From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Thank Gawd fo’ Y’all

I’ll never make the mistake of being seventy again.

Casey Stengel

I’ll never forget Percy Tabb.

My first year out of college was 1993, and I was living in Selma, Alabama. I had just started a year of service with the Edmundite Mission Corps, a Catholic lay missions program where my friend Chris and I spent our time building and rehabilitating homes for people in need.

One day in October, Father Steve, the director of our program, asked if the two of us could assist Mr. Percival Tabb, a man of ninety-plus years living alone some thirty miles west of Selma. Mr. Tabb lived in what is commonly called a “shotgun shack,” a long, narrow, rectangular house with three small rooms lined up one behind the other. The house had suffered some structural damage in a storm and needed repairs to make it safe again.

The three of us drove out to take a look at Mr. Tabb’s home. After winding down a sparsely populated dirt road, we found his house and pulled slowly into his driveway. The greeting committee consisted of a family of cats scattering in all directions and a big, black, scary-looking dog barking from a doghouse where he was chained. Calling out to Mr. Tabb, we walked up the makeshift stairs to the small porch. He answered from inside and slowly shuffled to the door, ambling from one supporting object to another.

The old man who appeared before us was a heartbreaking sight. When he came closer, I noticed his sad eyes, slightly glazed and yellowish. He appeared to have only one tooth left in his mouth, hanging alone at the center of his upper gums. His hands were lined and leathery, and he looked apprehensive about the three white men standing at his door.

“We’ve come to look at your house and see if we can repair it for you,” Father Steve told him. Mr. Tabb then seemed to relax and told us to go around back and look at the damage.

The house stood eighteen inches off the ground on cinder block pylons. We found that heavy rains and strong winds had caused some of the pylons to lean over. If they weren’t repaired, they might collapse completely and bring the house down.

When we went inside to look at his chimney, we were struck by the squalid conditions. Clothes and junk were strewn all over the place. The sheetrock on the walls was filthy and crumbling in places. Cockroaches were rioting everywhere. The pungent smell of years of kerosene fumes permeated the entire house and Mr. Tabb as well.

Taking all this in, I slowly narrowed my focus on the wood-burning stove which, when burning, spilled smoke into a brick chimney. The stove stood in the center of his house, and the chimney rose through his roof.

Mr. Tabb told us the insurance adjustor had assessed the damage and said not to use the wood-burning stove until repairs had been made. When the house leaned over, the pressure had caused a crack in the chimney. The adjustor was afraid the concrete flue might also be cracked, causing a smoke or fire hazard.

Through the holes in the sheetrock, we could see the house had no insulation either. So at night it was about as cold inside as it was outside. To fix it, the insurance company had given him five hundred dollars for repairs. Mr. Tabb had hired some laborers and paid them upfront. Big mistake. The men fixed one corner of the house and never returned.

Sitting on the edge of his bed, he shook his head and began to cry. “It’s just too cold at night for this old man,” he muttered tearfully.

We told him we’d be back in an hour with some blankets and warm clothes, and then return in the morning to begin the repairs. The three of us drove home in silence, too disturbed to speak.

The next day Chris and I drove back to Mr. Tabb’s residence to start work. We went inside and found him sitting on the edge of his bed. He was happy to see us as he had a good night’s sleep from his new blankets. “Thank Gawd fo’ y’all,” he kept repeating in his singsong voice. “I asked the Lawd to send someone to keep me warm, and the next day y’all came. Thank Gawd fo’ y’all.”

That day and the next we managed to jack up the house and set it back down on new pylons. We lit a fire in his stove to make sure the smoke went out where it was supposed to go, and it did. As we prepared to leave, Mr. Tabb sat us down and gave us a pretty stern lecture about why we should never do drugs.

During those two days, he laughed a lot which was great to see after how depressed he’d been when we first met him. As we left, he peppered us with a few more “Thank Gawd fo’ y’all’s” and hugged us.

Throughout that year, we continued to visit Mr. Tabb and built a great relationship with him. We kind of adopted him as a grandfather, or maybe he adopted us as grandchildren.

Over the next few months, we brought visiting volunteer groups out to work on different projects. We painted his house, installed a flush toilet, insulated, sheetrocked, painted his bedroom and planted a garden. We’d bring groups to meet him even when we didn’t have a project to do. When the volunteers reflected on their time in Selma, they always mentioned Mr. Tabb. He was truly unforgettable and had a strange impact on everyone who met him.

As our year in Alabama was coming to an end, Chris and I went to visit Mr. Tabb for the last time. He always hugged us when we said good-bye, but that day he held us a lot longer than usual. He didn’t want to let us go.

Over and over, he repeated ever so sadly, “I hate to see ya go. I hate to see ya go.”

Less than a year later, he suffered a stroke and passed away at the home of a relative. Today, his picture hangs in my bedroom and every time I look up at Mr. Tabb, I can hear that Southern drawl voice of his saying, “Thank Gawd fo’ y’all. Ah LOVE ya!”

Chris Bibbo

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on Edmundite Mission Corps, contact 707 Arsenal Pl., Selma, AL 36701; 334-874-3798; fax: 334-872-8123; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site:]

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