GRAYSON -- You don't set out with any tradition planning for it to last for 50 years. Or maybe you do. Especially if it's a calling.
That's what you find out when you ask Jean Brownlee if she ever thought she and her husband would still be delivering cakes to the Gwinnett County Correctional Institute for Father's Day after starting in 1963. The longtime Grayson residents reached that milestone this past weekend, helping deliver about 60 cakes that were served during meals Sunday on Father's Day.
Did the Grayson resident think she and husband Buck would still be making the deliveries when she was 87 and he 89?
"Well, I suppose so," she said. "Because God called me back when I was 10 or 12."
The Brownlees are Grayson mainstays. They moved to the city in the 1940s, and Buck served a stint as the town's mayor. Jean does the talking for the couple, known for its public service. She said she's long been drawn to the local prison and the chance to help save the men housed at the minimum security prison located on Hi-Hope Road in Lawrenceville.
For 20 years she and her husband helped in the prison library, reading with and to inmates every Tuesday night. The current library is named in their honor -- along with another couple, Tom and Dessie Malcom, who are deceased. But none of the Brownlees' work at the prison has lasted longer than the annual bringing of cakes for Father's Day.
"The love of God did it," Jean said of the project's longevity. "God loves all people equally, whether you are behind bars or in the President's office."
That first year, the couple brought eight cakes for 142 inmates thanks to the help of their church -- First Baptist of Grayson. One of Jean's earliest interactions with an inmate solidified her belief in the mission.
"We were unloading the cakes and one of the prisoners said, 'I bet you baked one of those cakes, didn't you?'" she recalled. "I said, 'Yes, I baked it just like it was for Jesus.' Then (later) he wrote the church a letter and said: 'It was my first recognition of hope in here.'"
Jean later referred to that reaction as "God's love in a slice of cake." As the prison grew, so did the number of cakes and therefore the number of churches needed to help. This year, Jean, who usually bakes a coconut cake, said Grayson United Methodist Church and Faith Community Church of Grayson helped along with her own church.
Where did the desire to help the jailed come from? Jean looks back to her childhood, on a day still etched in her mind. Her grandmother warned her not to go to the front of the house that day, but the demand just made her curious. So she snuck around the front and laid eyes on a scene that could have been right out of "O Brother Where Art Thou?" Down the hill was a chain gang, clad in their black-and-white striped uniforms.
"They were singing 'Lord Have Mercy On My Soul' and they had picks and axes and balls and chains around their legs," Jean remembers. "Then they were called convicts, not inmates. And they were working on Highway 78, putting in the banks (for it)."
That sight has always stayed with her. "I was on a high bank, and when I saw them it made me feel sorry for them. Everyone makes mistakes."
This year, Jean and Buck helped deliver the cakes with heavy hearts. They lost their daughter Brenda last week, but Jean said she kept a positive attitude thinking of how much her daughter enjoyed helping deliver the cakes. Brenda was one of the biggest advocates of the tradition, which continues to make an impact.
"It uplifts the inmates' spirits," Interim Warden Darrell Johnson said of the Father's Day cakes. "Since I've been around, it's been a good thing for us. The Brownlees have always been the type of volunteers who truly care about the inmates. It's somewhat of a calling."
One 50 years in the making.
Todd Cline can be reached via email at email@example.com. His column appears on Wednesday.