Remembering Arbelia L. Burney Epps: An humble servant to God and mankind

| January 5, 2016
Arbelia L. Epps

Arbelia L. Epps

By Madeline Marcelia Garvin

Many times we read an obituary and think we know an individual; however, an obituary is never the essence of a person. There is so much that happens between that dash while one journeys life’s path, and it is because of this that I would like to share just some of the essence of Arbelia Burney Epps.

Arbelia, also known as Bea, was born October 5, 1934 to Oscar and Maude Burney, and Bea was the youngest sibling to Odie Wade and Marie Toney. However, when I interacted with Bea and talked to her on many occasion, I never viewed her as the youngest child because she had so much energy, and she was constantly assisting others finding ways to improve someone’s lot;  she was a real incendiarist. However, it was later when I met her mother Maude Burney that I discovered Arbelia was not only energetic as a child; but, she was also quite precocious. And with this one shouldn’t be surprised because Bea graduated from high school at age 16, and she then entered Alabama A and M as an elementary education major. When Bea was graduated at the age of 20 with her Bachelor’s Degree, she proved that she was not only “Sweet Bea,” as she was affectionately called by me; but, she was also “Smart Bea.”

From Alabama A and M, Bea went on to attend Columbia University, an Ivy League School,  in New York, where she pursued her graduate degree and majored in Elementary Education with a concentration in English, which enabled her to teach all K-6 subjects. Years ago, Bea explained to me she pursued her graduate studies at Columbia because some officials came to Alabama A and M to recruit southern black students to pursue graduate work at that particular institution during that time. After completing her master’s, Bea accepted a teaching position in the Detroit area, and this is where she was introduced to the love of her life, Dr. James H. Epps Sr. Soon afterwards the two were united in marriage, and they raised two marvelous sons: Dr. James H. Epps Jr. and Detective Michael Epps.

True, Arbelia loved her family immensely; but, she also loved others and serving her church as a member of the Usher Board, the Chapelaires, the Steward Board and the Celia Gregg Missionary Society. Bea brought vitality to every organization and occasion because she had a “joie de vivre,” essentially, she loved life, and she was a “worker bee,” when it came to volunteering in the community.  Bea served on Boards and volunteered with the American Heart Association, the American Red Cross, the Fort Wayne Chapter of Links Incorporated (which she founded and served as its first president), the Lively Set, the PTA, the Ultra Arts Club, the YWCA, the Mayor’s Council for the All American City and the Pacesetters. Yes, Arbelia was involved, and through all of this, she still found time for bowling, playing bridge, playing tennis and even once in awhile going on a little sea cruise.

Speaking of the Celia Gregg Missionary Society that was the organization in which I first became involved with Arbelia L. Epps. At that time in 1967, I was 16 at Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church, and the older youth choir members had gone off to college, so I was just there many a Sunday, sitting in the pews, listening to the sermons and taking notes as I generally would, and Arbelia invited me to join the Missionary Society. I was the youngest, but I was not discouraged because Bea and Mrs. Edna Smith always made me feel comfortable.  Bea was even trying to get me to usher; but, soon it was time for me to leave for IU-Bloomington. However, in 1973, when I returned after graduating from IU-B, Arbelia and I received an invitation in June to join the Fort Wayne Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. with four other ladies; namely, Faye Dees, Vera Drew, Gwendolyn J. Morgan, and Ondina Patterson.  However when Bea discovered my affinity for writing, I became the publicity person for our fundraiser, which was “The Fort Wayne alumnae Pledges of Delta Sigma Theta’s Fall Fashion Show” orchestrated by Bea Epps and Gwen Morgan. I wrote the articles that appeared in Frost Illustrated, Dina Patterson provided the music, and all of us sold tickets to a successful event that was held in the lower level of Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church. This event was so well attended that a second fall Fashion Show was held at Turner Chapel in 1974 when Lizzie Epps affiliated. But, soon that became passé, and members of my pledge line along with Lizzie Epps and many other members took a big leap and brought Fort Wayne’s first major Broadway production, The Wiz in 1976, to Fort Wayne’s Embassy. This event was orchestrated by none other than Arbelia Epps and Gwen Morgan.

No matter what it was Bea was always there throwing herself into the mix. I don’t care if it was with the Chapelaires at Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church, where Bea sang with Sisters Lizzie Epps, Mitzie Hearn, Gwen Morgan, Dina Patterson, Willa Starks, and Florene Williams, one could see Bea was passionate and often sang many a solo proving her living was not in vain. Aside from this, Bea immersed herself in her son’s lives, teaching them to respect others and pursue meaningful work; but, still she found time to vacation and take them snorkeling off the coast.

Traveling was definitely one of Bea’s other passions, and when she was abroad, often she would bring me ivory elephants or jade jewelry from China. But, Bea wasn’t only giving me; she would give gifts to sorority members’ children and her church. She even assisted with the planning of the funeral services for other sorority members; namely Ruby Jordan, Dorothy Mitchell and Florene Williams. When Sister Maurice Abel, a former Mother of Turner Chapel A.M.E., Bea volunteered to dive me, Alva Fuller and Audrey H. Sharpe to Indianapolis so we could pay our respects. This ended up being an adventure in itself because it was night when we were returning; the other ladies did not know the streets of Indy, and as the back seat driver, I wasn’t wearing my night goggles and I couldn’t see anything until we got to High School Road; thus, we did not get back to Fort Wayne until after 11:00 p.m.

Still, this lets you know another aspect of Arbelia. Anytime you said go, she was ready and sometimes when you weren’t ready she was. She would even beat me volunteering to drive. During the summer when I wasn’t teaching or taking a workshop, Bea would often drag me with her to Southfield, Michigan, and later she would take me to their lake condo, but I wasn’t kicking and screaming. As a matter of fact, I invited Bea to be my guest in 1990 when I received IU-Bloomington’s Distinguished Education Alumnae Award, and she volunteered to drive. Later I asked her if she volunteered to drive all the time because she didn’t want to ride in my little cars. And, she told me it was because she wanted to make sure I was comfortable. This was the Bea I knew: the one who wanted everyone to be comfortable, the one who wanted everyone to serve others, the one who loved her sons so much that if they were writing a high school paper, she call in the middle of the night, and ask: “Madeline, what do you think about this?” And, you know, if I was upset with others, I could often call Bea in the middle of the night, because she always answered, and I would say, “Bea, I’m coming over to talk; do you mind?”

Bea’s response was always, “Sure, Madeline, come right over, my door is open.” Many times Bea would treat me to lunch in the summer at Sycamore Hills, so we could have planning meetings. So later, I treated her to lunch at Catablu on Broadway and Chappell’s.

There’s a debt to Bea that so many owe, and she was a real sister. Sometimes we’d go to movies like “Waiting to Exhale,” and we would room together at conferences and conventions. Bea didn’t look at physical challenges or difference; she focused on the heart.

This year, Dece. 23, 2015, at approximately 10:30 a.m., God sent His angels driving a chariot to take Arbelia L. Epps to her Heavenly home.

A Memorial Service was conducted the women of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority at D.O. McComb & Sons Funeral Home on Maplecrest Road from 4:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Arbelia’s celebration of life was held at Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church on Monday, Dec. 28. The celebration was conducted by Rev. Kenneth Christmon. Scripture readings presented by Rev. Timothy Williams were Psalm 23 and I Thessalonians 4:14-17. Rev. Williams also brought greetings from Good Hope Baptist Church, and reminded those in attendance that Bea has done so much to make this community a better place to live, and she has challenged our hearts and spirits to live a life by her example. That which I found most revealing was shared by Sister Ondina Patterson, the pianist at Turner Chapel A.M.E. who along with Bea, Joanna Patterson, Frank Patterson, Danita Jones, Dan Jones and Lizzie Epps formed the original Chapelaires 48 years ago around Christmas time, and they are still singing at the church today.

Talking to one of Turner Chapel’s current Chapelaire’s, Dietician Chris Moore, I learned that Bea encouraged Chris to participate in the Chapelaires, and she like so many had nothing to say but loving remarks regarding Arbelia. Chris also got to know Bea on the tennis court because she Bea, Gwen Morgan, Dot Towels and Ernestine Stovall had an African American Tennis League that would often have a tournament during the Three Rivers Festival.

As the Rev. Christmon  shared, Arbelia was like minded, doing nothing out of selfish ambition, for she did things in humility. She didn’t get caught up in the circumstances, she just served. Remember, every life falls into tough circumstances, but, if you give, it comes back to you. Yes, Bea gave, and so many things came back to her: she was a Kappa Sweetheart, the recipient of the Delta Florene Williams Award for Service and Fort Wayne’s Woman of the Year; she had a life well-lived. I am sure she’s orchestrating a choir in Heaven now.

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Category: Community, Features, Local, Obituaries, People, Spiritual Matters

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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