Remember when: Sign proclaimed ‘Cancer can be cured’

Published 1:33 am Saturday, July 2, 2016

Do any of you who have been around here a long time remember a neon sign that used to be over one of the entrance doors to the courthouse? That sign read “CANCER CAN BE CURED.” Here is the story behind that sign.

sue_bass_wilsonA young man who grew up in Mississippi who played football for Ole Miss transferred to the University of Alabama Law School where he met a popular girl from Andalusia attending summer school at the U of A. Ed Reid married Gladys Mathews on Christmas Day of 1929. The Reids soon set up housekeeping in Andalusia and Ed Reid opened a law practice in the Prestwood Building on the Public Square. Gladys was graduated from Andalusia High School and had attended Huntingdon College and Newcomb College where she had studied art, was a cheerleader, and featured in the beauty section of the college yearbook.

Skipping ahead a few years to 1942, Ed became sick, and he finally decided to go to New Orleans to a specialist who might determine what was wrong. He traveled by train. Dr. Alton Ochsner of the Ochsner Clinic diagnosed his problem as colon cancer. At the time, cancer was a death sentence. “Doctors,” according to his daughter Gatra Reid Mallard, “didn’t even use the word and sometimes did not even tell their patients that they had cancer!”

On the trip back to Andalusia by train, Ed Reid seriously debated about whether or not to even tell his wife what he had learned, but due to his hesitation, she guessed it and became very supportive. As a result of early treatment, Ed became one of the first survivors of advanced colon cancer that struck him in his 40s. Although he was inconvenienced by the old-fashioned method he had to deal with daily to take care of himself, he was just very grateful to be alive.

As time went by, Ed and Gladys became a team to promote cancer awareness first in Andalusia and Covington County. Ed spoke at school assembly programs. Fund raisers were instigated that aided those in need. Gatra recalled, “Dad was a remarkable speaker…compared to Will Rogers. He enabled people to laugh at cancer!” Attorney Reid was the first person in the entire country to read the seven danger signals of cancer over the radio. The local radio station then was WCTA owned by Dige Bishop who arranged for him to speak on the air on a regular basis.

The Reids set up a booth at the Covington County Fairs handing out pamphlets provided by the American Cancer Society and talking to everyone who walked up to the booth about the importance of having an annual physical examination.

Ed and Gladys, sometimes one, sometimes both, drove many ordinary local folks to New Orleans who were often times afraid to go for diagnosis or treatment. They both visited sick people all over the county helping them to arrange for wheelchairs and hospital beds and also helping families to come to terms with “cancer.”

“Yes,” his daughter remembers, “there were negative responses at the time, but they continued to urge people to not be afraid and spoke about the importance of being honest and optimistic about their condition.”

Ed Reid spent many long hours after work at his law office writing letters around the country to encourage others to bring the message out in the open – that cancer could be cured. At the time, there were parking meters on the street curb on the square. Many parking tickets were left on his windshield, but he handled that with his sense of humor!

The Parnassus Club where Gladys was a member was very involved at the time. An outstanding and unique scrapbook was made by Gladys and the club members, a large wooden creation with artistic design. That scrapbook made in 1949 is now housed in the Andalusia Public Library. It is worth a trip to the Genealogy Room of the APL to view this scrapbook which contains a treasure of information including pictures of Andalusia during that period of time along with letters of support from citizens and leaders who helped to stage events to promote the cause of cancer awareness and early detection. The neon sign, “CANCER CAN BE CURED,” was installed and prominently displayed above the entrance door to the courthouse. It remained there, as long as I can remember, until the new and modern doors and transoms were installed. Probably by then everyone had forgotten what the sign was doing there! The whereabouts of the sign today is unknown although some suspect it may be tucked away somewhere in the courthouse basement among the piles of records. An old photograph of Attorney Reid standing on the courthouse steps just below the sign is displayed at the Three Notch Museum near the courthouse memorabilia.

I might add that Gladys Reid was also involved in a civic-minded project, the “Welcome Wagon.” Could it be that anyone around today remembers this organization that welcomed newcomers to town? Baskets of items provided by local merchants were taken to the homes of those families who moved into Andalusia. I vaguely remember my mother being one of those young women who were a part of this group who visited and welcomed new families. Gladys knew just how to recruit her assistants? There was an ad I recently ran across in an old newspaper advertising the “Welcome Wagon.”

Ed Reid flew all over the country during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s from New York City to the Hawaiian Islands promoting cancer awareness. He spoke at many state cancer meetings sponsored by the American Cancer Society and was well received. “It was a journey that took its toll in terms of energy, stress, and time away from work, but it was a journey they BOTH felt called to make. It was a very important contribution for promoting openness about cancer at that time in our history,” daughter Mallard recalls. “His only fee was for mother to travel with him.”

Around 1956, a 49-minute movie, “Never Alone,” and a 28-minute audio presentation were made for broadcast promotional purposes. They were recorded on the steps of the Covington County courthouse and several locals were a part of this program including Dr. Juanita McDonald (medical doctor), Rev. Powers McLeod (First Methodist pastor), Joy and Donald Cooke (radio hosts), Ed Dannelly (Andalusia Star News editor), Buck Barrow, Probate Judge H. J. Brogden, Hosie Mott, Richard Morris, Senator Lister Hill, and Hannah McGhee, a cancer survivor herself. Thanks to Sammy Glover and his wife, Ann McGhee Glover, these presentations were brought to the attention of the Covington Historical Society where some extra copies were duplicated to preserve this inspiring story. Ann participated in an informative CHS program, a story that she well remembers and shared. Thanks to station owner Blaine Wilson, the movie was aired on WAAO-TV a number of times.

Because of Ed Reid’s determination and work, in 1950 he was the recipient of the annual national award, presented to him by the American Cancer Society, the National Individual Meritorious Achievement Award. Dr. Ochsner came all the way from New Orleans to New York City to the banquet where Reid and Andalusia, the small town promoting cancer awareness, were both honored. Reid was the first lay person to ever receive the national award!

From the April 15, 1949 edition of the Alabama magazine, the news magazine of the deep South at the time, Mr. Paul Scherf was recognized. “The Alabama drive for funds to carry on the fight against cancer is headed by one of the South’s leading textile and garment manufacturing families. His father is J. G. Scherf, Sr. who is prominent in national manufacturing circles.”

By the way, although Attorney Reid was cured of cancer and was a true survivor due to early detection and prompt treatment, he later experienced a dreadful home accident. Slipping in the shower, he hit his head on the hot water valve resulting in his body being scalded severely. He was immediately flown to New Orleans where he passed away the next morning in February of 1960 at the age of 56.

In June of 1960 after the death of her father in Feburary, the youngest daughter of the Reids, Lucy Deil, was married in Andalusia at the First Methodist Church. Dr. Ochsner arrived to walk the bride Lucy Deil down the aisle in the absence of his former patient and late friend, Ed Reid. There were three children of the Reids – Bob, the oldest; Gatra; and Lucy Deil, the youngest.

Additional thanks are due not only to the Glovers but also to Gatra Reid Mallard, Marcia Mathews Reichert, and Byron B. Mathews, daughter, niece, and nephew, for the interesting details and recollections of this Andalusia story which is now preserved.

There are many medical awareness issues brought to our attention in this day and time, but unfortunately, the dreaded cancer is still with us although the statistics reveal that thanks to awareness, research, and treatment, “CANCER CAN BE CURED” today. Perhaps one day, the neon sign can be found and reinstalled as an encouraging reminder as we drive around the court square and look up at the courthouse entrance, but until then, we will REMEMBER WHEN.