LIFE WITHOUT someone who’s always been there is not just hard. “It’s just weird. That’s the only word I can say when people ask me about it. It’s just the strangest thing,” said Mary Pitner. This ‘thing’ is her world without her husband, Allen Pitner, a presence in her life since second grade.
They went to elementary, junior high, and high school together. They attended Sunday school together and were both at the University of Tennessee. However, Mary transferred back to Middle Tennessee State University.
“We’ve always been friends. We’d never dated, but we were always friends,” she said. Mary’s decision to accept a position as a nanny to the children of then-Senator Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, prompted a move to Washington, D.C., and suddenly Allen was considering life without someone who’d always been there.
Allen contacted me and said it was almost like I’d always been there, but then I wasn’t going to be there. So we got together before I left and spent some time together, then went out to dinner and just talked,” Mary said. “He proposed to me in Washington one week, and we got married the next November. We’ve been together since then until he went for a walk last Aug. 1.”
Mary glimpsed the passing flare of orange from the UT shirt he always wore on their walks, signaling his return, but decided to finish a TV show on their back porch. When she went inside, she found him looking as he had countless times, asleep with his arm on the back of the couch. But unlike those countless times, he didn’t stir when she tried to wake him. And just like that, the one who’d always been there was gone.
Mary said, “Every single day, he did something nice for me. I knew he did those things for me, but until he was not here anymore, I truly did not realize everything he did for me. And I hope he knows how grateful I am for that. I think he does.”
First her friend, then her partner — they were the Pitners. They added their children, Mike and Martha, and the Pitners grew to four.
“It was always, ‘Let’s go to the Pitners,’ or ‘The Pitners are coming.’ If we had friends over, it was for Pitner parties. People would congregate with us. I miss that. I’ve not just lost my partner, but my friend,” she said.
It’s a loss felt by Allen’s family, friends, and the community he served all his life. From his first job in civil engineering in Nashville to returning home to help in the family business, Economy Pen & Pencil Company, to his careers in community service as the chief executive officer of the Shelbyville-Bedford County Chamber of Commerce and membership director for the South Central Tennessee Tourism Association, Allen put others ahead of himself in all he did.
“I never saw him do anything self-serving, ever. He wanted to do all he could to make his community better. That’s just what he did and what we did as a couple, and that’s how we raised our children. Your skin color, religion, ethnicity — none of that mattered to Allen, and it didn’t matter to me. Both of our parents brought us up that way. If I die right now, I will be the most proud [of successfully teaching] our children they need to give back, help others, and be accepting of everyone.”
The Pitners will forever cherish Big Al’s memory, carrying him along on family vacations, through their holidays, celebrations, and Pitner parties. They will honor him by continuing to care for others in their communities, making the most of opportunities to give back on his birthday and holidays.
And of all things, Mary does not want to miss the good God brings into her life as she grieves.
“I’m slowly learning that grief changes you, and I want to be sure it changes me in a positive way. You always hear it’s different for everybody, and oh my goodness, it is different for everybody because everybody’s lost a different person in a different kind of relationship. However you grieve is right for you. Grief is such a big thing that we don’t like to talk about because it’s not pleasant,” she said.
“But for me, Allen’s death, although it’s an awful, terrible thing, and he’s going to be missed, makes my family realize and appreciate him for everything he did for us. It makes my friends realize and appreciate everything that he did. And I hope our community will look back and see how he made Shelbyville a better place.”
Count your blessings as you recognize that life is not weird today because the person who’s always been there is still here. Make life better for another person. Tell them you’re with the Pitners. GN