Cousin Bailey: “I hate to claim it, we are kin!”

Last week the call came that I had been expecting for some time; my oldest living relative Bailey had passed away. He would have been 95 on his next birthday. He was my grandmother Grace Valentine Kembel Spencer’s first cousin. Bailey’s Mom Nancy [“Nannie”] was Grace’s father Robert’s sister.

Bailey & his older brother Elbert ca. 1929 courtesy of Linda McGuire on Memories of Laclede County Facebook Page.

I have thought a lot about Bailey over the last week and I decided I didn’t want to write an obituary. Bailey would prefer I share a story: our story and, hopefully, make people smile, which he did every day. I think he was the sweetest soul I have ever met. Always full of life and love for everyone he met. Bailey shone like the sun.

Berthena & Bailey ca. 1944. Colorized on MyHeritage.com

Thomas Bailey Hill was born on the first day of July in 1926, the second child of Forest [1877-1945] and Nancy Elmina [1886-1967] Kembel Hill. He had an older brother named Forest Elbert [1923-1997]. Named for his grandfather (Shelton Bailey Hill [1842-1897]), Bailey was born and raised in Nebo in Laclede County, Missouri, where the Hill family lived near the Kembel, Spencer, Hough, Adams, Howell and other families that make up my paternal family tree.

In 1947, he moved his family to California, where he and his wife Berthena (Farless) raised their children. Both Bailey and Berthena longed to return to Missouri. They did so by 1994, moving to Nixa, Missouri.

Shortly thereafter, Bailey learned his cousin Grace, widowed in 1991, had moved to a senior living center in nearby Springfield. It had been many years since they had seen each other. Grace was playing dominoes with a group of women when Bailey walked in and put his arm around her. He asked, “I just wondered if we could have a date?” Grace snarled, “I’ll have you know I don’t go out with a man I don’t know!” Bailey responded, “Well, I think you know me….I’m…” But before he could finish, Grace exclaimed, “Lord a Mercy, you are Nannie’s boy!” Much laughter and catching up was to follow.

February 26, 1994, is the day Bailey came into our lives. We were celebrating Grace’s 80th birthday with family and friends. When the Kembels get together laughter ensues. I remember my sides hurting by the time we were eating birthday cake, as the re-telling of old yarns passed around the room.

Grace Kembel Spencer’s 80th birthday party. Grace is at the head of the table on the left (clockwise) Mrs. McGuire, Emery & Katie Kembel, Calvin & Doris Kembel, Berthena & Bailey Hill, Jess & Marie Anderson. February 26, 1994

In the years to come we would see Bailey now and then, but in more recent years I tried to see him on most of my trips to Missouri. On one of those Bailey explained that at seventeen he married his sweetheart, Berthena Farless, on the day after D-Day.

Thomas Bailey Hill & Berthena Farless Marriage License. I’m not sure why they were in Arkansas. Perhaps because Bailey was only 17, but that is just a guess because they were married in Laclede County, Missouri on June 7, 1944.

He added, “We didn’t know it would follow such a big day, though!” The couple lived briefly with his parents but given that the war was on, both of them decided they would go into work to support the war.

 

 

They packed their belongings in the car and drove to Eudora, Kansas where they got jobs at the Sunflower Ordinance Works (SOW). It is funny how a little story can make the world seem so small. I said, “Bailey! You worked at the SOW Plant?!?”

Main Street view of Eudora, Kansas, 1942. Courtesy of Johnson County Historical Society Blog, accessed 22 Feb 2021.

In 2014, my sister Brenda and I wrote the nomination to get the village built to serve the plant added to the National Register of Historic Places.[1] We researched the plant and Sunflower Village as part of the project. I shared the document with Bailey.  He said he remembered many of the places as we described them.

Desoto, Kansas in November 1942, the town that was built to support the Sunflower Ordnance Works, where Bailey & Berthena worked.While he and Berthena did not live in the town’s concrete houses (they were housed with a nearby farmer), they did shop and worship in town. After the war ended, Bailey and Berthena went back home to Missouri.

In the time we spent together, Bailey and other family members would look at old pictures, trying to add names and dates to the faces and always, to share stories, then two years ago, Bailey gave me a gift every genealogist wants. I asked him if he would allow me to test his DNA. He not only acquiesced, he got really excited waiting for the results. He, like many Ozarks natives believed he was “Scotch-Irish,” but the results lean a little more English.[2] I wasn’t able to share his test results in person so I wrote him a letter explaining what the DNA showed. I started with the bad news…he was stuck with those Spencers in his family tree! We shared a few laughs over my explanation of how the testing works. I tried to put the science in terms I knew the country boy would related to – farm life. He loved it.

Bailey and I share approximately 4 percent of our DNA (286.5 centimorgans or cM) with the largest segment at 99 cM in length. That is a pretty good result for first cousins 2x removed. While the greatest percentage of our DNA comes from English and North & Western European ancestors, Bailey and I have just under 10 percent in Southern Europe, specifically the Balkans. I love that fact. I have had the opportunity to travel to most of the Balkan countries and work with people across the region. I met many warm-hearted people who had a passion for their homelands. Bailey would certainly have appreciated that.

 

Bailey opening the gate for the McGinnis Cemetery when Kembel family members are buried. November 2014

With other family members, Bailey and I have gone on a few trips on the back roads of Laclede County including a trip to the farm cemetery where my great-grandparents (Bailey’s grandparents) John Sweeney and Alice (Barnes) Kembel are buried.

There are several restaurants in southwest Missouri that were on Bailey’s list — often cafes or “family restaurants” where good food and fellowship is the norm, and usually pie! The names of those restaurants always escape my memory because they are simply known in my immediate family as “Bailey’s restaurant.” There are at least three that immediately come to mind in Nixa, Lebanon and somewhere off I44 in Laclede County. Homemade pie was a requirement!

The last time I saw Bailey it was through a glass door due to the pandemic. I had expected him to be different — perhaps a little less, well Bailey. His health was failing and he had been quarantined in his room away from family and friends for months. But as usual, Bailey surprised me. He was as cheerful as ever so happy to see us and give us our virtual hug.

I love to listen to his stories and I have several recordings of our talks. I listened to one this morning. “I hate to claim it, but we are kin!” Bailey teased me. Well, Bailey, I’m so glad we are kin and that I got to know you. Each memory of you brings a little extra sunshine in my day.  I love you!  And I look forward to “seeing you on the other side!”

 

 

 

 

[1] Brenda and Michelle Spencer. Sunflower Village Historic District National Register Nomination. Washington, DC: National Parks Service, 2014. https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/pdfs/14000929.pdf
[2] Determining ethnicity from DNA tests is not as precise as our ethnic percentages seem. What can be seen is migration patterns and general areas of heritage. For example, “English” may very well include individuals of Scottish and Irish descent.

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