Editor’s Note: Alleghany lost a grand lady this summer. Below is the eulogy Bonnie wrote for this wonderful woman…her mother-in-law.
Steel Magnolias. If you know that movie, then you will understand when I say: that is what I think of when I think of Frances Dawson.
I am Bonnie Dawson, Franny’s daughter-in-law, and I would like to share a few memories of her with all of you.
Margaret Frances Boatwright was the 2nd of 3 children born to Thomas Boatwright and Marion Haire. The family moved to Atlanta, GA from Birmingham, AL when Franny was a toddler, so she called Atlanta her home. And you could hear “Old Atlanta” in the lilt of her speech.
When Franny & her sister, Ruthie were teenagers in Atlanta, Sunday night could be either very quiet at the Boatwright household or an event, with lots of company. And as one might expect if Franny made her favorite onion sandwich for Sunday night supper, a flock of boys would definitely come over.
Franny and Ruth were real belles. The boys were always flocking around. Franny once said that Ruthie was describing one suitor as extremely handsome and didn’t Franny think he had beautiful blue eyes? Franny responded: “I don’t know what color his eyes were. I never looked. All I knew was that he had eyes. If he hadn’t had eyes, now, that I would have noticed.”
She was a WWII widow, a fact some of her friends did not know. She married Marcus Corley in the early 1940’s. It was on that first honeymoon that she met Cooper Dawson, a good friend of Marc’s. He and Cooper had sold insurance for the same company before the war broke out. When Marc’s plane was shot down over the Ivory Coast, killing everyone on board, it fell to Franny to contact all of Marc’s friends with the news. She said, of all the men she wrote, only one wrote back: Cooper Dawson.
My father-in-law frequently teased Franny by saying she had relatives up and down the East Coast, and by visiting them she chased him until she caught him. She did indeed have family in Newport, Rhode Island, and down in Washington, DC. The part that Dad always omitted from his story was that he invited her to come visit and she stayed with those members of her family.
I recall her saying that her family that lived in Washington were the only ones who called her Franny, while everyone else called her Frances. Well, she stayed with them on her first visit to see Cooper. He apparently did not hear the nickname correctly because the next letter he wrote was to “Dear Fanny.” She said, he got a very quick reply to that letter correcting him. And so she became Franny to Cooper, and to everyone else, too.
They married in March, 1945. Franny elected to be married in Alexandria, VA, which was Cooper’s home, since it was his first marriage. She said her parents, the Lyle cousins, and her cousin Dotty, her maid of honor, were the only people she invited, but the church was packed!
Cooper took her on a lovely honeymoon trip to Philadelphia. She said she thought it was a bit of a strange place to go. Little did she know that he, a Naval officer, had been assigned to go to damage control school in, guess where. . .that’s right, Philadelphia. So by day she stayed in the hotel alone while he was in school.
Dad always found ways to economize!
As with everything in her life, Franny took it all in stride. If anyone wants to know what a true Southern Belle was, all you needed to do was watch Franny. “Manners” and “lady-like” are words that were used to describe her. But make no mistake, she had a steel interior which gave her strength when it was needed.
Over their life together, Franny and Cooper spent many days on the banks of the Greenbrier River. Right after WWII ended, Cooper and 3 friends bought Camp Greenbrier for Boys. I’ve seen photos of my husband learning to walk at Camp Greenbrier! They spent nearly 10 summers there, until 1957 when Cooper’s father passed away and Cooper had to run the family motel business.
Then in the early 1960’s, Cooper bought Camp Alleghany for Girls, 20 miles upstream from the boys camp. Over the many years of their ownership, Franny helped out in many different ways: camp store manager, post mistress, even head hopper one summer.
I remember once she was asked by a friend exactly what she did at camp all summer. She replied: Well, mostly I change clothes. Being on the side of a mountain, the mornings are cool enough for long pants and a sweater. Mid-morning it will get warm so she put on shorts. She frequently would go swimming in the afternoon and we wear a uniform of navy shorts with white shirts for dinner. Then in the evening, it is cool again. So, yes, she mainly changed clothes all day long all those years at camp.
I would say that her main job, though, was to teach good manners at camp. No camper would be given her purchase from the camp store without saying “May I please. ..” And we could frequently see her showing a new hopper (our camp waitresses) the correct way to set a table.
Southern Belle and globetrotter
Franny knitted, loved to needlepoint, and was an avid bridge player. She loved the game but said she consistently held bad cards. That did not, however, dampen her enthusiasm for the game.
I think I mostly will remember her as a member of her garden club. She taught me how to arrange flowers, which I do not do very well, but I keep trying. She also got me to be a room hostess in some lovely old homes in Old Town Alexandria during historic garden week for almost all of the 24 years we lived there.
Franny traveled the world—or most of it. She went to England, Europe, Bermuda, Japan, China, parts of South America, Barbados, the Greek Islands, Norway, and a cruise down the Nile. She brought us lovely gifts, particularly some beautiful Norwegian sweaters. We nicknamed her “Cleo” when she went on the Nile cruise. And of course the family remembers Christmas of 1998 and our trip to Aruba. Only Franny could have convinced Cooper to leave Alexandria at Christmas time.
But I think her most favorite trip was the cruise through the Panama Canal because Cooper went with her. It is the only trip he took with her, saying he had seen enough of the world during the war. But this time, he surprised her and decided he’d go,too.
Our own Steel Magnolia
Another favorite story of mine occurred not long after she went to live at the nursing home. Marion gave her a cell phone to use until her land line could be installed. My son, Cooper, called her, and she kept dropping the phone. Finally she said, in her Atlanta lilt: “I’m sorry Cooper. They gave me a phone the size of a quarter.”
Over her lifetime, she suffered the loss of 2 husbands, her parents, her in-laws, both of her siblings, a niece, and even a grandchild, but never showed her grief; only quiet strength. Melanie Wilkes had nothing on Frances Dawson.
Last November she met for the first time her great grandson, Mason. We will cherish the photos of her holding him and the photos from a subsequent trip last spring. You can see how thrilled she was to see him. And she told me more than once that she loved his name; very strong, she said, very strong.
Franny loved her family above all else. She used Camp Alleghany to get her young Arizona Lyle cousin to meet her Rhode Island Lyle cousins by seeing that they all got to Alleghany as campers. And she started a fantastic family reunion at Alleghany during family camp by hosting her brother and sister and their families. It is a tradition that we continue today. We had 26 family members with us this summer.
Yes, she did indeed love her family. She had strength, honor, and gentility. And we miss her. Our own Steel Magnolia.
–Bonnie Dawson, Head of Special Events