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Triumphing Over Adversity: An Adirondack Portrait of Mary Lou Cole

NORTH CREEK As this new year begins, let us pay tribute to some quintessential Adirondack qualities: a feisty resilience in the face of tough times; a warm gift for friendship; a willingness to work at a constellation of jobs to keep body and soul together; a spirit of generosity that means giving and giving some more even when the giver has little wealth to share. One North Creek native who fits this profile well is Mary Lou Cole, for nearly seven years a popular volunteer at the Town of Johnsburg Library. To school children, who seem to gravitate to her, she is a familiar presence at the computer, dispensing books with a sparkling smile. She doesn't need to say much and that is just as well. On her 41st birthday, 18 years ago, Cole discovered that she had throat cancer and would need major, speech-robbing surgery to conquer it. But that was only one jolt, and not even the worst, in a bumpy string of calamities dating back into local history. Her grandfather, John Cole, came to the area at age three in 1889, and as an adult he owned a 122-acre farm off River Road that was lush with plantings. I can remember gardens all over the place, says Cole today, her voice a husky whisper. We had potatoes, corn, all kinds of vegetables. Her grandmother, a marvelous cook, turned the 26-room farmhouse with its gracious, wrap-around porch into a successful boarding house. One giant woodstove in the parlor warmed the entire place, as heat filtered through grates into the bedrooms above. Every day, Mary Jane Cole baked melt-in-your-mouth bread and doughnuts in an old iron oven, and she taught her granddaughter how to cook, without benefit of recipes. I don't even think she owned a measuring cup, Mary Lou Cole said. She just measured her ingredients by hand. The family was devastated when the old house burned to the ground in 1974, and today the parcel is a vacant lot. But Mary Lou and her mother, Betty a single parent and accounting clerk in the Warren County Department of Social Services for 38 years started over. They moved into a large trailer on the site, along with Cole's grandmother, by now a widow. Then on Feb. 3, 1978, trouble struck again. While everyone except Mary Jane Cole was away, the furnace exploded and fire engulfed the trailer. Crippled by arthritis, the older woman could not escape, and she succumbed to smoke inhalation before fire fighters could save her. By this time, Mary Lou Cole was a single parent herself with a young son, Danny, born in 1969. Both sweet and mischievous, Danny had an irresistible smile and "a devilish grin," recalls Cole. Betty Cole's only grandchild and Mary Lou's only child, he was a much-loved little boy. On an unseasonably hot June day, Danny just 10 years old was playing softball on the playground at Johnsburg Central School when he suddenly collapsed and died. There had been no warning. All at once, he was gone and, heartbroken as she was, Cole knew that his teachers and classmates were also stunned by his loss. Gathering her courage, she visited Danny's classroom and consoled his friends. She remains grateful for the outpouring of support among her North Country friends and neighbors at her son's death. The North Creek United Methodist Church was filled to overflowing, and the line at the funeral home backed up into the street. After each fire, the community had reacted in the same generous way. People came and helped clean up what was left. It was really amazing, she said, shaking her head. Whenever something happens here, everyone is there for everybody else. They were there for her again in 1989, when another cruel blow struck. Cole, a smoker, was diagnosed with throat cancer and needed serious surgery, performed at Glens Falls Hospital by Dr. Robert Hughes. At first, the two had some run-ins, but eventually they developed a strong mutual respect, even friendship. Today, Dr. Hughes still sees Cole every couple of months, and she declares that he has more heart than any 10 people combined. Limited now in her activities, Cole who once cooked in restaurants, sold real estate, worked at a gas station, tended bar and looked after sick members of her own family has turned to volunteer activities. She serves as treasurer of the Friends of the Town of Johnsburg Library board and as secretary of the Bluegrass Festival Committee; she helps out at church during Christmas bazaars. Most of all, she enjoys honing her gift for friendship. When babies are born, she makes them afghans, and she often writes notes asking people how they are doing. A 1966 graduate of Johnsburg Central School, she is a key member of the Lunch Bunch, a close-knit group of classmates who meet twice a year for lunch and gossip. Mary Lou makes us all feel special, said Sue Pelletier Rawson, a Lunch Bunch member along with Sue Hutchins Allison, Mary Owens Pratt and Cindy Johnson Wing. She is the glue in the class of '66, and a big part of the reason that we get together. She is always interested in what's happening to us, and she is just a really good friend. A few years ago, the community came together again for Mary Lou Cole, to attend a memorial service for her son. In 2003, on her own 55th birthday, they gathered at Tannery Pond for a festive celebration hosted by the Friends group and the Lunch Bunch, with music from popular local artist Mike Leddick. Now, with her 60th birthday looming, Cole is pondering another special event. What will it be? It's hard to surprise people in a place like North Creek. Everyone knows what you're doing before you do it," she said with an indulgent smile. But that's all right. This is home.

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