Little did I know that when I picked up a copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 from the bargain table at the local Borders it would have a personal connection to me: my great aunt, sister to my grandmother, was a delegate from South Dakota to the Democratic Convention that year. I learned of this, sadly, from her obituary. I never heard her speak of it, but would have loved to some sort of record of her experiences during that time.
Azalea, as she was known to me and other family, passed away June 16, 2009. To her friends she went by the name Kay. I tracked down her obituary from the Bay Area newspaper the Contra Costa Times. About a week or so later, her son Paul sent out copies of her memorial service program to all the family.
She was a supporter of George McGovern, then representing South Dakota in the U.S. Senate, and Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. She “volunteered long hours” for both presidential campaigns. McGovern went on to garner the Democratic nomination, but was soundly defeated by Richard Nixon, ushering in his second term as president.
When she arrived at the convention center in Miami Beach to pick up her credentials the official name card read ‘Angela’ Davis, the name of an infamous and controversial radical activist who was often in the news up to that point, rather than Azalea. Whether or not anyone expected the Angela Davis to attend, Azalea was amused and proud to be associated with her.
Azalea attended Grinnell College in Iowa and an art school in Colorado. For a few years she owned and operated a beauty shop in Lake Preston, South Dakota, where the Hay family had lived since moving from the Cedar Rapids area in 1903.
Landing a job with the cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden, she moved to San Francisco and then Honolulu, where she met her husband, Frank, a student at the University of Hawaii who had just been discharged from the U.S. Navy.
Later, Frank taught for many years at Rutgers University and, while living in New Jersey, helped found Enzon Corporation, a pharmaceutical company. Enzon was involved in cutting-edge medical advances, experimenting with ideas such as artificial plasma, which was ultimately unsuccessful.
In 1969, while on a trip to Europe, Frank and Azalea visited the Château-Thierry area with their children Ann and Paul, searching for a relative’s grave. Her uncle, Leslie Darling, had been killed during the First World War.
I asked her about it via email years ago. Azalea recalled the scene with hundreds of white crosses stretching across the landscape.
“We didn’t find a cross with his name. We walked up one of the paths to a small chapel where those soldiers whose bodies could not be found had their names on a wall…. His name was there,” she said.
Although just after his death, Leslie’s grave was well-marked with a large wooden cross, his body was subsequently lost in the confusion of wartime and military bureaucracy. He was then added to the ‘Tablets of the Missing’ at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery. His father, J. H. Darling as he was known, worked for years trying to locate his remains, writing letters to the War Department and possibly others until at least 1931.
Azalea continued to describe her memories to me.
[T]here was no one else there except a man with a wheelbarrow cutting the dead roses off of the hundreds of beautiful bushes…. I…. asked [for] a spray from the ones he was discarding…. I brought [it] back to Mom [Geneva Hay]. She framed it and had it above her kitchen all those years when she lived in town [Lake Preston, South Dakota]. I think I gave it to Marilyn [Geisler] after Mom died.
She also donated to a book project, Michael Hay and His Descendants, compiled by a distant relative. A copy is available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and many were distributed among the older generation of living Hay descendants.
My own recollections of her are limited, because of my age and the fact that we always saw one another at family functions. I do recall something, which has always given me a laugh or smile.
While at a family reunion in Estes Park, Colorado sometime in the 1980s, I remember a scene vividly. I was sitting in the crafts room in one of the buildings at the YMCA of the Rockies, where everyone was congregated. Azalea and my grandmother Marilyn walked in while I was busily designing a t-shirt with some cloth-friendly, relatively durable ‘paint’. Apparently they, or at least she, as in Azalea, hadn’t noticed my presence. She was upset about something and soon had let loose a swear word or two.
Quite funnily, she then realized an impressionable young man about age ten was there. Azalea looked at me, apologized, and may have said something about how neither she nor I should use such language. I had always found her a bit intimidating, but I just looked at her and, nodding slightly, tried to convey that, of course, it wasn’t a big deal. Just as described in the movie classic A Christmas Story, I’d heard that particular word and much worse, straight from the mouth of my own father, and it was often directed at me, very solely and personally.
The important thing to note about Azalea was that she was a unique individual, often times with strong opinions and feelings. But I have a feeling she was so passionate because she cared so much. I guess this is one major characteristic that we have in common. I regret not taking the time to know her better.