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Faithful, fighter

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NAACP President remembered as hard-worker, straight shooter

By Stephen Lega

Toward the end of Sunday's Black History Celebration, Jerry Evans addressed the audience.

"We've lost a fighter in the person of Verda Calhoun," he said.

It was a simple, but significant statement about Calhoun, who died Thursday evening, Feb. 25, after decades of working to improve her community. She was 74.

Calhoun served as president of the local chapter of the NAACP for 22 years until her death.

She was a person who worked hard and wanted things done right and done well, according to those who knew her.

"She didn't deal with anything half-stepping," said Ann Simpson, the treasurer of the NAACP. "It had to be for real."

George Owens, the first president of the local NAACP chapter, said Calhoun did a good job leading the organization.

"She was faithful," he said. Evans said Calhoun would be hard to replace.

Her younger brother, J.D. Bell, said she didn't look the other way if she thought someone was being treated unfairly.

"If she saw wrong, she tried to right it," he said.

According to Bell, his sister wasn't pushy, but she wasn't about to be pushed around, either.

In addition to her service to the NAACP, "Sookie", as she was known to her friends and family, worked as a nurse and administrator at Spring View Hospital until the mid-1990s when she joined the staff at the Marion County Detention Center. Her work in the community and her church included serving on the tuition review committee at St. Augustine Grade School and the Marion County Board of Health (from 1983 until her death). In 1980, she received the Dr. Thomas F. Frist Humanitarian Award.

Lebanon Mayor Gary Crenshaw said Calhoun spoke with him about a variety of issues and he appreciated her input.

"We talked several times about getting more African-Americans hired in the city," he said.

And when a few controversial issues came up regarding the Lebanon police, Crenshaw said he spoke to Calhoun about what needed to be done.

"Verda was very straight-forward," Crenshaw said. "She didn't mince words too much. She said what she thought and said what she believed in."

But as much as anything, Crenshaw said he appreciated her willingness to serve her community.

Calhoun did that tirelessly - even in her last days she helped organize Sunday's event - and in a number of ways, although according to Bell, it wasn't something that she sought recognition for doing.

"She was so private sometimes I didn't know what she was into," Bell said.

One thing he does know about is her work ministering to inmates at the Marion County Detention Center. Bell knows because she worked with him to conduct weekly Bible study classes at the detention center.

"She loved those guys. She respected them," Bell said. "She said everybody's human."

And Bell said the inmates admired Calhoun for what she did for them.

"They looked up to her almost like a mother," he said.

Bell added that his sister understood the importance of listening to people, and he wants to remember Calhoun for her humanity.

"She was a good, Christian person," he said.  

Campbell-Dewitt Funeral Home is in charge of Calhoun's arrangements. Visitation will be from 5-9 p.m. Wednesday, March 3, with prayers at 7 p.m. A funeral Mass for Calhoun will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, March 4, at St. Augustine Catholic Church.