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HER SUNDAY BEST\ DESPITE OBSTACLES THE STREAK GOES ON

HER SUNDAY BEST\ DESPITE OBSTACLES THE STREAK GOES ON

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In 1988, Emma Hackney's streak appeared doomed. On a Monday, she entered the hospital to have her gall bladder removed. There was no way she could count on being in Sunday school at Greensboro's First Presbyterian Church six days later.

She made it.Neither rain, nor snow, nor hurt can keep Hackney from her weekly appointment with the Forum Class at First Presbyterian.

First as a Baptist and now as a Presbyterian, Hackney hasn't missed a Sunday school session since 1942.

How else can it be said except that she's very religious about being there.

The nearly half-century perfect attendance record is even more impressive considering The 67-year-old Hackney has had plenty of excuses to stay home many Sundays. Major physical problems have hampered her since childhood. And transportation has never been easy. She didn't have a driver's license until she was 58 years old.

Her Sunday streak would be even longer, but she got a late start as a Christian. Her parents weren't churchgoers, and home life was not happy for young Emma, one of eight children.

When she was three, her father accidentally ran over her with a car. She was in a coma for 72 hours. Her spine and her vocal chords suffered permanent damage.

She was unable to enter the first grade until she was 12 years old. A severe speech impediment caused by the accident made classroom activities difficult, but she stuck with school. She graduated from high school when she was 24.

``I got perfect attendance in high school,' she says, smiling.

She discovered Sunday school when a high school teacher encouraged her to attend the Baptist church in Southern Pines, where she grew up.

In 1947, friends urged her to leave Southern Pines so should get get away from alcoholic parents.

She came to Greensboro and worked in a hosiery factory. She took a 10-month speech course at what is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It improved her ability to talk and helped her self-confidence, though she still has difficulty with certain words and sounds.

She attended Baptist churches in Greensboro until 1955 when she decided to switch to First Presbyterian.

``I'd heard so much about Dr. Redhead,' she says, referring to the church's now retired pastor, John Redhead, ``and the church was on the bus line.'

She has remained in the same Sunday school class: the Forum Class. She has held various Sunday school offices and never misses a meeting of Circle No. 8. During the week, she sometimes visits church shut-ins.

The 67-year-old Hackney, who lives in southwest Greensboro on a street behind Smith High School, retired three years ago from Aratex, a uniform supply company where she worked in the shipping department for 30 years.

On the side, she earned extra money doing elaborate needlepoint embroidery. She has donated four needlepoint tablecloths to First Presbyterian.

She now holds a post-retirement job as lobby hostess at the Hampton Inn on Interstate 40, while continuing her needlepoint and church work.

``She is very energetic, dedicated, totally altruistic in the best sense,' says Clyde Cook, First Presbyterian's minister of education.

One of the highlights of Hackney's life was getting her driver's license the day before her 58th birthday. She had always wanted to drive, but the childhood accident left her with a fear of cars. She was determined to overcome it.

``I'm one of those kind of people who don't give up,' she says.

As a youngster, doctors used to tell her she wouldn't be able to do this or that ever again, but she always managed to fool them.

``She has an amazing stamina and tenacity to keep on moving forward when everyone else might be laying low,' Cook says. ``She is a survivor. But she's more than just that: She just has such a wonderful capacity to overcome and reach out and be concerned about others.'

Until she learned to drive, she depended on church members to take her to church, and she's grateful.

``If it wasn't for all those nice people I wouldn't have this perfect Sunday school attendance,' she says.

But she always maintained back-up plans in case getting to First Presbyterian was impossible. When she lived in the Glenwood neighborhood, snowy Sundays found her walking to a nearby Methodist church for Sunday school.

When she takes a rare vacation, she always finds a church, even in New York City. In 1947, she was hospitalized for 10 days. Fortunately, the hospital had a church with a Sunday school class.

With its cathedral-like sanctuary in Fisher Park, First Presbyterian has a reputation for being the worshiping place for the city's wealthy, but Hackney, hardly rich in a money sense, says the big church has a big heart and welcomes all types.

``They make you feel like you are family,' she says.

In 1983, the church presented her a plaque recognizing her Sunday school attendance.

She has joked for years that the only thing that could keep away from Sunday school at First Presbyterian would be a husband. Hackney says if she ever married she would feel bound to attend her mate's church.

But there's no man in her life at the moment. So for the next few Sundays or more watch for her, same time and place: Forum Class, First Presbyterian.

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