Almost 180 people filled the chapel at Beggs Funeral Home last Thursday, not to mourn a death, but to celebrate the passionate life of Beth Newsome.
"Beth Newsome was loved by many," the Rev. Elliott Fulmer said at the beginning of the funeral service. "God welcomed Beth Newsome home with a smile and said 'Welcome home, my daughter.' As we sit here today, we all realize how blessed we were to share life with Mrs. Beth Newsome."
In a style that Thomson Middle School Principal Claude Powell described as "so, so Beth," the crowd of mourners burst into laughter many times during the service as friends and family shared their personal memories of Mrs. Newsome.
Laughing at herself was one of the sixth grade language arts teacher's self-proclaimed traits. In her biography for the Teacher of the Year in October, 2006, Mrs. Newsome said she used humor to deal with life; and, she taught her students to do likewise.
"Laughter takes the focus off what is going wrong in (the students') lives and makes room for learning," she said in her philosophy of teaching essay. "Most of my humor is directed at me. ... Parents, as well as students, in a classroom or parent conference, see my ability to laugh at myself, deal with difficult times and survive. Often while laughing with me, their problems seem less significant."
But there was nothing insignificant about the way Mrs. Newsome lived her life. Former Thomson High School and University of Georgia football player Danny Verdun Wheeler spoke at the funeral as one of Mrs. Newsome's former students.
"She had so much energy and spunk that her kids were ready to learn no matter what," he said. "She always grabbed your attention when you walked into her room, no matter who you were. ... Just like we can tell today that she's in the room here with us."
Mr. Wheeler and Mrs. Newsome shared a close bond in spite of the fact they were rivals. Since Mrs. Newsome was an avid Georgia Tech fan, the two engaged in banter whenever the Georgia Bulldogs played the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
"I know she didn't get to see the game this year," Mr. Wheeler said, and then turned his eyes heavenward. "But I just want to say, 'Mrs. Newsome, I have my pin on and it's seven times straight now.'"
Mrs. Newsome's brother, Greg Bower, also spoke at the funeral and said his sister picked up her love of Georgia Tech from their father who graduated from the college. The first thing Mr. Bower did when he stood at the podium was wave a yellow flag and shout, "Go, Yellow Jackets."
"Beth has joined my Dad (in heaven), now, and for the first time in a long time, my Dad had somebody to watch the game with this year," he said. "Dad graduated from Tech, and his two brothers graduated from Georgia. So it was always Beth and my Dad against everybody else."
Mr. Bower added that the holiday season will be another poignant time as his sister's passion for life grew during the Christmas holiday, from her snow village collection, which he called "a snow city," to her "shopping as an endurance sport."
"Her passion for her family gave her own home such a magical atmosphere," he said. "There wasn't any difference in her home in the classroom and her home in Gibson. There was a special warmth that made people want to come in. Her home was always filled with children visiting."
As a fellow educator alongside Mrs. Newsome for over 20 years, it was her passion as a teacher that Mr. Powell spoke about during the funeral service. When they were both teachers at Pine Street Elementary School, Mr. Powell remembered how Mrs. Newsome's enthusiasm for reading was contagious with students whom he thought would never open a book.
As principal of the middle school, Mr. Powell said he received more calls at the beginning of each school year from parents complaining of Mrs. Newsome being "too loud," and "expecting too much." But the principal said he never worried, because he knew those complaints always changed to compliments as time taught the parents and students that Mrs. Newsome knew just what she was doing, and test scores soared.
Mr. Powell said he will miss the gleam in Mrs. Newsome's eye when she talked about her own children and grandchildren, her beaming personality, and the vibrations of her walking on the old wooden floor of the hall at the school.
"Her classroom was right behind my office down the hall, and one of the fondest memories I'll have is of hearing her booming voice ...and hearing her heavy footsteps ...because when she had something on her mind, she boomed - boomed - down the hall to my office."
Mr. Bower said his sister inherited her passion in teaching from their mother, Mary Beth Bower, who was also a teacher. Whenever Mrs. Newsome saw one of her former students out in public, or whenever she received a thank you note, he said she was reenergized.
"Her passion is why so many of you are here today. ...My Beth gave every ounce of her passion to everyone in our family and to everyone of yours. And I hadn't realized, but it struck me this past week how much it was returned to her," he said. "There's a big void in our county now that she's gone. The Reverend talked about her eternal life in Heaven now, but her name will be carried on forever at Thomson Middle School because of what she did. ...Thank you for what you did for my sister."