Tragedy struck the Gragg siblings in 2012, but that hasn't stopped them from honoring their parents every step of the way since
The loss of a loved one can be devastating. The loss of two parents at the same time is, for many, unfathomable.
Yet five years ago the unthinkable happened to the children of Butch and Kathryn “Kathy” Gragg. On May 6, 2012, an automobile accident in Texas claimed the lives of their parents, two well-known Swannanoa Valley natives.
Harold, Mavis and Monica dealt with the loss of their parents in their own particular ways. But through the lives of the children, and a collection of family papers now in Chapel Hill, the legacies of the parents live on.
Mavis, the middle child, was a successful corporate attorney in her mid-30s when her parents died, a cataclysmic event that flipped her world upside down, not only because of the loss she suffered but because of the confusion surrounding their parents' deaths. Authorities in Texas told Mavis her mother had been driving the car. But that didn't add up, based on the family's years of traveling together, she said. Her mother was a careful driver, Mavis said.
Also strange was the autopsy report. It that stated that Kathy Gragg was 5-foot-4, but she was actually 5-foot-9. Unable to identify the bodies herself, Mavis asked a college friend to do it. “She said that’s absolutely not your mom,” Mavis said. A subsequent investigation confirmed, by DNA evidence, that the Texas authorities had misidentified their mother as Butch's cousin, who was traveling with the Graggs. That woman was driving the car, it turned out.
Compounding the family’s trauma, their mother was buried in Connecticut, where Butch's cousin lived.
Kathy Gragg was raised just a few miles west of Black Mountain, her husband's hometown, but her home, in Buckeye Cove, seemed a world away, their son Harold said.
“My mother didn’t have a lot of experiences outside of that area,” he said. The oldest of the three children, Harold graduated from Owen High School in 1992 and played football at Wake Forest University and in the National Football League and the now-defunct NFL Europe. His mother wanted “to leave Buckeye Cove and experience the world she had seen on television and read about in books,” he said.
His father Butch simultaneously fought the horrors of the Vietnam War and the scourge of racism before returning to the Valley to start a family. He met Kathy, and the two of them settled down in the place where they grew up.
Exposing their children to the world beyond their hometown was a priority for Butch and Kathy, their children said. Butch’s career as a truck driver allowed him, at times, to take his children on the road during the summer. Those trips into the larger world are almost metaphorical to Harold, considering his parents had only high school degrees until his mother earned her associate's degree.
“They knew that there was something on the other side of the mountain,” Harold said. “They hadn’t been to the mountaintop themselves, but they knew ... there’s something good on the other side.”
Education was the other thing the Graggs emphasized. All three children earned college degrees and went on to have successful careers. "College was never optional for us,” Harold said. “We were going.”
Traveling has helped Mavis cope with the loss of her parents. For Monica, the youngest and most-traveled sibling, the family tragedy had the opposite effect. Living abroad at the time of the accident, she moved back to the States to be closer to Mavis and Harold.
Travel had been such a big part of Monica's life. She had visited nearly 100 countries, worked in seven and was in constant contact with her parents the whole time.
“My traveling was always something that made them proud,” she said. “They really enjoyed being a part of it. Even though I was traveling by myself, I never felt like I was 'by myself' because they were part of it.”
When Monica lived in China her dad called her every other day and talked to her through her two-hour commute. “When I lived in Japan it was when the iPhone came out,” Monica recalled. “I had about a 30-minute commute by bike and would prop my phone up on my little basket on my bicycle and he would ride with me the whole way.”
Five years after the accident, the Gragg children continue to adjust to life without their parents. They do so by honoring their memory in meaningful ways.
The Gragg Family Fund, founded by Mavis and Monica shortly after the accident, serves as a resource for children who hope to travel or study abroad. The fund underwrites a workshop held in Asheville annually that teaches parents how to prepare students for college.
“Our parents were high-school educated, so the fact that they were able to send three kids to college is kind of a miracle,” Monica said.
In recent weeks, the Gragg family archives were accepted into the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Library Special Collections at UNC Chapel Hill. A part of the archives collect papers from African-American families.
The Gragg collection, now preserved for future generations, includes military orders, wedding and death certificates and "essays my father wrote in Vietnam about being a black man in the Marines," Mavis said.
It has "tons and tons of photographs that go all the way back to the early 1900s," she said. "I hope that someone will take interest in them and use them to inform more people that there are black people in the mountains of Western North Carolina.”