Old-fashioned funeral for old-fashioned man

Published 6:58 pm Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pallbearers, clockwise from left, were Sam Baggett, Luther Upton, Joe Nicholas, Bubba Gordon, Wayne Lowrey, Tom Gerlach, and Joe Witherington.

To say that Sam Crook was not of this world is an understatement.

Sam fit into a different time and place; a simpler one, when the relationship of man to earth was stronger and horses were vitally important to man’s very existence.

Born and reared in Atmore, Sam lived in Bermuda, near Repton, and made his living in timber.

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When he was diagnosed with bone cancer late last year, he went along with conventional treatments for a brief while. Then came the Sunday afternoon when he said to Tommy Gerlach and Luther Upton, who were visiting him in the Evergreen hospital, “I’m busting out of here today boys. Are you with me?”

They were. After Sam moved home, they, like many others of Sam’s interesting collection of friends – many of whom dated back to his childhood on Pensacola Avenue in Atmore – spent hours sitting with him, telling and retelling the old stories. Tommy and Luther Upton were regulars, as were Laura Phillips Fancher, Billy Fancher, Wayne Lowery, Bubba Gordon, Foster Anderson, Mickey Salter, and Carl Anderson. Some, like his cousin Vivian Long Jones, now of Rhode Island, and Beverly Bristow Lundberg, now of LaGrange, Ga., came when they could.

This group of musicians from Mobile, who play regularly for Confederate reenactments, played "Poor, Wayfaring Stranger," and Amazing Grace."

As in many other things in his life, Sam preferred the old ways. That is, for him, death was preferable to the side effects of treatment. He had a lot of good days between February and June, surrounded by family, friends and caregivers at his home in Bermuda, Ala.

For decades, Sam kept what he called a pallbearers list. If he got mad with you, you were off the list. If you redeemed yourself or he forgave you, you might be restored to honorary pallbearer status and later to pallbearer. For Sam, it seemed, there was no higher honor than trusting a man to carry you to your final resting place.

No doubt, in the past few months, he honed those plans he’d talked about for years, leaving instructions for his service.

The dogs came to the funeral, too.

Sam was dressed for his final journey perhaps like a gentleman would have been dressed 100 years ago or more. He wore riding britches, boots, a white shirt and a long coat. He had purchased a new hat for the occasion.

His body was placed in a coffin – not a casket – ordered from Ireland.

Those who made the final pallbearers list carried the mahogany coffin out of his home, then walked behind the hearse 100 yards or so to the cemetery he established on his property years ago. Near the place his remains were placed are the graves of two other creatures important to him: Red Eagle, his horse; and Monroe, his late dog.

Laura Phillips Fancher reads a letter Crook wrote to her last summer.

Sam used to say that he intended to be buried with Red Eagle’s reins in his hands. That way, he figured, if he didn’t make it in to heaven on his own, Red Eagle was strong enough to pull him the rest of the way. Horses, he was certain, are needed in heaven to pull the chariots.

Laura Phillips Fancher read a letter she received from Sam last July in which he talked about Red Eagle. He estimated he had ridden the horse 100,000 miles in the 24 years they were together. The horse died June 16, 2010. Sam wrote that though he could see Red Eagle’s grave every day, his passing “has left a gaping hole in my life.”

Approximately 200 mourners stood in a light rain in the cemetery early Friday evening. The Rev. Andy Peavy talked about Sam’s life, and the passages he’d marked for his service from the Bible and from his favorite book, The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian.

Sam wasn’t a church-goer, the minister said, but in many ways was more spiritual “than those who spend an hour in church every Sunday thinking about everything but church.”

A group of Mobile musicians who regularly play for Confederate reenactments played and sang “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” and “Amazing Grace.” His dogs meandered out to the service, too.

He is survived by his wife, Dawn Crook; children, Rachael Crook and Daniel Steadman; his mother, Elise Crook; and brothers, Fred Crook and Charles Crook.

Editor’s note: Sam Crook’s mother, Elise, is adjusting to life in new surroundings and does not yet know of her son’s demise. Friends are respectfully asked not to break the news to her.