In honor of Women’s History Month in March, we are highlighting two women who made a significant impact on Acworth through the years. Special thanks to Betsy Brown and Yvonne Leander of the Save Acworth History Foundation for introducing us to these incredible women.
The Politician: Mary Bolton McCall
“She was hell on wheels!” That’s how Russell McCall describes his colorful mother, Mary Bolton McCall. Others describe her as a strong-willed, outspoken woman or an alpha female.
Born Oct. 20, 1915, in Griffin, Mary Bolton was one of eight children. Rare for the time, Mary went to Bessie Tift College in Forsyth, and graduated in 1936 with a degree in English. She took graduate courses at the University of Georgia and Emory University.
On a Ridgecrest Baptist retreat in North Carolina, Mary met a “long drink of water” medical student named Moses McCall. Moses had spent much of his youth in Cuba, where his parents were Baptist missionaries. Mary and Moses eloped in 1937 and were married in Phenix City, Alabama. Mary taught high school English in Lamar and Spalding counties while Moses completed his medical internship at Grady Hospital in Atlanta.
Dr. McCall had trained as a surgeon at Wake Forest University and Emory University. However, due to Viking’s Disease (Dupuytren’s contracture), a disabling affliction of the hand, he left surgery and came to Acworth to open a general medical practice in December 1940.
Although Mary’s degree was in English, her husband needed help with his new practice. The country doctor taught her everything he knew. She ran the office, went on house calls with him, and delivered babies throughout four counties: Cobb, Bartow, Cherokee and Paulding. They served the people regardless of race, color, or economic status. Payment in vegetables, or no payment at all, was commonplace. The couple had six children, four boys and two girls, all born and raised in Acworth.
In November 1954, Mary shattered a 100-year precedent when she became the first woman elected to Acworth’s City Council. She served on the Council for a year. The following year when Mary couldn’t convince her husband to run for mayor, she tossed her hat into the ring. She encouraged her husband’s many patients to register to vote, and they did. She won by a landslide and became Acworth’s first female mayor. She served a one-year term in 1956 and three consecutive two-year terms from 1961-66.
During her tenure as mayor, Acworth progressed and hired its first female police officer and its first African-American officer. She was instrumental in bringing a new post office to the town, as well as appointing a judge to the city recorder’s court. She brought natural gas to Acworth and began a public sewage system. She created the Acworth Lake Authority and improved Liberty Hill Cemetery. Besides her work as a public servant, she was active in the Acworth First Baptist Church, the PTA, the Eastern Star and the Women’s Medical Auxiliary. Mary also founded the Acworth Garden Club, served as an officer in the Carrie Dyer Women’s Club and chaired the Girl Scout District Council.
She never considered herself a politician, but a servant of the people. She survived a cerebral hemorrhage in 1968 and a stroke in 1974. Mary died on Feb. 4, 1984, at the age of 68.
– By Yvonne Leander
The Teacher: Irma D. Henderson
“Mama, I just met the boy I’m gonna marry.” So began the love story of Irma Della Johnson, born in 1911 in Opelika, Alabama, and Howard Henderson from Gillsville, Georgia. Each came to the dance with someone else but left together, arm-in-arm. They got married, had four girls in a short time and came to Acworth in the 1950s, where Miss Irma would influence and guide Acworth’s children for more than two decades.
By the time the Henderson girls were in school, Irma and family were settled on Collins Avenue in a home built in 1892. Her heart was to teach kindergarten and to have one in her own home. So, she studied early childhood education at Southern Technical Institute. Through the years, countless children walked single-file around Collins Avenue and down the sidewalks of Main Street to town and back. She was complimented frequently about their exceptionally good behavior.
“Children love discipline,” she said. “And when it is given with love, the results are wonderful. Everyone in this world needs guidance.”
Irma was an encourager. The harshest punishment given to an errant child was sitting on the “bad box” for a while. In later years, a van facilitated trips to Storyland in Smyrna or the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Cartersville. Eventually the kindergarten outgrew the confines of the main house, so the Hendersons built a separate facility on the property for Irma’s growing brood. The new space was soon filled with children fashioning egg cartons and Vienna sausage cans into precious keepsakes. Sometimes Mr. Irma (Howard) would visit the little school and check up on everyone.
The Hendersons’ daughters (Judy, twins Sally and Sandy, and Nancy) remember Irma as “just the best mama you could ever hope to have.” She made sure each of her children felt special. The family often held birthday parties at their farm on County Line Road, where Tootsie Rolls and lollipops hung from the limbs of a large shade tree in the pasture. Howard would fire up the grill and cook for the young guests, and there were always homemade birthday cakes. Irma’s coconut cakes and pound cakes were legendary favorites. The farm was also where Irma would take the girls to pick blackberries. So great was her love for blackberry cobbler that sometimes these forays required the aid of a flashlight. Fearless in her picking, she was not daunted by the occasional snake or the bloodthirsty chigger.
In retirement, Irma never slowed down and continued a life of creativity and community commitment. She took up china painting and frequently gifted pieces to lucky friends. She enjoyed the Acworth Garden Club and was known for the lovely yard on Collins Avenue. As a poll worker, she gifted voters and fellow workers with homemade treats like divinity candy. Many times, she brought food to a neighbor in need. It also was said that she became a wicked bridge player and loved being at the table with friends.
Irma died in 1980 and is buried alongside her husband in Opelika. It would be hard to overestimate her influence on all those children. They are adults now, with children and grandchildren. They are living their lives in all parts of the world but surely remember walking-single file down Acworth’s Main Street shepherded by Miss Irma.
– By Betsy Brown