Living Legends | 'A very personable, loving, gracious, generous person'

Living Legends | 'A very personable, loving, gracious, generous person'

URBANA — Etha Reid was one of the first people Cynthia Biggers met after moving to Champaign-Urbana more than 40 years ago.

"I found her to be a very personable, loving, gracious, generous person. And one who was always consistent," said Biggers, who lived two doors down from Etha and Ebell Reid. The couple raised five children and five foster children at the same Tremont Street home where they live today.

Biggers, whose husband worked with Ebell, said any time she would make "popcorn calls," or unannounced visits, Etha would invite her to do whatever she happened to be doing at the time, never making her feel as though she was imposing.

"She emanates love and always welcomed me into her home and into her heart," Biggers said.

Biggers, who sponsored her friend for the Living Legend honor Reid will receive today from the Champaign County section of the National Council of Negro Women, recalled how she was there for her when her husband died, wrapping her arms around her and letting her cry.

"She's just a special kind of person, and she does what she does quietly and unassumingly, never expecting anything from it," Biggers said.

At 80 years old, Etha Reid is now legally blind, but the woman with 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild has not let her vision keep her from being there for others.

Walter Reid, one of Etha's five children, said his mother never complains about her loss of sight.

"She says, 'I'm blessed that I'm still able to move around,'" said Walter, who lives around the corner from his parents and often gets visits from his mom, who walks by herself with the aid of a walker, navigating sidewalks, even streets, unassisted in the neighborhood where she knows so many people.

And they know her.

"She's just an overly friendly neighbor," her son said. "She never calls to tell me she's coming. I hear a knock on the door, and there she is."

Etha, who worked part time at the UI cooking and doing other jobs while raising a family, said she has made a point of continuing her neighborhood walks — a routine she has had for years — long before her vision began to fail.

For 30 years, she says she walked three to five miles a day.

"I feel better when I walk," she said. "It's just rejuvenating getting out and seeing everyone."

She doesn't miss driving, because it "doesn't much matter," but she really misses reading, especially her Bible. But she doesn't complain about it.

"I am blessed. I really am," she said.

Born on a farm in Mississippi, Etha's family moved here when she was elementary school age.

She gets her compassionate spirit from her father, who she says also never met a stranger.

Sometimes, he would even bring them home with him, she said, recalling the time he invited to the house from the barbershop a young black man in the Air Force, who found out there was no place for his wife to stay when they first arrived at the base in Rantoul.

In those days, Etha said, there were no hotels or motels where a black couple could stay, so her father brought them home and let them have a bedroom in their already full house.

Her parents went without the comfort of a bed.

"See, that's where I got this spirit from. It's in the blood," said Etha, who grew up with and married her husband of more than 64 years and has continued attending the same church, Pilgrim Missionary Baptist, where she has remained active.

Walter said his mother is one of the congregation's oldest members — and a faithful one at that. She served on the church's usher board until she couldn't see anymore.

"I think she's the world's greatest mother," he said, adding that Etha could be a professional storyteller, too. "She actually paints a picture like it's happening."

If she's interrupted, he added, she picks up right where she left off.

"She is a conversation and a half," he said. "And she loves her family. I mean, she really loves her family."

Walter said she has been there for each of her siblings as their health has declined.

He said she just lost her younger brother two weeks ago, and she stuck by him, visiting him in hospice unfailingly, the same commitment she showed to one sister when she was in the nursing home and another, whom Etha went to stay with until she passed away.

It's that same kind heart that Biggers has come to love.

"I wish I knew more people like her," she said.

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