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Sue Grafton’s connection to the Brookhaven area no longer a mystery

Even though I’m not a fiction reader, authors and writers willing to expose their work to the public strike my fancy. They play in a pass or fail game. Sue Grafton excelled in that game for at least 25 innings. Her 26-inning bucket list goal was to write a novel for each letter of the alphabet — she came up just one short.

“Y” was published in August. Sue Grafton died in December.

Sue Grafton’s legacy is well known — as it should be. Her connection to the Brookhaven area — not so much — as it shouldn’t be.

Inasmuch as I grew up in Caseyville and attended school in Union Church, Sue Grafton’s great-grandfather struck my fancy much more than did the fiction writer. Explaining “grew up” to the surviving old-timers who wonder, is beyond the scope of this piece.

Rev. Cornelius Wesley Grafton wasn’t into fiction — he preached and pastored at the Presbyterian churches in Union Church and Caseyville for 61 years.

Even though Dr. Grafton died one year before I was born, his shadow still blanketed the 400 square miles of his Union Church/Bensalem pastorate— which coincided with my childhood haunts and jaunts.

“I could get around to just about all my members with little more than a 15-mile horseback or buggy ride,” he wrote.

My haunts and jaunts over the same area were by foot, horse, bike, and finally, by an old rusty International pickup.

I grew up so close to Bensalem Church that I could walk to church by the time it took to saddle up my church-going horse, Old Dan.  Reflecting, we once had a mare named Old Virgie and a mule named Old Jake.

In less than theologically sound doctrine, my sweetest memory of Bensalem is the harvesting of the world-class bee-hive encased in the sanctuary. Even as a Baptist, I joined the consensus that Presbyterian bees made the best honey.       

Grafton came to these parts in 1873 as a 27-year old honor graduate of Ole Miss. He repeatedly turned down offers for larger pastorates offering less work and more money. He served as moderator of the U.S. General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. He preached until his death in 1934 and is buried in the Union Church cemetery.

Also in that cemetery lies his first wife who died at 37, leaving five orphan children. Grafton suggested he was father/mother/preacher/pastor/teacher. As for the teacher part, Grafton actually raised a boarding school in Union Church prior to the organization of the Union Church High School — over 400 students passed through his school.

In Grafton’s later years, he often led school-wide devotionals at the Union Church High School, which evolved into Jefferson County Agricultural High School. My Uncle Leland Thetford and his son-in-law, Carroll Smith, recalled walking the aging preacher home after those devotionals. 

“We took a short cut through the cemetery, where Dr. Grafton took an occasional break by sitting on a tombstone.  He always asked whose tomb he was resting on — whereupon he prayed for that person’s family and his soul.”    

The iconic fiction-writer whose great-grandfather was an iconic preacher may have been predestined to be named Sue. Dr. Grafton’s first wife was named Sue.  At his death, he left an unmarried daughter— her name was Sue.

Harry Thetford is a retired Sears store manager and columnist for the Greensboro News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Contact him at htolharry@gmail.com.