A long lifetime spent spreading good news

Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Laura Carmichael discovered that for the cost of a postage stamp and the investment of her time, she could spread a lot of joy.

Carmichael, who turned 101 in November, died Wednesday afternoon after suffering a massive stroke on Monday.

For more than 50 years, Carmichael clipped articles of good news from The Gainesville Sun and mailed them to newlyweds, new parents and school citizens of the month. And while she was well known for her clippings, it was her quiet philanthropy that had a major impact on the town she called home for more than 90 years.

The Hippodrome State Theatre, Alachua Friends of the Library, First Baptist Church, Haven Hospice and dozens of other organizations benefited from her financial gifts. But longtime friend Patti Moore says it was Carmichael's generosity with everyday people that will be remembered most.

"If somebody needed some helping, she was there," Moore said. "There was no limit on her being generous with her time, with her spirit, with her love."

But from her modest home under the water tower in Henderson Heights, to her 1990 Oldsmobile Ciera that she drove to church last Sunday, she kept her giving and wealth low-key.

Sunday after church was clipping day and Carmichael faced the task with a mix of determination and frugality. She had a network of friends who supplied her with newspapers. A book store furnished her the recycled envelopes from unsold greeting cards. That is why the clippings often arrived in the mailbox enclosed in Valentine-red and Christmas-green envelopes.

It all started in 1954 when a stranger mailed Carmichael a clipping of her father's obituary. While she often told how she'd threatened to quit when postage reached a dime, she continued to cut out and mail newspaper clippings until her death.

Vicki Sabatella is the executive director of the Gainesville Youth Chorus. She says many times over the years she's heard chorus members say, "Miss Vicki, I got a letter from somebody I don't even known," and that somebody was Carmichael. With the notes, clippings and frequently a crisp dollar bill, she says Carmichael was teaching.

"It's really important for the children to see that little things mean so much," Sabatella says.

Carmichael was born in Altoona, Ala., and moved to Gainesville when she was 10. Her father was a storekeeper, her mother, who was legally blind, raised three daughters, and she was the baby. Longevity was a family trait. Her mother lived to be 87. Her sisters and father lived into their 90s.

While in her later years she did take a blood thinner, as she approached her 100th birthday Carmichael noted that for most of her life the strongest medication she'd ever taken was prune juice.

Since 1922 she'd been an active member of the Gainesville Garden Club and the Gainesville Woman's Club and was a member of Gainesville First Baptist Church for 90 years. She'd logged 27,500 volunteer hours with Alachua General Hospital Auxiliary (the hospital now known as Shands at AGH). She was the 1976 recipient of The Gainesville Sun Community Service Award and was honored in 1997 as a Santa Fe Community College Woman of Distinction.

She was passionate about her work with hospice. She'd first witnessed one at work in India in the 1970s while on vacation. She brought that idea back to Gainesville determined to make it a reality.

It was the sale of her home in southwest Gainesville along with an acre of prime property near the University of Florida campus that provided the seed money to build what was then called Hospice House, now known as the E. T. York Hospice Care Center. And that is where she died on Wednesday. Laura's Gardens of Remembrance at the center is named in her honor.

Carmichael was married to J.B. Carmichael, a banker who later became the Alachua County Clerk of the Court. They never had children and he died in 1969. She lived alone and independently ever since, surrounded by a large network of friends. Her 100th birthday in 2005 drew a standing-room-only crowd at Hospice. Moore, along with Nancy Wicks and Janis Clemmons, were among her closest friends.

"We adopted her, and she adopted us back," Wickes said Wednesday.

She could be described as a prim, proper Southern woman, but not a prude. Friends said she laughed often, frequently at herself. Her gift bags of homemade peanut brittle were treasures that never lasted long. Her skill around a bridge table was famous throughout the city.

At age 101 she continued to drive during the day and do her own grocery shopping and commute to bridge and to church. A testament to her feisty independence comes from a story shared by Garrett Bell, who said she was surprised three years ago when she drove by Carmichael's home and spotted her trying to climb a ladder and crawl through a small kitchen window. Carmichael, then 97, explained she'd accidentally locked herself out of her house when rolling her trash out to the curb.

"She didn't want to bother her neighbors; she said it was too early," said Bell, who still keeps the thank you note she received from Carmichael near her kitchen phone. "It mysteriously arrived at my door the next day, along with a bag of peanut brittle."

Gary Kirkland can be reached at (352) 338-3104 or kirklag@gvillesun.com

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