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Grace Saunders Kimrey: “Poet Laureate of Liberty Street”

Grace Evelyn Saunders Kimrey (1910-2001) was the “Poet Laureate of Liberty Street.” I called her “Miss Grace” in deference, and to flatter her, I once asked if she thought her books would become a “best seller” — to which she replied “it would be nice, but poetry rarely sells!” Another reflection on Miss Grace’s wit is a statement I attribute to her regarding her husband Sam. Although I have remembered it all these years, but can no longer find it in any of her books. You might say it is not poetic, but more of a tribute: “My husband is a millionaire, he told me so today, but if I ever leave him, he will be poor again!”

Certainly many old timers would remember “Miss Grace” Kimrey and her husband “Mr. Sam” (1909-2000). He was a flat surface roofer of the old school using hot pitch, gravel, and mops weighing up to 75 pounds when fully loaded with molten pitch. He retired from roofing in the 1970s and left their son Gary (1931-2019) to continue the trade. In retirement, Sam and Grace had a furniture store in the Vaughan Marley Store building on Liberty Street. It has been vacant for many years and remains so to this day.

The Kimrey’s were active in the business community and regular attendees of the Ramseur Baptist Church (now called First Baptist Church of Ramseur). The church was about 75 yards from the Kimrey’s front door where they served in various leadership roles as Sunday school teachers and officers. Mr. Sam was a dapper chap with interesting hobbies including collecting rocks and arrowheads and participating in community activities such as the Lions Club, the campaign in the late 1950s to light the Ramseur High School Athletic Field. He was also involved in many school and church-related activities — even playing Santa Clause for the local schools.

But back to the poetry of Miss Grace. To my knowledge she wrote four short books and a regular column in a local newspaper:

Songs of Sunny Valley. Banner Press, Emory University Georgia 1954.
The Star of Hope. Banner Press, Emory University Georgia 1954.
Glimpses of Beauty. Banner Press, Emory University Georgia 1955
“The Morning Star.” Bicentennial Edition. (This is a history of Ramseur. ) Published by Grace Saunders Kimrey. 1976.

Miss Grace (Class of 1938 Ramseur High School) had no formal academic training in writing poetry but was obviously well read and gifted. Archibald Rutledge, the Poet Laureate of South Carolina, discovered her and described her as “a poet known for her rare, loving, admirable spirit.” She offered to sign copies for those who sent them to her. I have several of her carefully inscribed books in her neat cursive handwriting.

Miss Grace’s inspiration came from her surroundings and the neighborhood children. My sister Celeste Brady Byrnes and I grew up next door to the Kimrey’s dining room. Our Mother Sally Brady’s beauty shop shared a lawn with the Kimrey’s. The Kermit Pell family lived up Liberty Street and there was always constant street traffic daily and for the church on Sunday (and midweek prayer service). In several of her poems Miss Grace mentioned the people who inspired her – telling them privately they were her subjects. She liked my Mom’s roses and admired her work ethic.

Miss Grace’s book “Songs of Sunny Valley” was based on views from her home and the neighborhood children around her. She described the title of her book as coming from her efforts to name the Kimrey home.

One of her poems which most people can relate to regardless of age:
“How do you feel when you feel old?””

When Mother heard
Some young folks say,
“O, we feel so old today,”
She looked at them
With age-dimmed eyes
As if she wished
To chide or scold
And gently asked
To their surprise,
“How do you feel
When you feel old?”
Songs of Sunny Valley, (1954) p.45.

The inspiration for the title of her book and the name given Kimrey house merited a poem.
“A house with a soul”

We purchased an old, old house for our home
Almost at the foot of a hill
Where the sunshine is brighter
And the bird’s song is lighter
And the valley lies peaceful and still.
There’s a road at the front and a stream at the back
Where in summer the small children play.
Here the sky seems much bluer
And the heart grows much truer
And heaven seems nearer each day.

I prayed for a name for our valley and house
And soft as the zephyrs in trees,
Its words ringing clearer
And I heard what it said with all ease.
“Sunny Valley, Sunny Valley, Sunny Valley,” it sang
And the melody over me stole.
When the voice ceased its singing,
These words were still ringing,
“A house, a house with a soul!”
Songs of Sunny Valley, (1954) p.12.

This short piece highlights some of her work with the hope that becoming acquainted with “Miss Grace” will stimulate interest in learning more about her work. Miss Grace’s recognition as a poet continues with many of her books now available on eBay and Amazon.

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