LAURINBURG – Drawn by what she calls “a divine connection’’ that began as a poor child’s quest for a winter coat, a U.S. State Department officer is returning to her hometown this weekend to celebrate the life of a small, well-dressed woman who “doesn’t want attention.”
But the object of Shirley Dudley Miles unabashed affection, Mary Belle Asher Hafer, is certain to get attention. Admirers are coming from as far away as Florida and Washington, D.C., to celebrate Hafer’s 105th birthday.
“God has allowed her to live so long because she’s been such a Good Samaritan to so many people she didn’t even know,’’ said Miles, a former U.S. Air Force officer. “When somebody helps you, you always go back to help them.’’
While giving due credit to her spiritually devout and hard-working parents, Miles said Hafer and her late husband, Alvin Brandt Hafer, head forester for the McNair Seed Co., provided the pivotal influence that made her life a success.
“She opened the door for me to think about the world in a way I never would have,’’ Miles recalled. “As poor as I was, she taught me how to learn, how to set goals for myself and go after them. She helped me realize that the important thing in life is to contribute to society.’’
But Hafer downplays the praise, insisting she’s “just lived an average life.”
“I had the normal childhood diseases, but mainly I’ve always had good health. I’ve tried to keep good habits, I think. I attended church regularly, and I tried to be happy,” she said in her stylishly furnished room at Scotia Village.
The 104-year-old will celebrate yet another milestone birthday on Sept. 1.
Married after Alvin Hafer’s 1928 graduation from NC State University, the couple spent much of the next two decades moving from one small town to another as he sought forestry work, winding up with the Tennessee Valley Authority for many years before accepting the job in Laurinburg in around 1950.
Hafer and Miles – then Shirley Dudley – met in the early 1960s, when Miles was a little girl living with her parents and nine siblings in a two-room house in East Laurinburg that had no electricity or running water.
Decades later, Miles said she would be in state department delegation meetings with African heads of state — the presidents of Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Morroco — and the Hafers would come to mind.
“I just marveled at how far my life had come from East Laurinburg, and what a gigantic role she played in making it all possible,’’ said Miles. “I would not be where I am now if it were not for Mary Hafer.’’
As a small child, Miles had come to the attention of a Scotland County truancy officer. The family’s house had burned and they had moved to East Laurinburg, the only place her father could find. Shirley and her sister took turns going to school in cold weather because they had to share a single tattered winter coat.
The truant officer arranged for Shirley and two of her brothers to miss school to visit Laurinburg Presbyterian Church, where a program collected and distributed clothing for the needy. The three children walked from East Laurinburg to the church one windy winter afternoon.
“The ground was frozen hard,’’ Miles remembered, her voice rising slightly for emphasis. She could no longer feel her feet when they got to the church, where Hafer was a volunteer.
“I got there and I saw all these other poor kids getting clothes,’’ she said. “I was very shy and I said out loud, to no one in particular, in this meek child’s voice, that I needed a winter coat. No one heard me. Meanwhile, my two brothers all got the clothes they needed.
“Mrs. Hafer came over and smiled at me and said she’d check, but then came and said there was nothing that fit me. I didn’t care if it fit or not, I just wanted a warm coat. So she said she’d give me and my brothers a ride home.’’
Hafer was touched by what she saw. The Dudley family’s two-room cinderblock house had a swamp instead of a back yard. Inside one room was a wood stove, but both parents were too sick to gather wood and had been burning tar paper.
“Everything and everybody were sooty,’’ Miles said. “Mrs. Hafer said she’d come back and take me to get a winter coat. And she did. She took me downtown to McNair’s Department Store.’’
Hafer bought the young Shirley a blue hooded parka with a plaid flannel lining that Miles can still describe in great detail, a garment known in the early 1960s as a car coat. Far from finished, Hafer bought the 8-year-old a pair of leather shoes, gloves, knee socks, underclothes, some toiletry items and two plaid skirts.
“I didn’t miss any school after that,’’ Miles recalled, pride in her voice.
Days later, when Shirley’s entire family was down sick, Mrs. Hafer showed up with a meal of baked chicken and dressing, vegetables and the fixins’.
It was to be the first of many.
But before that, Hafer had learned something that disturbed her more than the thought of a shivering little girl missing school. None of the Dudley children had school books to bring home to read.
Racially segregated schools were the rule then, described as separate but equal, yet most of the kids going to school with Miles, who is black, did not have books to bring home for study either. She said Mrs. Hafer told her she would make some calls.
“It wasn’t long before every kid in that school got books,’’ Miles said. “That would not have happened but for Mrs. Hafer caring enough to make it happen.’’
But that wasn’t enough for Mary Belle Hafer. Aware of the cramped and poorly lit conditions at her parents’ home, Miles was invited to hang out at the home of the Hafers on Saturdays, where she would be tutored at the dining room table.
“She taught me English and shorthand, and Mr. Hafer taught me history and math,’’ Miles said. “All these new and wondrous things were pounded in my head. After a while, Mr. Hafer was teaching me complex mathematics.’’
But the Hafers had not forgotten about the rest of the Dudley family.
Many of the windows of the Dudley were missing, the walls and floors pockmarked with holes. Through their friendship with neighbors who were on the faculty at then St. Andrews Presbyterian College, students and church volunteers descended on the Dudley home, putting in new windows, repairing the walls and floors and painting them.
Days later, after repairs were made, the Hafers paid to get the electricity turned on. Then Mr. Hafer brought over a new electric stove.
“After a while passed, they said they wanted me to live with them and go to a better school,’’ Miles recounted. “Of course they had to get my parents’ permission, and they had to get permission for me to ride a school bus with the white kids.
“Mrs. Hafer started making all my clothes for me,’’ Miles said. “We would go to the Fabric Warehouse in Bennettsville to buy cloth.’’
Mrs. Hafer also taught the teenager cooking and other domestic skills, while Mr. Hafer introduced her to his wood shop and they both continued to tutor the girl in math and pronunciation.
Shirley graduated from Scotland High School in 1968, then went on to Fayetteville State, where she entered the Reserve Officer Training Program. Vietnam war protests were at a fever pitch and ROTC cadets were often targets for student scorn.
“I was able to think for myself because of Mrs. Hafer,’’ she said. “I knew what I wanted to do because they had taught me that you have to go for it; make a plan, set a goal and go for it.’’
Miles did, becoming a distinguished business graduate and getting a commission in the U.S. Air Force, then worked for two major Defense Department contractors before joining the U.S. State Department.
“I call her my fairy godmother,’’ Miles said of Hafer. Her daughter, an attorney who specializes in labor and employment law in Alexandria, Va., calls her Grandma Hafer.
But Miles was not the first young kid taken in by the Hafers, who had no children of their own.
In 1952, under sponsorship of a Lutheran Church program to help children orphaned in World War II, an adolescent boy from Lithuania, whose parents were killed, arrived in Laurinburg speaking no English.
The Hafers took Gunter into their family, started teaching him English and enrolled him public school. By the time he was 14, they adopted him. Gunter Hafer graduated from Scotland County High School in 1956, and headed off to study at North Carolina State University.
“I skipped school during the war,’’ he recalled in a telephone interview from Florida. “There wasn’t much of a school to go to then. Everyone was away fighting the war. My parents had both been killed, and the rest of my family … I don’t know what became of them. So I’d grown up a wild urchin, a little rebel in the streets.
“I had no idea then how fortunate I was to land in that town with those people. There’s no way one can know such things at the time, but it was a very life-changing event for me; all for the good.’’
It has been all for the good of many, many Scotland County residents as well. Over the decades, Mary has made and donated thousands of hats for cancer patients who lost their hair, organized a collection of shoes for poor children and participated in countless outreaches through the Laurinburg Presbyterian Church, where she taught Sunday School for many years.
The most tangible tribute to the community activism of she and her husband may be Camp Monroe, a church-affiliated summer camp for kids that they helped start. They even donated the dining hall, which is named in their honor.
“It was all in a day’s work, one day at the time,’’ Mrs. Hafer said earlier this week, her crinkled blue eyes twinkling. “I learned a long time ago that life is a lot easier if you learn to want what you get instead of worrying all the time about getting what you want.”
Pointing at a nearly century old yellow quilt that decorates her bed, Hafer told a visitor that her mother had made it for her. Her mother, she said, “was a mainstay in my life. She taught me that if you spend time helping others, you don’t worry so much about yourself.’’
“The world seems to be full of selfish people, in a lot of turmoil, in a big hurry,’’ she added. “Everything now is so complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.’’
J.L. Pate can be reached at 910-506-3171.