Lula McKinney graduated from Vina High School on May 1, 1953. Three weeks later she packed her suitcase and moved to Nashville, Tennessee to seek employment. “At that time there were no job opportunities for young people in our area,” she recalls. “I had an aunt who lived in Nashville and that is why I chose to go there.”
The week after she arrived in Nashville she found employment with First American National Bank. That job proved to be a “good fit.” From the day she began work there until she retired, banking was her career. “Of course I wasn’t at the same bank all of that time, but it all began at First American National in Nashville,” Lula said.
Born and reared in the close-knit community of Vina, Lula graduated from high school knowing, not only all the faculty and all the members of her class, but every student who attended Vina School. “We had a bond that lasts even until today,” Lula said. “That is one of the blessings of going to a smaller school. Everyone knows everyone else and there is a closeness that is not a part of large schools.”
Although city life was a big change for the young lady who grew up knowing everyone in her community, she adapted to her new lifestyle. She found a church that not only fed her spiritually, but it put her in touch with a large group of young people in the church with whom she enjoyed a well-rounded social life. “That group of Christian friends brought such joy to my life,” Lula remembers. “We kept plans made for social events and every week-end we planned picnics or some other outing.”
Little did she know when she became a member of that church and that group of friends that in June of 1954 she would be introduced to the man who would become her husband. And she would never have believed that he would one day become as much a part of life in Vina as she had ever been. His name was James Abston, a college student who had been in North Carolina attending Mars Hill College when Lula arrived in Nashville.
“Jimmy (James) was from Nashville. His family lived there and he came back to finish his last year in college at Belmont College. The church Lula attended was his home church and soon he was taking part in all the social events that Lula and the others in the group did.
“There was one week-end when everyone else in our group had something planned except Jimmy and I,” Lula said. “We decided to go out. From that day until his death on June 2, 2013, we were never apart.” In June of 1956 they married in that church that was so dear to their hearts. A group of family and friends from Vina traveled to Nashville for the wedding.
The year before their wedding, Lula brought James to Vina to introduce him to her family and friends. One of Lula’s uncle’s, Amos Powers, had a prediction that would ultimately come true. He told James he would one day come back to Vina to live. Amos Powers put it this way, “You’ve got Vina dust on your shoes now, and once you get it on there, you can never quite shake it off. You’ll be back!”
During the years that followed their wedding Lula continued working and James finished college and Baptist Seminary. He pastored churches and worked for the Sunday School Board in Nashville. They became parents to three children and life was busy and happy. In 1971 there was a cutback at the Sunday School Board and because he was the last one hired, James was laid off. Remembering what Lula’s Uncle Amos had said about one day they would return to Vina, the Abston family came to Vina for James to apply for a teaching position. He went to Vina High School to apply and was hired on the spot.
“I traveled back to Nashville, worked out a two week notice at the bank, returned to Vina and we began building our house,” Lula said. She got a job at what was then First National Bank in Red Bay (the bank later became Colonial Bank and is now Bank Independent). A new phase of their life had begun. The Abstons were back where Lula started. The family became entrenched in community life.
James not only taught at Vina School, he covered events in Vina, including school sports, for The Red Bay News. The Abston children were involved in school and church activities and Lula found life busier than ever. As busy as she was, she still devoted herself to being helpmate to her husband as he served churches in the area, first Belgreen Baptist Church and later Spruce Pine Baptist Church. James would say that the congregations he served might vote to get rid of him, but they’d keep Lula! They were a partnership in all things: community work, church work, and in raising their family. Lula was known in her community as one who not only found joy working in the church, she found great joy in serving her fellow man in every area of her life.
She became known as an outstanding cook. Today she is Vina’s answer to Paula Deen when it comes to cooking. Having learned the fine points of cooking from her grandmother, Lula has always enjoyed cooking and sharing what she cooks with family and friends. Her fruit cakes are masterpieces, her candy devine (especially the “cathedral windows” candy she makes each Christmas), but it is her “stick-to-your-ribs” food she cooks that is most enjoyed. Her children are partial to her pot roast, served with rolls and a tossed salad. “That was always our Sunday dinner,” Lula said.
Each holiday was welcomed at the Abston home by Lula preparing special foods that each family member liked best. Although she was a good cook when she married, after she and James married Lula says she enjoyed learning more about cooking from his mother. “She was a wonderful cook,” Lula said.
All holidays have always been celebrated at the Abston home. “It is a great joy to have our family gather together,” she said. “Jimmy loved having the family come anytime, but especially on holidays and birthdays.” Even though James is present only in their hearts now, the holiday traditions are still carried on. “Oh, I just love it!” Lula said. “Jimmy would be so disappointed in us if we did not carry on just like we did when he was here.”
Since his passing, Lula says each day is a new experience in the “new normal.” She truly believes the best way we can help ourselves when we feel sad is to help someone else. Her life is different without her husband to whom she was so close, but she fills each day with activity. She is an active member of Vina First Baptist Church. She is active in the W.M.U. and up until this year, she has taught a Sunday School Class. “We are very active at our church,” Lula said. “When there is sickness or death in our community we prepare food and take it, and at Christmas we make and deliver fruit baskets,” she said.
Lula is also an active member of the Vina Civitan Club, where she served as treasurer for nine years. Now she helps in all the activities the club is involved with, and they are a very active club. She is serving her third term on the Vina Town Council. Now that summer is here and fresh vegetables are ready in the garden, she prepared them for freezing and canning. “There is always something to do. A full life is a happy life,” she said.
The Abston family has grown. In the beginning there were three children. Now the family circle also includes eight grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, with two more great-grands on the way. “That is a lot of love!” Lula said. “My family adds great joy to my life.”
And there is no one who will dispute that Lula McKinney Abston adds great joy to the lives of all who know her. “I love Vina, and Jimmy loved Vina just as much as I do,” she said, smiling. “I suppose it is true that we never did shake the Vina dust off our shoes.”