I joined Marlow Tackett at his borrowed warehouse at Gateway Business Park in Jenkins. He had called to ask me to help him promote his ‘Christmas for the Needy’ program. When I arrived he was sorting toys, clothing, canned food and household items.
“I’ve already received two tractor-trailer loads and I’m expecting more. Last year I distributed eight loads from my place in Floyd County,” said Marlow, proudly.
He looked tired and welcomed the break. I had him pose for a photograph then we retreated to his makeshift office to talk about the program. I asked a lot of questions trying to get the information I needed. I felt like I already knew a lot about the program from our previous encounters over the past two years. Actually, we had searched throughout Letcher County a year earlier trying to find a suitable venue to store and distribute the goods through his program.
He leaned back in his chair and smiled then began reflecting on the origin of the program. I could see the pride in his dancing, blue eyes.
“This will be the 32nd year and the program seems to grow each year,” said Marlow nostalgically. “Last year we served about 7,000 people. Even when there is prosperity in the coal fields there is always that element of poor families that need help.”
He tried to name the dozens of people, organizations and institutions that had helped him from the beginning. I had to know what could possibly inspire anyone to undertake such a massive project. I prodded him to tell me the story from the beginning.
“I was really flying high with my career,” began Marlow. “I had hit records in the country music charts and my Country Palace in Pike County was really doing well. I put on several shows each week and had a lot of patrons from throughout the region.
“Marlow’s Country Palace was the place to go. I produced many big shows with the biggest names in country music. I had the likes of George Jones, Gary Stewart, Hank Williams Jr., George Straight and many others. I was very young, yet I had achieved more than I ever dreamed of. It seemed like an eternity since I was a little boy strumming on a barbed wire fence, a broom, a tin can or anything trying to make music.
“My dad saw my determination and bought me a guitar. I literally lived with that guitar. I would go to sleep with my guitar and songbook in my bed each night. I was going to become an entertainer and nothing was going to stop me.
“At age 15 I dropped out of school so I could pursue my destiny. I worked hard to be an entertainer and experienced a few setbacks in the learning process, but I never lost sight of my goal. The hard work paid off and I had found fame and fortune at an early age.”
His face became somber as he continued. “There was something missing in my life and I didn’t know what it was. I was raised in a Godfearing family and I sincerely believe that there is such a thing as divine intervention when we lose direction.
“It took a simple request by a little 12-year-old girl to bring me back down to earth and make me realize what was important in my life. Maybe I had forgotten where I came from. Growing up in a family of 18 kids, we didn’t have any luxuries. Maybe I thought the world owed me the materialistic things I had missed in my childhood.
“I did a lot of benefit shows back then to help most any worthwhile cause,” said Marlow. “I did a show at the Betsy Layne High School in 1976. It was to help raise money for band uniforms.
“I did dozens of benefit shows every year but the reason this one sticks out in my mind is because something happened there that changed my life. A few days after the show I received a letter from a little 12-yearold girl who had attended that show. The letter was addressed to Marlow Tackett, Marlow, Kentucky. Even though it was addressed incorrectly, I still got the letter at my place in Pikeville. Evidently the postmaster recognized my name and knew where I lived.
“The letter was very brief. It said, ‘Dear Marlow, I seen you sing at Betsy Layne School the other day. I want to know if you can help me and my little brothers and sisters get a Christmas gift for our mommy. We don’t have a daddy.’
“She had put one of her school pictures in with the letter. I was very touched by her request. She did not ask for anything for herself; she just wanted to get something for her mother.
“I could have thrown that letter in the trash can and no one would have ever known, but something in my heart told me this was something I had to do.
“I went back to the school and talked to the principal and teachers. I found out where the little girl lived and began my journey to find her family. I learned that she lived on Mare Creek in Floyd County. I drove my van up the long, narrow dirt road and stopped several times to ask for directions. I finally found the home in the head of the hollow.
“I drove my van through the creek to get to the house. My van stalled a few times, and I would back up and get another run to get through the creek. I found the little three-room shack perched on a steep hill. The back of the house sat on some rocks, and the front was about eight feet off the ground sitting on wooden posts like stilts.
“The house was built of rough sawmill lumber with a board and batten veneer. I was very apprehensive as I approached the house but I knew it was something I had to do. There was an almost exhausted pile of house coal under the porch and there was a little garden hoe with a broken handle that they had used to scratch through the slack coal to get some lumps for their stove.
“A little wooden outhouse made of saw mill lumber sat precariously over the edge of the creek below the house. There was a little plastic pipe extending from a natural spring around the hill and a small stream of water ran into a bucket there. Apparently this was their source of household water.
“I walked cautiously up the steps because I could see and feel that they were rickety. The porch had some rusty fence wire nailed to the posts to keep the kids from falling off the high porch. There was an old dilapidated car seat on the porch and a hungry looking hound dog lay on it. He didn’t seem to mind having a stranger on the porch. He raised his head to look at me then laid it back down and went back to sleep.
“When I knocked on the door I could see the wall and window shake. The door opened slowly, and just enough for the little 12- year-old girl to peek out. She turned and shouted to her mother. ‘Mommy there’s a boy here to see you’. She opened the door and I stepped in just enough so I could close the door behind me. It was cold outside and I closed the door quickly so they wouldn’t lose their heat.
“There was a little coal stove in the living room with the stove pipe running through the ceiling. There was a tattered army blanket hanging in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen to keep the heat from escaping. The only other furniture they had in the living room was another old car seat. The mother was in the kitchen and she opened the blanket just enough to see me and talk to me.
“She looked very shy and sickly. I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m Marlow Tackett and I’d like to talk to you about having Christmas for you and your kids.’ She said, ‘That would be fine’.
“I didn’t stay long because I could see that the encounter was very uncomfortable for both of us. I glanced about the room trying to count the kids and get some idea of what size clothes they might wear and what kind of toys would be fitting for their age.
“The youngest was a little boy in a diaper about two years old. He was sitting in the floor and had a plate with a little, shriveled, boiled potato with the peel still on it and a small chunk of cornbread. When he saw me looking at him, he smiled and reached the potato toward me and said, ‘Bite?’ It broke my heart to see such generosity from someone who had so little.
“I glanced through the open door into the bedroom and saw a set of wire bedsprings lying on the floor with just a blanket on it for a mattress.
“The other kids were decorating the Christmas tree when I went inside the house, but paused to stare at this stranger. The Christmas tree wasn’t even a tree; it was just a pitiful looking limb broken off a pine tree. The kids had carried rocks into the house to prop up the limb to keep it from falling over. They sat in the floor cutting colorful pictures from a Sears and Roebuck Christmas wish book to make decorations for their tree.
“The interior walls were made of rough lumber with no wallpaper or paint on them. I tried to glance around the room and absorb as much information as possible before I left. For a brief moment I thought I saw Jesus in the room, but I realized that it was a picture of Jesus hanging on the wall behind the Christmas tree.
“I was so humbled by that moment, I later found me a picture just like it and put it over the door in my office and glanced at it every day to remind me of that event. It was just a picture, but I could feel His presence in that home protecting that family.
“I excused myself and told them I would be back. I walked carefully back down that long set of rickety, wooden steps and hurried back home.
“I called my sisters, Audrey, Patty and Lorie, and told them what I had found. We went back to that home the same day and took all kinds of cereal, canned food, meats, eggs, potatoes, milk, fruit, soft drinks and household items. I wanted to take the family shopping but I didn’t feel comfortable asking the mother to send her kids out with a strange man. I took my sisters back to the home with me to get acquainted with the family.
“I spoke with the mother and said, ‘My sisters wanted to know if we could take you and your family shopping.’ The mother said she was not able to go, but it was OK to take the kids. My sisters sized up the mother so they could buy her some clothing too.
“We took the kids to Pikeville; there was a new Magic Mart there and boy! did we shop,” said Marlow as he choked back the tears. “I took my van and loaded it down with clothing for the whole family. The next day me and my sisters went back and shopped for toys, and the next day after that we went back and shopped for furniture.
“I know it must have been the best Christmas that family ever had, but it was also the best Christmas I ever had, too. Whatever that void in my life was that I couldn’t define was now filled.
“We didn’t want to be too judgmental or inquisitive about the family, but we did learn later that the mother was afraid that the state was going to take her kids from her because she couldn’t provide for them. The father was gone and she was too sickly to find a job to support them, yet she was determined to keep the family together. About a year later I met the family again and gave them money to move to Ohio to start their life over.
“That divine intervention into my life was the beginning of the ‘Marlow’s Christmas for the Needy,’ which has run continuously from 1977 to the present,” Marlow said proudly.
“A few years ago I was doing a radio-thon to raise money and get toys and other supplies donated for the program. A lady called in and said, ‘My husband and I just wanted to make a donation for what you did for me and my family several years ago.’
“She didn’t give her name, but in my heart I know that it was that same little girl who had become a woman.”
This year Marlow’s ‘Christmas for the Needy’ will operate from the Gateway Business Park just off the 4-lane at Jenkins. “Last year our program served 7,000 people,” said Marlow. “To administer a program of this magnitude I need all the help I can get.” If you or your organization would like to participate in any way, please call Marlow at 606-832-1290 or cell 606-213-3762.