Hours before dawn on Nov. 30, 2022, I drove Roger and Margery Wolcott, co-founders and executive directors of Constance Abbey, to the Memphis airport.
They were leaving for two weeks for their traditional December visit to San Francisco, a city they had lived in for 30 years before retiring to serve street people in Memphis. They needed a break, and I was to cover for them at the Abbey, two homes in the medical district where we extend hospitality, clothing, food, mail and other services to our Neighbors, the inadequately-housed citizens around us.
Roger was passionate about bicycling. On a casual ride six days after we had exchanged hugs and goodbyes, something happened. A retired physician found him without a heartbeat and started CPR. After Roger was stabilized and in a trauma center, he was respirator-dependent and had no movement in his limbs or torso. He died on Christmas Eve, four weeks before his 75th birthday, with family and friends around him.
The Wolcotts founded Constance Abbey on Hamlin Place because they felt they could best serve the Neighbors by living in the area. Roger was an excellent listener and heard what the Neighbors wanted and needed. Then he set about providing those things.
Perhaps he and I got along well because we both enjoyed solving problems. He often told of the events of February 2022 when he was in Atlanta having hip replacement surgery. Memphis was providing nighttime warming centers, but there was no daytime center. Roger was on the phone all night with the Office of Emergency Management, Community Alliance for the Homeless and churches and ministries. All believed shelter was needed in the daytime when we experienced cold rain in temperatures only slightly above freezing.
Bless him. He waited until 5 a.m. to call to let me know he had permission to use the fellowship hall at International Community Christian Church on Alabama Avenue as a daytime warming center. City buses would shuttle people between the nighttime center and our daytime center. He simply needed me to arrange for three meals that day and every day for the duration of the cold weather.
A crisis on a larger scale was the mid-March 2020 implementation of business restrictions due to COVID-19. Shelters decreased the number of residents they could admit, and Room in the Inn closed early. We were considered an essential service. But businesses where we could get what we needed to provide for our Neighbors were closed. We sat at Roger’s dining table and planned. A phone call to Barbara Boucher, a parishioner of Church of the Holy Communion, ignited the food program that provided 1,000 meals a week from churches of several faith traditions until food was again available. All we had to do was take delivery and serve.
SLIDESHOW: Constance Abbey is a community
Roger worked with ministers (most from the Downtown Church Association) and then hotel owners to provide shelter for women. Ministries heard we were moving our services outside. They emptied their clothes closets to stock the one at the Abbey. Neighbors could not come inside, so Roger had showers built outside. All of this happened because of relationships that Roger and Margery shared with others who cared about our Neighbors. We found out later that the number of COVID cases among those who lived outdoors was much lower than those who had the advantage of shelter. This was not only true for Memphis: It was a nationwide trend.
A bond I shared with Roger was to champion those without power. Roger spent much of his energy supporting the most vulnerable among us. The Wolcotts lost many friends in San Francisco to AIDS. Roger understood the vulnerability of the LGBTQ Neighbors and spent a lot of his time protecting them as best he could. It is a job far from finished.
Roger was meticulous in his dress, which reminded me of an English country gentleman. His time in San Francisco led him to add colorful touches: his many pairs of dress shoes (made in England, of course) and hiking boots sported shoelaces of pink, lilac, aqua and other surprising colors. It took someone with his panache to pull off the Hawaiian shirts and pink sweaters he paired with hiking shorts or more traditional trousers.
A public memorial service for Roger Wolcott will be held on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Calvary Episcopal Church, 102 North Second Street. A small reception will follow.
I never found Roger to be complicated, but he was complex. Perhaps he was (usually) easy for me to understand because we came from the same generation and had 70-plus years of life experience. We spent a long time discerning our ministry and felt called to do what we were doing. That bond did not make me immune to his quick temper. He had a large vocabulary of curse words and knew how to use them. Handling these outbursts was easier when I realized this was his way of handling annoyance. If he was truly angry, he left or reeled it in quickly. Sometimes he used his anger to protect a vulnerable Neighbor from a stronger one. He seemed to have no fear for his well-being at those times.
In October last year, my husband, Jim, and I traveled to Duke Divinity School for a Pastors’ School and Consortium with the Wolcotts. Constance Abbey had received a study grant from Duke Divinity School just before the pandemic and had been invited to return. We heard Bishop Peter Storey, who worked to end apartheid in South Africa and was a prison chaplain to Nelson Mandela and a close friend of Bishop Tutu). We watched as music, ballet and pottery were used as expressions of faith. And, we attended seminars with speakers who taught us about stress and trauma in ministry leaders. Roger’s favorite topic may have been trauma. He spent hours listening to Neighbors talk about their childhoods hoping this expression of being loved would help them out of their present situations.
Jim and I had many meals on that six-day trip when we could enjoy Roger’s gifts as a host. We knew his love of and expertise as a cook, and had been out to dinner with him. We had excellent service everywhere. Roger pressed pre-meal tips into the hands of the waiters with the words, “This is for you,” as his hand quickly squeezed theirs. He often spoke to the person who had cooked the meal, especially if we were in an ethnic restaurant. When I spoke to a local pastor after Roger’s death, he told me Roger invited him and his wife to Pete & Sam’s. He said Roger pulled so much wine from under the table that the pastor thought there might be a wine cellar there. Roger was a gracious host who loved breaking bread with others.
Roger left me with the largest task he has ever bestowed on me: to help find a new executive director. I won’t find another Roger, so I will look for a person with their own gifts, talents, abilities and a love for our Neighbors as deep as Roger’s was.
I learned a lot from Roger in the almost five years we worked together. It feels as if we are still working together. My only regret is I wish I had hugged him at the airport as long and as tightly as I hugged Margery.
Margaret Smith is the director of operations at Constance Abbey as well as secretary of the board of directors. She moved to Memphis to study and work, primarily with computers in medical offices. Smith retired in 2000 to focus on volunteer work.