The Only Thing I Ever Stole Was Your Mama

Herbert Randolph draws water from a well while his wife, Ila, looks on.


"The only thing I ever stole was your Mama." His children heard him make that statement many times over the years. The fellow who said this to his children was Herbert Jessie Randolph, born in 1908. He was one of eight children of Frank Randolph and Mary Mayberry Randolph. The young lady Herbert persuaded to run away with him to get married was Ila Ann Brown. She was just seventeen and he was only eighteen the day they stood on the front porch of the home of Dawson Hammons, the preacher who married them, to exchange their vows . The date was April 22, 1928. They got to the preacherís home by way of a wagon and mules.

Ila Ann Brown Randolph, born in 1909, was one of fifteen children whose parents were Granville Brown and Martha Masters Brown. One of Ilaís brothers was Dr. William Meredith Brown, who practiced medicine in Hilham and then later in Livingston during the early days of Lady Ann Memorial Hospital. Ilaís mother died when she was only five days old, leaving her infant daughter to be raised by her older siblings. Ilaís sister, Mary, took on most of the responsibility of caring for her baby sister. At the young age of only two, Ila was out in the yard picking up chips of wood while nearby, her brother, Oscar, chopped firewood for the stove. Just as Oscar brought the axe down on a stick of wood, Ilaís hand got in the way, and she lost of the first finger on her right hand, and the second one was almost severed. But her brother, Dr. William Meredith Brown, who already practicing medicine then, was able to reattach the second finger, but nothing could be done to save the other finger. That finger was placed in a glass bottle and for the next eighty-three years, it was never too far away from Ila. Many years later after her children were grown, she always reminded them that they were to put that finger in her casket when she passed away. Even though at the time of Ilaís passing her request was honored by her children, it almost didnít happen. In 1977, a tornado blew away not only the bottle containing the small finger, but the Randolph home was completely destroyed in a storm. Details of that terrible afternoon will follow, but first a look back at the early years of Herbert and Ila Randolph.

Herbert, who had only a fourth grade education, farmed and sharecropped most of his adult life. During the time the WPA program was underway, Herbert got a job helping with the construction of Standing Stone Park. The family moved around quite a bit over the years, renting homes in the Hilham area. The children who were born to Herbert and Ila were Elton, Imogene, Ronald, and Linda. When Herbert was twenty-three, he was also the victim of an accident involving an axe. He was working for Robert Langford in the Mill Creek area near the Clay and Overton County line. He had climbed up in the cedar tree to trim some limbs off and accidently struck his knee with an axe which resulted in a broken leg. Eventually blood poisoning set up from the injury, and for a time it was thought Herbert might die. He was told the leg probably needed to be amputated, but he would not agree to have this done. In time, he did get better, but was left with a stiff leg he could not bend. This permanent injury left him unable to ever drive again.

Another close call happened in the 1950's while Herbert was getting in hay. He had always been a heavy smoker, and as a result of breathing the dust from the hay, one of his lungs collapsed. At this particular time, it was said that only three other people had been known to have this happen, and one of those people died. The recommended treatment for a collapsed lung then was to have the patient blow up balloons, and sure enough, it worked. Herbertís collapsed lung was re-inflated by simply blowing up balloons.

Ila, who had an eight grade education, never worked outside the home, and to help make ends meet, she did some babysitting, and she also took in washing and ironing for folks. She used a wringer washing machine and hung the clothes out on a clothesline in the yard to dry. Taking in washings also later helped to pay for Lindaís high school education. Linda was the only one of the four children to graduate from high school.

At the age of seventeen, Elton went in the Air Force, and for a while, was stationed in Texas. On one of his trips back home while in the service, he bought the family their first television set. Because of Eltonís gift, the Randolph home was one of the first in their neighborhood to have a television. Once the word got out that the Randolph family had a T.V., neighbors would gather in their living room on Saturday nights to watch wrestling. Linda remembers some of the fellows who came to watch got very excited while these matches were going on, almost to point of getting involved on the floor of their living room themselves.


Herbert Randolph posed for this picture with his mules, Kit and Diner.


As time went along, each of the Randolph children married and moved away from home. Eltonís wife was Betty McKinney from Texas; Imogene married Ernest Geesling; and Linda is married to Joe Copeland. Ronald, who passed away at the age of 59, was married to Sarah Denson. When he was only 29 years old, he was permanently injured when a horse fell on him, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. By attending a rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Georgia, he was able to learn how to care for himself and could get around on crutches. The extended Randolph family today includes eight grandchildren, fifteen great-grandchildren, and seventeen great-great grandchildren.

It was only two short years after Herbert and Ila had bought a new home that it was completely destroyed by a tornado. The date was October 1, 1977. Charles Denning, Executive Editor of the Cookeville Herald Citizen at that time did a story about the afternoon when the lives of Herbert and Ila could have been lost had it not been for their son, Ronald. Here is part of the story written by Mr. Denning about the storm:

"Ronald Randolph raced a roaring tornado along a road in rural Overton County late Saturday afternoon and beat it. Just by seconds, but that was enough to save the lives of his elderly mother and father whose home was demolished and strewn 100 yards along a hillside moments after Ronald pulled up in his car and warned them. ĎI was just fixing to put supper on the table and Herbert was sitting there in his sock feet,í said Mrs. Randolph. ĎThen I heard Ronald blowing the horn and I went to the door to see what he wanted and thatís when I saw it.í Mrs. Randolph ran for the dug out, a storm cellar built partly in a bank near the house which doubles as a pantry for fruits and vegetables canned in glass jars and rowed on shelves filling the walls. She thought her husband was right behind her, she said, but he wasnít. He had stopped to get his shoes. They made it into the dug-out, not an instant to spare. But on Sunday morning, Mrs. Randolph wondered how her son had managed. Ronald is crippled in both legs, and walks slowly with aluminum crutches on his lower arms. ĎHe never goes anywhere without his crutches,í she said. ĎBut he left them in the car, and got in the dug-out someway. We donít know how.í The Randolph home was swept off its concrete-block foundation and exploded, leaving the blocks and the concrete stoop and a couple of flower pots sitting there."

Had Mr. Denning known about the glass bottle that contained the small finger of Ila Randolph, I feel sure he would have mentioned that in his story, along with all the other details of that terrible afternoon. But the very next day, a surprising thing happened. While she and Linda walked around the yard and garden area searching for anything of the personal items from the home to salvage, they discovered the unbroken bottle containing the finger.

In 1994, Herbert died from congestive heart failure and emphysema, and only a short ten months later, Ila died following a stroke. A very large number of friends, neighbors, and acquaintances turned out for both funerals. The summer before Ilaís death at age 85, she had canned enough vegetables from her garden to fill two freezers and line the shelves of the dug-out. She said the reason she continued to raise a garden was so her children would have something to eat. On the evening for the visitation service for Ila, the minister who held her service, Russell Robold, told Linda, "There couldnít possibly be anyone left in Hilham. Everybody is at the funeral home." He then went on to say that "Ila must have lived a double life no one knew about ... someone who had never worked outside the home could not possibly that many friends." Even though Linda describes her both of her parents as "just ordinary people," itís obvious they touched many lives along the way, and left their mark on all those who knew and loved them.


Herbert and Ila Randolph sit on the front porch of their home in the Hilham community.  This photograph was taken in 1975.