Community Spotlight: Mary Ellen Jones

Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune

Mary Ellen Jones (Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune)

It was the early 1930s when the Dust Bowl devastated Oklahoma and caused once hopeful farmers to seek new opportunities for their families. Mary Ellen McAfee was just 5 years old when her parents moved to Cullman County with her three older brothers.

Now she is Mrs. Mary Ellen Jones and a resident at Westminster Assisted Living in Cullman. The Tribune visited Mary Ellen and went with her on an impromptu stroll down memory lane.

Mary Ellen doesn’t remember much from her years in Oklahoma but recalled, “When the winds would come, mama would shut all the doors and windows to keep the sand out. It still managed to seep into everything.”

With her family unable to farm, they moved to Cullman County where her father was from originally.

They family settled in Logan. Mary Ellen recalled a neighbor with a mule. She said, “We didn’t have anything to play with really, but the neighbor had a mule we liked to ride. My brothers and I went over one day, and I wanted to ride the mule again. Well, this angered the neighbor after my brothers sat me back on the mule. The neighbor clapped loudly, spooked the mule, and the mule kicked me off of there. I broke my arm. My daddy had to take me to the doctor in Trimble. He put me in the wagon pulled by mules and took me. I got a sling for it.”

Mary Ellen went to school at Logan Junior High until the school burned. “The school burned down, so we had classes in the church buildings until the school could be rebuilt.”

She finished ninth grade at Logan. Students would ride buses to Cullman High School to complete 10th-12th grades. She explained, “We had dirt roads way back then and we got stuck often. We would be late to school or some days when the weather was bad; the bus couldn’t bring us at all. I had friends in Cullman, so I would stay with them for a few days until the roads were clear. I didn’t want to miss school.”

After graduating from Cullman, Mary Ellen enrolled at the University of Alabama to become a teacher. There was only one small problem. She had no car and no way to get there. Finally, she learned that her principal from Logan was attending Alabama to earn his master’s degree. He offered her a ride and she settled into a small dorm.
Mary Ellen said, “This was just after World War II, and finding teachers was very difficult because most of the people were working factory jobs. I was hired to teach fourth grade at Dowling School in Crane Hill after just one semester of college classes.” This was in 1949 and she was still without a car. Mary Ellen said, “A friend and I found a two-room shack to rent in Crane Hill, so we were able to walk back and forth to work.”

Every summer she continued taking college classes. Now, she was attending classes at St. Bernard College. She laughed, “I had to go to college so I could teach and teach so I could go to college.”

In 1949, Mary Ellen began teaching fourth grade at Trimble School where she taught five years.

When asked about transportation she laughed, “Oh! I left something out. When at Dowling, I met this guy. He became my first husband and he had a car.” Millard Freeman and Mary Ellen married in 1950.

The couple welcomed a baby girl named Betty. Mary Ellen stayed home with the baby for three years before returning to teaching. When she returned, it was to Logan Junior High where she taught English for 24 years. During this time, she took another three-year break from teaching in 1960 after the birth of her son, Delbert.

Millard Freeman made a living as a timber hauler and sold timber to Buettner Brothers Lumber in Cullman. In 1981, he passed away from congestive heart failure. Mary Ellen lived alone for six years but continued to teach English at Logan. She retired in 1985 after 24 years at Logan and 30 years of teaching.

In 1988, she remarried. She married John Paul Jones, a principal at Logan. John Jones passed away in 2010. Both of Mary Ellen Freeman Jones’ children live in Cullman. Betty Freeman Kinney is retired from the post office and Delbert Freeman is the chaplain at Cullman Regional.

Mary Ellen laughed, “I have five grandchildren. I have 10-12 great grandchildren. I’d have to count.” It was time for lunch, so the counting would have to wait for another time.

Mary Ellen is now legally blind due to glaucoma that runs in her family. “I am still able to get around fine, but I can’t see well. I make it a point to walk 2 miles every day to keep in shape,” she smiled, pointing to her step counter on her ankle.

Westminster is an assisted living and memory care facility in Cullman. Wanda Raines, executive director, spoke of the stories the residents have to tell: “They give me more than I can ever give them. I hope more people will want to volunteer or visit the seniors in their communities. The residents enjoy the visits, and what a person can gain from them is priceless.”

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