Sunny Red: a people person who touched many lives
Sunny Red left her mark in many areas of the community, but perhaps no place more significantly than on the area's older population.
Red, who died recently at the age of 91, served as director of the Benton Senior Activity Center for 12 years. During her tenure, from 1976 to 1986 she led the program through many changes and expansions.
However, her leadership for the area's senior adult program began before she assumed the director's reins. It started in 1974 when she helped organize the first Old-Fashioned Day, which has become an annual fundraiser for the center, and she garnered support for a bond campaign to build the facility on Jefferson Street.
Sherry Parsons, the center's current director, commended Red for the vision she had that continues to bear fruit and help meet needs in the community.
"Sunny was very wise and gracious woman," Parsons said. "She knew how to deal with people; she could talk with them.
"Back when she was director, the center was pouring over with people," she said. "Because of this, we wanted to honor her in some way."
To that purpose, the 2008 Old-Fashioned Day was designated as a tribute to Red and Tom Chambers, who worked with Red in organizing the observance.
"She and Ken Chambers started the event, and it continues to grow and help the center and the whole community," Parsons said.
"For that 2008 celebration we named Sunny queen and Tom king of the celebration," she noted.
Parsons said she welcomed Red's participation in any events of the center, but noted that Red was fearful that her presence would be interpreted as interference.
"Sunny would not interfere," Parsons said. "I would have loved for her to have come down to the center and mentored me. She was successful, and I would have liked for her to help me
"If I could have been her student, I think I would be wiser as director now," Parsons added.
"I am so thankful that Sunny had the vision for Old-Fashioned Day. It has been such a benefit to the seniors of Saline County and has raised a lot of money to help us continue to operate.
"Old-Fashioned Day is not just for seniors," Parsons stressed. "Families get together and come out for this. It brings life to downtown. It's a wonderful celebration."
Parsons said the celebration also benefits the vendors who operate booths at the event.
"Some of our vendors' talents are unknown until they come out for this."
In reflecting on the longevity of the project, Parsons added, "I don't think Sunny realized how widespread the event's success has been. We call her the grandmother of the senior center."
Before her involvement with the senior center program, Red had assisted older residents in her earlier profession, according to Sue Bryant, one of her daughters.
An LPN, she worked for many years at the medical clinic of Drs. Ashby, Hogue and Thorne.
"I couldn't put a label on what she did," Bryant said. "She was a people person — a caregiver. It would take a table as big as Saline County to list all the people she listened to and counseled on it."
She continued to care for people after her day ended at the clinic, Bryant said.
"When she left the clinic at the end of the day, she would spend a couple of hours on the phone every night talking to people who wouldn't go to the doctor. They continued to call her and to talk about their ailments. She was like a friend. They thought of her as a buddy, the friend they didn't have.
"I think that's why she did so well at the senior center," Bryant said.
"She already knew a lot of those people through her work at the clinic," Bryant said.
"I was in high school when she went to LPN school and I would help her study. I became the teacher and she was the student. She had always wanted to do do that because she loved taking care of people."
Bryant noted that the family home she grew up in was a two-bedroom, one-bath structure. "It was small, but still people would come to our house. Whenever someone needed a place to land, they'd come there. Several relatives lived there at various times,
"And when I went off to Ouachita, for holidays I would bring girls home that lived too far away to go to their homes," she noted. "Even after I transferred to another school, the girls would come to visit Mama and Daddy."
She noted that her parents would divide the chores when the house was teeming with extra people.
"Daddy's job was to iron the dresses and polish shoes, and Mother would schedule the girls' time in the bathroom," she said.
Knowing that her mother's days were numbered, last summer Bryant she organized a reunion of some of those old college friends who had visited her parents during her Ouachita years.
"One was in Hawaii — Kim — whom we hadn't seen since 1968, but she had stayed in touch with Mother. And then there was a girl from Wisconsin and one from Missouri. There was also one from Arkansas who would also come. We called all of them to see if they would come, and all agreed.
"We got them all together for Memorial Day weekend, and got red T-shirts and had them imprinted with 'Mama Red's Girls.'"
"All they wanted to do when they got here was visit her at the nursing home (Ridgewood Health & Rehab)," Bryant said. "They made her a book and played cards with her, just like they used to do at the house. She loved it.
"Even the anticipation was good for her," Bryant added. "Kim brought flowers and leis, which Mama could keep and keep reliving the moments.
"Sometime you plan something and you know at the time that it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and this was one of those times. Everyone was so happy."
That event was still uppermost in Red's mind when her health took a sudden downturn in November, Bryant said.
"But there was still one more big moment for her," she said. "Even though she had been sick, she got to come home and be with the family on Thanksgiving.
"It actually was the first time that all the five grandkids had been under one roof with their grandmother at the same time and there were also part of the great-grandkids there.
"She was happy and ready to go after that," Bryant said.
Red's death came shortly after the holiday.
"She was hospitalized shortly after returning to the nursing home," she said. "It was her last hurrah.
"Mother never stopped being a people person," Bryant said. "She and Daddy always had a couple they played cards or games with; and she played cards on the Monday before she died."
Red's name itself was indicative of her personality, Bryant said.
She started out life with a different moniker, but as a young wife and mother took the proper steps to make "Sunny" her legal name, Bryant noted.
"For most of her life, she was called 'a ray of sunshine,' then it got shortened to Sunny. So when her children were young, she had it legally changed.
"Mother touched so many lives," Bryant said. "She enjoyed people and being around them."
Even during her residency at Ridgewood, Sunny continued to mentor others, according to Bryant.
"She would counsel the nurses," Bryant said. "Mother always stayed calm. She could walk the people through crisis moments. Even when she was being cared for, she was still teaching other people."