know this because she was a woman of great faith. Everyone must die, it’s a part of life itself, but why did I need to hear this now God at the end of my perfect day? Selfish of me I know but I was just stunned for a minute and it took a bit to compose myself.

Who was Cathy Etheredge you might ask? If you look at other news sources, she was a short story after a Twitter message and a press release, yet she was so much more. She was a mother, a lifelong public servant, a prankster, a wonderful friend. She was a strong, independent woman, a person who had been through a lot of travails but always bounced back, powered ahead, and did so with a smile.

Cathy reminded me of my grandmother Kirby who life also threw many curve balls. She gave as good as she ever got if you were foolish enough to take her on either physically or mentally. She was the type of woman that had fought for everything she had including the respect of everyone who really knew her well. There was just one very notable difference between my grandmother and Cathy Etheredge. Granny’s skin was white, a healthy but pale complexion that many elegant women strove to have in her day. Cathy’s was a rich shade of brown, almost the color of a beautiful, handcrafted piece of chocolate candy; Not the bars you buy on impulse at the checkout, the expensive stuff you get at a specialty shop. Cathy’s was the color of the chocolate that is so valued that you buy it for someone you love for a very special occasion. This difference is important to this story if you keep reading on.

I first met Cathy Etheredge because she was a voice behind an emergency radio, a dispatcher for Lexington County’s emergency services. She had the perfect voice for it. Deeper than some women, commanding, calm but authoritative. I was a young firefighter, just 19 years old. We both worked for Lexington County and made less than $11 thousand dollars a year. We’d serve the citizen who needed help and then we would go to another job so we could live and have the things we needed to survive.

This was before 911 was even implemented fully. With no computer dispatch, Cathy was our guide to places were people were in trouble and sometimes having the worst days of their lives. She was the calm voice when someone you loved was dying, the firm, confident voice to the drunk, the hysterical, the angry people that called and needed something right now, even if they had just hurt their toe on a stone. They complained to Cathy when the ambulance didn’t get there as fast as they thought it should. These were sometimes obnoxious, rude people who demanded we do our jobs better because they were, “A taxpayers that pays your salary!” We were doing our jobs and fast. If you worked in our business long enough, you’d know the type I mean.

Cathy was a single mom to sons, at least they were the ones she mentioned to me. She loved them with all her heart, and they know that I think. At some point I think she had been in an abusive relationship. It wasn’t something we talked about much, but it had come up several times over the years. She was kind, loving, traditional southern mom. Then, four decades ago, you said yes sir or yes mam, had manners, and stayed quiet when the adults were talking. She taught her children this. I think she was a great mom really.

She was also a great person, a friend, the color of our skin, white and brown, played no part in that. Sadly, at the time, people in the south did still often see color and prejudged others based on that. Remember this was just a few short decades after desegregation. We were about the same age and it was a tumultuous time we were born in. It was the early 60s, a time when people were often taught to see skin color by their elders. A time when a skin color brought about preconceived notions from those with dark complexions as well as light. Those prejudices still occur with some today but hopefully not as much.

Cathy was a voice behind the radio and that negated her color and people’s ignorant rationality that your skin’s color had anything to do with who you really were inside or what you were capable of. When the prejudice people called for help, they probably never knew it was a strong black woman that sent it.

Cathy was a joker. Lord did that woman love a good prank! She once called a young firefighter that worked for me and by the time she had gotten finished, she had him red in the face, sputtering, and feeling a bit foolish. It all started with her best down-home country twang and a slow, boring day. She could come up with voices for every occasion and pranking someone was where she shined! When nothing was happening, watch out if Cathy was working. A good prank might come your way at any time

Cathy called South Congaree station on the phone this particular day, apparently twice, and the young firefighter answered both times. She must have asked him what to do with old gasoline when she first called because by the time the second call got to me, my rookie was flustered and sputtering as he explained by starting, “Lieutenant, I did not tell that lady on the phone to put gasoline in her refrigerator!” With an intro like that, you can imagine I was a bit confused. I tried to calm him some to get more information, but he said the lady was on the phone and wanted to speak with his supervisor now! I asked a few short questions quickly, got almost incoherent responses, and then picked up the office extension. “Lieutenant Kirby,” I said. “How can I help you ma'am?” She immediately launched into a tirade! “That young fireman done told me to put old gasoline somewhere cool and then take it to a mechanic later to dump it,” she nearly shouted! “I took old lawnmower gas, put it in a pitcher, and put it in my Frigidaire cause that’s cool. Now, everything in my fridge, it tastes like gasoline!” In the middle of that sentence, Cathy paused and said as if speaking with her child, “Don’t drink that Kool-Aid honey, taste like gasoline!” before she continued yelling about that, "dumb young fellow," I had working for me. I will admit she even had me fooled for a second. I began to explain that he was new, and she must have misunderstood him. Once again, she launched into her act asking me who was going to pay for all her ruined food. Somewhere in that exchange, I realized it was Cathy Etheredge pulling a prank on a rookie that slow day. When I called her on it, she tried to continue but eventually burst out laughing. We all got a good chuckle out of Mitch’s predicament and I lightheartedly told her to find something else to do beside tease my rookie if she was that bored! We still tell the story to this day even though Mitch retired after a long and distinguished career fighting fire for Lexington County.

Why do I tell you this silly story you might ask? That’s so simple. I’m trying to explain a complex woman who had so many talents, helped thousand across this county, and truly made a difference. She did all this without taking herself or others to seriously. People who are always so serious were no fun at all to her or me. She had a sense of humor and we needed that at times.

Cathy was a true friend. She’d do anything for you and laugh at the prejudices of the day. “Come on, really,” she often said. We’d be talking about something an ignorant, uneducated person had said and that was her response. She’s would finish with, “Get Real,” or, “Give me a break!” It was the deep south in a different time yet this woman with the deep, dark brown skin served all the uneducated or undereducated who thought blacks were dumb or lazy. She was smart, comforting, strong, resilient, and saved countless lives. She was so far from dumb or lazy it was stunning. Some callers then were still foolish bigots who never realized it was this black woman that picked up that phone when they needed

help. She heard no color in their voices. To her they were all the people she selflessly served.

Cathy later went to work at the City of Cayce’s Department of Public Safety. I think she started dispatching there but eventually became a certified law enforcement officer. I remember the first time I talked to her after she hit the road. I joked, “Cathy Etheredge turned loose on the people of Cayce with a gun on her hip. God help them for sure now.” We both had a laugh about that!

Eventually, Cathy moved to the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department where at one point, she worked with women and others who were the victims of heinous crimes. She was great at that. I think I know why she had a passion for helping abused women but again, we never talked much about that part of her life.

Cathy was still working at the Sheriff’s Department in the office of Professional Standards Division as a sergeant; Internal Affairs if you will when she died. I wonder if she ever had to investigate deputy on deputy pranks which are frowned on these days? By the time she died, she had been serving more than four decades. It is fitting she died near Thanksgiving and my beautiful day away. I’m thankful to have called her a friend and she was truly a beautiful person and soul.

Cathy passed at her home in Gaston at the age of 60. She was a tremendous, Godly woman full of knowledge, laughter, and a desire to help others. I think she and my Granny Naomi were much alike. There was nothing either one couldn’t overcome if given a challenge.

I occasionally called Cathy at the Sheriff’s Department to see how she was doing, to chat, reminisce, laugh together later in life. She gave me advice when I knew a woman who was in trouble, who was being abused and thought she had no way out. She was a smart, talented woman who saw no color, just people like us doing what we could to help where we could. She was one of the greatest WOMEN I ever knew.

Sheriff Jay Koon said after Cathy’s unexpected death, “Cathy’s sudden passing is a tremendous loss to those who knew her and our department. She brought a maternal and folksy style to her role that allowed her to connect with her fellow deputies on a personal level.” Amen Sheriff Koon, amen!

Instead of weeping old friend, I hope you will understand if I remember and laugh at all we did and talked about. This year has had enough sorrow. I choose to celebrate your victory over the grave. I plan to see you again one day.

You can read the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department’s official release by clicking this link:

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