The proverbial expression, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade inspires optimism and a positive can-do attitude in the face of difficulty or misfortune. Five alumni share their stories of taking bitter, even devastating, circumstances in their lives and turning them into something positive.
Make Today Your Best Day
When Gary Godfrey ’86 got the devastating news that he had ALS, he made a decision. He was not going to fight it—he was going to live with it.
In April 2018, Gary Godfrey ’86 rode 60 miles in Bo Bikes Bama. Now, just two years later, he has lost the ability to ride a bike. Or even to walk, talk, eat, use his arms or legs or breathe on his own. But one thing Gary Godfrey has not lost is his will to live.
It all started with weakness in his arm while shooting free throws, which Godfrey chalked up to age and being out of shape. When it didn’t get any better, he began a series of doctor visits that ended when Jonathan Glass told Gary he had ALS.
Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a cruel disease with no cure and devasting effects. “Carol and I were prepared for the diagnosis because we had earned medical degrees from the ‘University of Google,’” Gary said. “When it was confirmed, my mind went into problem-solving mode. After all, as an engineer, that is what I did for my clients during my career. Now I was the client and I had a choice; I could spend my energy fighting and battling ALS or I could focus on living with it. I chose the latter. To borrow a famous Michael Jackson quote with one slight alteration, ‘I’m a liver [lover], not a fighter.’”
Gary and his wife Carol ’86, made the decision not to fight ALS, but to live with it. The couple came up with a campaign to live by, “Make today your best day,” and they strive to do that every day.
For this interview, Gary used technology originally invented by Walt Waltoz ’69. In spring 2020, before Gary got his ventilator, stealing his ability to speak, he recorded over 1,600 random phrases. Using only his eyes to type what he wants to say and when he is ready, the computer reads—in Gary’s voice—what he has composed.
“When you are facing a terminal disease, there comes a clarity on how important each day is,” Gary said. “You cannot change yesterday and tomorrow is not guaranteed, so each day is a blessing. I did not understand that when I was caught up in daily activities. I have realized how much joy there is having a positive impact on someone or something each day. Therefore, I try to make each day my best day yet. My best days are when I can make a difference in someone’s life. I know that God has a plan for me. I believe there is a purpose that God wants me to serve. I believe the purpose is to share how important today is and to make a difference in this world we live in.”
Gary was a walk-on basketball player for Auburn during Charles Barkley’s years at Auburn and has received tremendous support from his teammates.
“You may not remember this,” Gary said, “but Charles and I combined for nearly 1,200 points during our careers at Auburn: I had three and Charles had the rest.”
Gary’s eyes lit up and a smile spread across his face. “I had a higher GPA than point total. Seriously, [Coach] Sonny [Smith] should have played me more because we never lost a game I played in.”
His sense of humor is another thing Gary hasn’t lost. He and Carol have been surrounded with an incredible support system that encourages them every day and says in many ways, this diagnosis has been a blessing.
“We have been overwhelmed with the love and support from so many friends and family,” Gary said.
“The Auburn family has really wrapped their arms around us, from day one. From my fraternity brothers, to our engineering friends, to our tailgate team, to the Auburn basketball team, there isn’t a day that goes by that doesn’t include some War Eagle support and love. One of the most special days was to be at the Final Four game in Minneapolis and to see the coaches all wearing ALS pins.”
ALS requires significant care and money to treat. It often falls on the shoulders of family members.
Both Gary and Carol are graduates of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, so their problem-solving skills have helped them navigate the challenges ALS presents.
“The selfless and unconditional love that Carol gives me is truly a gift,” Gary said. “Throughout this journey, she has been my rock! Everything—I mean everything—falls on Carol’s shoulders. She has selflessly given up so much to take care of me. In addition to Carol, there is a village of family, friends, and caretakers that help me each day and for that, I am incredibly grateful!”
On May 31, 2012, SPC. Josh Wetzel ’16, carrying a metal detector, led his troops through a mission to search for land mines in Kandahar, Afghanistan. This was a task Josh had mastered, successfully Finding 30 active IEDs (improvised explosive devices) over the six weeks he had been at the front of the group. Now, as the day was ending, Josh’s platoon was getting ready to move through a field bordered by a mud wall. Josh carefully cleared the area near an opening in the wall, knowing it was a prominent location for IEDs to be buried. With no signal from the detector, Josh stepped over the wall. He would end the mission—and his Army career—at 30-1.
As soon as his foot touched down, a nonmetallic IED blasted Josh six feet in the air, immediately severing both legs. As soon as he hit the ground, he knew his legs were gone.
“I knew I was hurt bad, but at that point, I really wasn’t in pain,” Josh said. “My medic was my best friend. He was a nervous type and I was his first major injury, so I was trying to calm him down and assure him I was going to be okay. I asked him if he saw that sick flip I did–and he laughed.”
Josh was airlifted to a nearby hospital, then own to Germany before arriving at Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington, D.C. five days later. There, Paige, his wife of just 17 months, was waiting for him. In addition to the loss of both legs, the list of injuries she had been given included a broken neck, broken arms and severe brain trauma.
“When I finally got to see Josh and saw things weren’t as bad as I had been told, the loss of legs didn’t seem like such a big deal,” Paige said. “As soon as Josh saw me, he started crying and apologizing. When I asked him what he was apologizing for, he said ‘for losing his legs.’ I told him they weren’t really ‘lost’ because we knew where they were, we just weren’t going back to get them.”
That kind of love and support was what would get the couple through the next two years of recovery and rehab. There were multiple surgeries, excruciatingly painful recoveries and rehab sessions. Josh and Paige’s lives had been drastically changed forever.
“Not only were we dealing with all of Josh’s injuries and recovery, but we were newlyweds
who all of a sudden were faced with so much change and we were literally living in a hospital room 24/7,” Paige said. “All of that took a toll on our marriage. We lost our focus.” Almost 18 months after Josh’s injury, doctors began talking about releasing him from Walter Reed.
Josh was going to be medically discharged from the Army and Paige had given up her job in Washington (where Josh was stationed before being deployed). And, they had a new baby. What was next? Where would they go? What would they do? They were at odds. Did they even want to stay together?
“It was such a difficult time for us in so many ways,” Paige said. “We sought counseling and by the time we were released from Walter Reed, things were better. At least for a while.”
The couple took a leap of faith and moved to Auburn in January 2014. Much of their decision was based on the tremendous support they had received from the Auburn Family following the accident. Auburn fans all over the country had rallied around the young couple.
“I had always been a huge Auburn fan and the support we received from the Auburn Family was really overwhelming,” Josh said. “It absolutely was a deciding factor in wanting to move to Auburn. I also dreamed of getting an Auburn degree, but I had flunked out of two colleges already, so I was sure the chances of even getting admitted to Auburn were slim, much less getting a degree.”
But, through a series of circumstances, Josh was accepted, enrolled in Auburn in fall 2014 and, brain trauma and all, graduated with a marketing degree in May 2016.
Now four years later, Josh and Paige have released a book, “Beautifully Broken,” that tells their story.
Taken from journals they both kept, it tells the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations, the struggles and sacrifices, the joys and victories, and their fight to save their marriage.
Laura McCarty ’10 and her husband, Mark, had no idea anything was wrong with their baby until the moment she was born. As soon as they saw her, they knew something wasn’t right, but they had no idea that in just a few hours, she would be gone.
“We were expecting a perfectly healthy baby,” Laura said. “We could see immediately that her belly was distended and within minutes, the delivery room was crawling with doctors and nurses.”
Sullivan Yates was given two full-body blood transfusions, but her tiny body rejected both. Doctors continued to work on her, but she did not respond to the treatments. It took months of research before the McCartys learned that Sullivan had died of a cancerous tumor. Originally thought to be a rare virus, the cancer diagnosis was the first of its kind researchers in pathology at Washington and Lee University had ever seen.
The grief of losing her first child unexpectedly overwhelmed Laura. She was heartbroken. Confused. Bitter. But she was also grateful. Grateful to have been able to hold Sullivan. To look into her eyes. To hear her cry.
“I had a lot of tough conversations with God. I wanted to know why,” Laura said. “I began to understand and really feel Psalms 34:18: ‘the Lord is close to the brokenhearted.’ He had laid it on my heart to honor her.”
Initially Laura had no idea exactly how she would do that but after doing some research, she decided on a children’s clothing line, even though she had no experience designing children’s clothing, much less manufacturing them.
“For me, something as simple as putting clothes on your child was very significant,” Laura explained.
In March 2018, Laura and Mark’s second daughter, Miller, was born and two months later, Sullivan Yates, a line of playful children’s clothes launched. “After lots of prayer, telephone calls and connections, I found a wonderful seamstress in Tennessee who was committed to creating every order, one piece at a time,” Laura said. With the tagline, “Because your kids should stand out, not blend in,” sales soared and it quickly became apparent that Julie in Tennessee was not going to be able to keep up, so Laura began researching manufacturers to mass produce the designs. She found the perfect company, but when COVID-19 hit overseas, all plans were derailed. The factory was, of all places, in China.
Laura was also pregnant with their third girl (Stockton) and Mark was offered a job opportunity that would necessitate a move from Birmingham, Ala. to Florida.
“As much as I hated to close Sullivan Yates just as it was taking off, with the pandemic, another baby on the way and a move more than four hours away, it just wasn’t the time to continue,” Laura said. So now what?
Laura, who is a graphic design major and an artist, turned to her artistic talents. She found peace
in her studio and enjoyed painting again. Her pieces are primarily done with acrylics, charcoal and oil pastels. She began selling her work online and discovered others appreciated it, too.
“It’s been so good to get back to painting,” she said. “I can work on my own time and it is therapeutic; I’m thankful and have accepted the Lord’s plan is better. He provides the peace I need.
Laura finds blessings in all that she and Mark have endured and says she wouldn’t change anything. “Even though Sullivan only lived a few hours, her life still had a purpose,” Laura said. “I wouldn’t be the mother I am today without her story. Although my life will never be the same, a lot good has come from it, too. My marriage is stronger and Mark and I have our two daughters. We also have more caring hearts and compassion and understanding for others, especially those who have lost a child. Perspective is everything.”
Although Sullivan’s story is a tragic one, Laura says much joy that has come from her life. “When I think about her, I think I’ll always have parts of me that are sad, but more parts of me will be grateful for the little time we did get to have with her. She’s changed us in every way.”
Trash to Treasure
When COVID-19 derailed a job offer on Wall Street, 2020 graduate Walter Hindman created his own career.
Walter Hindman ’20 had his immediate future secured—or so he thought. He had landed a dream job working on Wall Street in New York City as soon as he graduated in May. But, then, COVID-19 changed everything. The job oer was retracted and Hindman had no choice but to return home to Nashville, Tenn. to figure out what to do next. Using his newly earned degree in business administration, he began researching businesses with minimal start-up costs. He got intrigued with junk removal and dug deeper. He called his best friend and Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brother, Colin Shepardson, who had just finished his sophomore year at Auburn and was spending the summer working in Cashiers, N.C. Hindman pitched the idea to Shepardson, who loved it and decided to quit his three jobs in Cashiers, pack up his car and move to Nashville, a city he had never visited.
“Walter called me with the idea of starting a junk removal business and shared how he wanted to see it happen and I thought it had great potential, so I decided to give it a shot,” Shepardson said. By the time Shepardson arrived in Nashville on August 1, 2020, Walter had done a lot of the leg work to get the business off the ground. The website was ready, storage units and trucks had been secured, clients had been booked and “Junk Drop Nash” was ready to roll. Literally.
With just one post on Next Door, an app that brings communities together to, among other things, support local businesses, and several posts on social media, Junk Drop Nash was making stops all over Nashville, offering curbside pickup, garage and full home clean-outs. Local media and word-of mouth propelled the growth of Junk Drop Nash and Hindman and Shephardson added three additional employees in their first four months of operation.
Clients pay Junk Drop Nash to either pick up unwanted items or to come in and clean out storage areas, homes, or garages and haul the “junk” away. But just picking up and discarding other people’s trash wasn’t good enough for this duo. They wanted to do more.
“We have partnered with five local charities to help us find individuals or families who need the items we pick up,” Hindman said. “If we get a refrigerator in good, working condition and somebody needs it, we deliver it to their home and get it hooked up and running. If someone needs a bed, we either pick up a bed or get one from our storage, deliver it and set it up before leaving. If a family needs a whole house full of furniture, we provide everything they need at no charge to the recipient. All that is taken care of by the client.”
When the guys pick up junk at one house and make a “drop” at another, they send photos to the client who donated the goods, letting them know how their items were bringing joy to someone else. “
The reactions on both sides are amazing,” Hindman said. “We pick up things from the well-to-do and deliver and set it up for those who have little or nothing. It’s a blessing to the giver, the receiver and to us. It’s is one of the things that makes us really unique and it’s a win-win for everybody. The family who needs the items is happy and the family who donated their “junk” gets a great feeling knowing they have helped someone in need.”
Turning the Page
Life has never been easy for Leslie Hooton ’80—especially in 2020—but at long last, it’s the aspiring authors turn in the sun.
It was supposed to be Leslie Hooton’s year. After the disintegration of her marriage and the death of her mother, Elizabeth Hooton ’74, the aspiring author finally achieved her lifelong goal of publishing a book. In March 2020, her debut novel “Before Anyone Else” finally hit the shelves.
The story of 30-year-old Bailey Ann Edgeworth, an aspiring restaurant architect (affectionately known by her initials as “Bae” to friends and family), “Before Anyone Else” tracks her trials and travails as she struggles to and a place—and a career—in a world that waits for no one.
The book also mirrors Hooton’s own triumph over adversity, encapsulating her fears and hopes before its publication. At its climactic nale, Edgeworth’s professional success liberates herself—and Hooton—to a bright future teeming with possibilities.
Then tragedy struck again.
“I was so excited that my book was going to be released, and then my brother Robert Hooton ’85 died. I’m like, ‘OK, God. All my family is gone.’ And I have FOMO (fear of missing out), because they’re all up there in Heaven, living on a cloud, having a good time, and you’ve left me down here with this bargain basement body. But I know, you’ve given me my book. OK.”
Hooton’s book tour had huge events planned around the south, wiping out the ensuing publicity. She opened a bottle of champagne at home to celebrate. Alone. “
Somebody said, ‘Well, Leslie, everybody has time to read, this could be a swell time [for you].’ And I’m like, ‘Well, if you’re John Grisham, that’s OK. But, if you’re an unknown writer, it’s not.’ It’s the literary equivalent to, if a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, did it fall? Well, that’s the way I felt the day that my book was released.” Walter Hindman ’20 and Colin Shephardson pick up unwanted items in Nashville and gift them to those who can use them.
But, when the Auburn bookstore hosted an interview with her over Zoom, everything changed. Her college roommates came out to support her, and RBD Library hosted her on a Zoom call that drew hundreds of views. She was invited to speak at book clubs and since has done an abbreviated “virtual” book tour.
Hooton isn’t planning to retire on her laurels, though—she’s working on a sequel to “Before Anyone Else” due out in 2022 and a “southern gothic”-type memoir of her mother. She’s also currently writing a book expected out in September 2021 that draws from her law career and features “friendship, funeral casseroles and lucky dust.”