This week Donald Braswell II's oldest Fan Club member, Ronolda Neilson, was laid to rest at 98 years old. She was one of the founding members who joined the year The Club was formed in 2008, when she was 92. It has been a tough year for Braswellians because another dear founding member, Harriett Hurt also passed last fall. Then Bill Antrobus, a beloved Braswellian Knight, also passed on suddenly earlier this year.
Bill, Harriett and Ronolda wore their yellow roses (the Braswellian symbol) proudly at Braswell's concerts and attended the Club's annual celebrations. The passing of active members is especially difficult. Bill was honored at last year's annual event for always cheerily squiring the many women in the club to and from the events. Besides his wonderful wife and family, his loss broke everyone's heart in the club. Bill and Betty were steadfast guests at concerts and events, driving from Oklahoma. Bill's fabulous photos fill the club albums.
In 2008 Donald Braswell relaunched his singing career on America's Got Talent, 13 years after the accident in Wales that took his speaking and singing voice. He was predicted to never sing again and possibly to never speak normally again.
Many viewers of the show were drawn to Braswell and his story, particularly because they had also been through or were going through their own adversity. Supporting him during the show, these fans bonded with each other. Not wanting to lose touch after the show, they founded the Donald Braswell Fan Club and branded themselves Braswellians.
Gradually they shared their touching stories and The Club grew over the last six years into a few thousand. Harriett had lost her son, her only child, a bystander killed in a senseless robbery. Her first concert was the Ashville NC concert and then she made most of the anniversary weekends, flying there from South Carolina. Her laugh was so infectious. Her easy-going nature was a joy to be around.
Many other members had lost or were estranged from loved ones or faced serious health challenges. In Donald they found inspiration and he was inspired by them. They voted Braswell's version of “Impossible Dream” as their club song. It was Harriett's son's high school class song, so it meant a lot to her.
This week Braswell's songs were played before and after the Ronolda's service. She loved his music and flew from Greeley Colorado to his club's first and second anniversary events. He sent a number of recordings to be used for the Celebration of Life for her. They began the service playing Donald's version of Nessun Dorma, her favorite.
Her son Chet then talked about the bond she had with Donald and the hope they both modeled to the world. He told Donald's story and of his mother's tragedies and how they both never lost the hope and bright expectations they held for the future. Ronolda had lost three husbands, two children and three grandchildren. She was a role model for everyone, always cheerful and fun loving.
She was born in 1916 in a one-room house with no running water or electricity and saw the world through many advancements. She rode to school on horseback, to church by buggy, and to town by wagon. Her baby sister was carried to burial in a model-A hearse. She traveled to Colorado by train where they were taking her after she contracted rheumatic fever at 12. She wasn't expected to live. Then she nearly died in a sandstorm during the dust bowl. She saw the invention of the auto, telephone, airplane, rocket and the moon landing.
Throughout all her tragedies she never gave up hope and continued to hold the family together. At the end of his talk, Chet, read the note Donald had sent to Ronald's family:
“In the time I came to know this angel I realized that anyone who was able to know her in her life was truly blessed by her grace, her intelligence , her soul. For my personal beliefs I know she is taking that great walk among the children of Heaven. Love you All. I love you Ronolda, Donald.”
Each of his Braswellians is special to him. He calls them family. They all cherish the times they have together. Last year, when Harriett's health was failing and she couldn't attend the annual event, she was able to listen through a phone set up next to him while he performed. As this year's event approaches, these three Yellow Roses and others who have passed will be greatly missed, but we know they will be there in spirit.