GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (Dec. 22, 2014) -- With his long white hair, beard, and big frame, Greg Isom didn’t have to dress up to draw a second look, but he did.
He was known for hauling firewood in a duck-cloth kilt or – if he was on his way to an historical reenactment – walking his big dogs around downtown Greeneville in 18th century breechcloth, leggings and moccasins.
He was often asked to dress up like Santa Claus, and people later recognized him around town. One of his wife’s favorite stories involves a four-year-old on a Walmart shopping trip, arguing with his mother about the existence of Santa. Isom overhead the conversation and whispered to the little boy, “I’m real, and I shop at Walmart.”
After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2014, Greg Isom, age 57, died on Aug. 4. He not only left behind his wife, the Rev. Ginger Howe Isom; their congregation at Christ United Methodist Church; four children; and a grandson. He also left a thriving firewood ministry and a community that is better because he was part of it.
“For no longer than Greg lived in this town, he got wired in as good as I’ve ever seen,” says Tony Williams, a member at Greeneville Cumberland Presbyterian Church and a leader in the Greene County Firewood Ministry.
“We don’t have a choice but to keep working hard,” Williams says of the ministry that keeps about 200 families warm between October and April, “but Greg is missed terribly.”
MEETING A NEED
The Isoms arrived in Greeneville in summer 2008, and Greg soon joined with other United Methodist Men at Christ UMC to begin the firewood ministry. Ginger Isom says the need became evident when they learned the Greene County food bank had to buy firewood for their clients, allotting two loads per family over the winter.
“Greg was constantly talking about ways to reach out to the community,” said David Andrews, a member at Asbury United Methodist Church. “He didn’t want to just meet for breakfast. He wanted to do something meaningful.”
Greene County Firewood Ministry began in fall 2008. It didn’t take long to realize “the need was so much greater than four to six volunteers could meet,” Andrews says.
Isom and other leaders encouraged nearby churches to join the effort, contributing both volunteers and funding. Today, the ministry involves four United Methodist churches (Christ, Asbury, Trinity, Mount Zion), as well as Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Church of God congregations.
About 25 volunteers, ages eight to 80, arrive on Saturday mornings at a donated lot and warehouse. (The sheriff also sends about eight inmates from the county jail each week.) The workers use six splitters to cut enough wood for about 1,000 loads each winter. The volunteers also deliver firewood on Saturday and throughout the week, as needed.
Greg Isom worked every cold-weather Saturday for the first few years, until his job as a truck driver took him away on weekends, his friends say. However, he stayed involved in his town and church and supported his wife’s ministry.
“He had a way of taking care of things behind the scenes,” said John Brown, a businessman who involved Isom in organizing events such as Greeneville’s Fourth of July celebration. “He knew what needed to be done for the betterment of the community. Things would just get done and later you realized that Greg had facilitated it.”
Last December, Isom “killed it” when he was asked to portray Father Christmas and light the town Christmas tree at the courthouse. “He wasn’t just a fat man in a red suit,” Brown said. “He brought a whole new dimension to it. People had never seen anything like it before. He just had a way of talking to people.”
LEADING THE WAY
Last January, in the midst of a brutally cold winter and after some long and difficult trucking routes, Isom suffered with pneumonia and struggled with his blood-sugar levels. In late February, he couldn’t breathe and was rushed to the hospital to learn that blood clots had developed in his lungs. Tests also revealed other frightening indicators. A couple of weeks later, Isom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“We knew when he started chemotherapy that there is no cure for pancreatic cancer,” Ginger Isom says. “He said he wanted to show Christians how to die well.”
Isom completed six chemotherapy treatments before attending the Holston Annual Conference with his wife in June. Friends were impressed by his good spirits, despite his illness. Whenever he was in the hospital, his room needed a revolving door to accommodate his many visitors, Ginger Isom said.
“He was who he was, comfortable in his own skin … and didn't try to be someone other than who he was,” she said. ”I think that is one of the traits that made others find him to be very approachable and also enabled him to fit in with anyone. And he had a way of making others feel comfortable in their own skin because if it.”
In July, physicians recommended Isom discontinue chemo and begin hospice. On Aug. 3, friends threw a big outdoor party which they called “IsomStock.” Six bands performed and about 250 people, dressed in tie-dye, came out to greet and hug the Isoms, dance and join in a drum circle.
“He freaked me out that day because he wouldn’t leave,” Brown said of his friend. “He stayed the whole time, even though physically he felt terrible, but spiritually, he was high as a kite. He was sitting there thinking how blessed he was, because all of these people came out to show him how much they loved him. And he was there to see it, hear it, and touch them.”
The next day, Isom died at home.
The months since have been difficult for Greg Isom’s friends and family. Ginger Isom says she’s grateful for support she’s received, especially from her congregation.
“At first I wondered, ‘How can I grieve and help them grieve at the same time?’” she said. Church members gave her space to recover, found guest preachers when needed, walked her beloved Great Pyrenees dogs, and provided companionship and gifts.
The busy pastor has also found ways to memorialize her husband as well as raise awareness for the disease that took him away. During Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month in November, she vowed to dye her hair purple if she raised $2,000 for pancreatic cancer research.
A “dog walk” with 30 furry participants helped put her at the $2,300 mark. So for Christmas this year, the Reverend Isom’s hair is merry and bright.
Her husband -- the man who wasn't shy about strolling through town in a kilt or a tricorn hat -- would approve.
"Plenty of pooches show up to take a bite out of pancreatic cancer" (Greeneville Sun, 11/25/14)
"Volunteers chop tons of firewood for heating assistance" (WBIR, 3/2/13)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.