BY DAN WHITTLE
Who was Florence?
She was the beloved, famous, frolicsome, faithful, feline fur child of retired Middle Tennessee banker Hilda "Mammie" Stuart.
So famous, Florence had "stars" as her own "stars," including country music super star Connie Smith and husband, Marty, the son of Hilda and the late John Stuart, my church neighbor friends in hometown Smyrna.
Since Florence had a beautiful coat of slick black hair, was it appropriate she left us in the bewitching hours of this latest haunted Halloween night? You can be one of the judges of that.
This is my good-bye "Ode to Flo" as she joins other Stuart family beloved pets in Heaven.
That's right. When the Righteous, Reverend, World Evangelist Billy Graham preached there are good dogs in heaven a few years ago, that was good enough for this old country boy who grew up with a good loyal farm dog.
I'm assuming Florence is purring now eternally atop a heavenly white, fluffy, floating cloud.
Another "righteous reason" Florence is heaven bound, she's was "ordained" as "Florence, the Baptist Cat!"
You may ask at this juncture: "How does a nearly froze-to-death little kitty get to be ordained?"
It was 20-years ago this coming Christmas Eve that Hilda found this little black fur ball nearly froze to death as the banking executive was driving home in a tundra-like, blinding, sleet/snow blizzard.
"As I was about to turn there at Florence Baptist Church near Old Nashville Highway leading from Murfreesboro to our home in Smyrna, I noticed a little, black kitty in the snow out of the corner of my eye," Hilda traced back through some fading snowflakes of time. "When I stopped the car, I realized this little abandoned cat was near death in the cold weather elements."
Thus, that's how the kitty came to be "ordained" as "Florence, the Baptist Cat" when named after Florence Baptist Church.
"I didn't know," Hilda testified, "how much this little kitty would impact our home and lives ... including some famous folks on Nashville's Grand Ole Opry who came to know Florence through my son Marty and his wife Connie."
Hanging to one of its alleged nine lives by the thinnest of threads, Hilda said she wrapped the orphaned kitty cat in her own coat.
"Florence needed the warm coat more than I did," Hilda added. "We drove straight to the vets' office in Smyrna, but the doctor wasn't optimistic Florence would survive the night. But, he gave enough hope the kitty might make it, since she was fighting so hard to cling to life."
Armed that night with life-sustaining medications, Hilda and her family, including daughter Jennifer and Buddy, the family's burly, boxer, American bulldog, became Florence's "best friends."
"We used an eye-dropper to feed Florence, and to administer her meds," Hilda prescribed back in time. "It was touch-and-go ... I had never prayed for a cat to live, but I did that night. As it turned out now 20 years later, I realize little Florence was God's gift directly to me."
I've never been partial to cats, since I had a fiercely-loyal farm dog named "Hitler" as boy.
Our preacher, the Rev. Dan Parker, had spoken of Hilda's beloved cat.
"I don't believe in reincarnation, but if I did, I'd like to come back as Hilda Stuart's cat, that's how good that little kitty is treated in the Stuart household," the preacher preached.
That's how I knew friend Hilda had a cat.
My eventual close friendship with Florence began 10 years ago, when wife Pat volunteered to cat-sit Florence while John and Hilda journeyed back to hometown Philadelphia, Miss., that was honoring favorite son Marty with a historic highway marker and a birthday bash at the little town's refurbished historic Ellis Theater.
Each day, Pat would return from the Stuart home, "purring" on and on about this cat named Florence.
"Florence actually caresses your cheek as you sit and rock her to sleep," Pat purred some more. "And today, you're not going to believe what happened ...
"When I sat on the edge of the bed, Florence jumped up in my lap, letting me know it was not time for me to go," Pat purred on. "That's when I realized Florence not only had accepted me into her domain of feline grace, she let me know I was to 'hold her' as she caressed both of my cheeks with her kitty paws ... it wasn't long before I joined Florence in a nap."
Ever the charmer, that's how Florence ordained mega-star entertainer Connie Smith into her own legions of fans.
"I could sit and hold Florence in my arms for hours," Connie christened on one of her visits to Smyrna.
But, time marches on, and eventually, the 20-year-old Florence got past the point of a happy, healthy loving life.
"Jennifer helped get me and Florence to the vets' office on Halloween, when Marty arrived," Hilda shared. "We knew it was time when Marty took Florence in her warm comfy blanket bestowed on her by Pat Whittle, and walked alone with our beloved little kitty cat out in the vet's front yard. He later shared that he had to take the time, and tell Florence what a big blessing she had been not only to his mother, but to countless other friends to our family."
How many legions of fans claim a feline friendship to Florence?
"I've had calls from Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, Missouri ... from throughout the U.S.," Hilda accounted. "The first few days, I couldn't return the calls, because I was not through crying for the loss of Florence. We've received condolences from as far away as Norway over in Europe."
The legend of Florence, the purr-fect Baptist Cat, has officially spread across the oceans of our planet.