STARKVILLE – The death of Mrs. Opal Wilkes Austin on Saturday at age 99 was not unexpected and represented for her and those who loved her somewhat of a relief.
“Miss Opal” lived a big life. Her circle in life was wide, encompassing, and inclusive. As a small-town physician’s wife and nurse, she brought to her life and work a great deal of compassion and generosity of spirit.
From her home literally in the middle of Forest, Mississippi, “Miss Opal” operated a one-woman Welcome Wagon for newcomers, visitors, revival preachers, and anyone who she deemed worthy of a home-cooked meal and her conversation. She possessed an innate curiosity and the ability to converse with anyone at length.
She and her husband, whom she called “Dr. Bill,” were exceptionally well-matched. They loved each other. The doctor was decidedly a man of very few words and “Miss Opal” was a lady who loved a good and lengthy talk. As they aged, he would make vain, half-hearted attempts to “shush” her and then absently shake his head.
Jesse William “Bill” Austin Sr. earned his undergraduate degree from Mississippi State College in 1938 and would go on to earn his medical degree from Tulane Medical School in 1942, shortly before entering the U.S. Army for service in World War II. He was a battalion surgeon in the U.S. 3rd Army in the European Theater, where he served in five major battles from the Normandy invasion until VE-Day–including harrowing combat service during the Battle of the Bulge.
Austin earned the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. After his distinguished military service, he returned to Forest to practice medicine with his father, Dr. R.B. Austin. During his long 39-year medical practice in Scott County, Austin delivered over 3,500 babies and most of them were born outside of a hospital setting.
“Miss Opal” was his registered nurse for many of those simple rural births and all the other small-town, middle of the night missions of medical mercy back when doctors made house calls or patients literally showed up on their doorstep pounding on the door for help.
“Dr. Bill” died on Feb. 12, 2001, at the age of 84. The Austins had five children, daughters Sue Thigpen and Judy Webb and sons Dr. Jesse William “Ace” Austin Jr., Richard Austin, and Terry Austin. There are 14 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
After Dr. Austin’s death, “Miss Opal” moved to Starkville in 2002 to be nearer family. As she had in Forest, she became an integral part of her new community and church. As long as she was physically able, she continued to cook and entertain at her kitchen table. Starkville residents knew her as “Mama O” and she was loved and admired here as she had been in Forest.
But inevitably with advancing age, “Miss Opal” began to face challenges and heartaches. First came the death of son Richard and years later the death of daughter Sue. She endured macular degeneration, which limited her ability to see well enough to cook. In increments, her memories began to fade. Her life became smaller and quieter.
Joys still found her. In May 2018, grandson Jesse William Austin III became the third generation of the Austin line to graduate from Mississippi State University–80 years after his grandfather and 50 years after his father. He continued the Austin family tradition of service to mankind as a student in the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Dentistry.
Some 40 years ago, “Miss Opal” invited me to her Forest home for a wonderful meal and fellowship that made a new town feel like home. Her friendship was steadfast and true. Through good times and bad, she was always there.
I choose not to grieve over her death, for I began to grieve the moment her big and loud life began to get small and quiet. I rejoice that she is finally reunited with Dr. Bill (shushes and all) and her other loved ones there – and know she impatiently awaits the arrival of the rest of us.
“Mama O” told writer Emily Jones in 2011 the creed that sustained her for almost a century: “I don’t dwell on yesterday, or tomorrow for that matter. I just wake up every morning expecting something good to happen.”
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter @sidsalter.com.