Meet the Catos. I first met them as they stood in front of the ruins of their blackened home. A gas leak had caused an explosion.
E.J. is 94. Flora is 85. Despite having lost everything, the Catos were cheerful and joking around. “We still have each other,” they explained.
That day marked the first time, in my 16 years of reporting, that I left the scene of a disaster feeling uplifted. Sheriff’s deputies and other reporters later described feeling the same way.
In today’s newspaper, there’s a folo on the Catos. I’ve pasted it below. But first, check out this photo of me with the couple. Don’t they look like they should be my grandparents?
Now here’s the story:
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL TREE EVER
Love burns bright despite loss of home
By Cathy Frye
–> LITTLE ROCK — The young farmhand and the younger, winsome farmer’s daughter stood by a lush, gaily decorated tree as the preacher read aloud their wedding vows.
It was 10 p.m. Christmas Eve 1938.
The groom grinned beneath a head of thick, wavy hair The petite bride – a “pretty little thing,” he liked to call her – wore a royal-blue velvet dress.
The couple loved Christmastime. How special, how magical it would be to wed on Christmas Eve, they thought.
So, on the spur of the moment, they’d headed to the preacher’s house, rousing him from his bed to perform the impromptu ceremony. His wife, still wearing her robe,served as the witness.
The groom and his bride positioned themselves by the Christmas tree. Its top brushed the ceiling and its ornaments glittered in the soft light.
They thought it was the most beautiful tree ever.
A NEW HOME
For 70 years, life remained full and joyous for E.J. and Flora Cato. They welcomed a son, grandchildren, great grandchildren and the many great-grandnieces and nephews who scampered in and out of their home.
Two days before Thanksgiving, the couple’s mobile home in south Pulaski County exploded.
They escaped unharmed and stood in a drizzling rain, staring at the ruins.
But they shed no tears.
Yes, nearly all of their belongings had been destroyed.
“But we still have each other,” they told everyone, over and over.
In the aftermath, E.J. – known as Papa – was thrilled to find that his electronic keyboard wasn’t damaged.
“He kept that in his workshop,” Flora said. “Playing on it was one of his pastimes.”
Just hours after the explosion, E.J. sat down at his keyboard and launched into a buoyant rendition of “How Great Thou Art.”
Neither Flora, 85, nor E.J., 94, appeared worried about their situation. God would provide, the couple declared.
E.J.’s niece, Zanette Cato, took in E.J. and Flora and bought them clothes. Meanwhile, dozens of Arkansans who read about the Catos in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sent money and furniture to help them start over.
Within a few weeks, the Catos had moved into and furnished a cottage at a Little Rock housing complex for senior citizens – all thanks to the kindness of those touched by their plight.
“Another lady was supposed to get this cottage, but she told them to give it to us,” Flora said. “I tell you, God has just supplied our every need.”
Last week, E.J. and Flora eagerly welcomed a pair of guests into their new home.
“Before we do anything, I want to show you my place,” a beaming Flora insisted. “We’ve been so blessed to get back what we have.”
Throughout the tour, E.J. frequently interjected his own excited comments.
“I want to show you a picture of my wife when she was 30,” he said when the group entered the bedroom. He held up the photo, grinning proudly.
Flora looked pleased, albeit a little flustered.
“He was so glad it wasn’t ruined,” she explained, blushing.
A second sentimental item, also salvaged from the blackened wreckage, sits on a dresser: the cake topper from the Catos’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
The dresser is part of a bedroom suite and mattress set donated by a local bedding store. The Catos’ grandson, Jarod, works there.
Returning to the living room, Flora pointed at a new flat-screen television.
“Ron Routh – he owns the wrecker service – brought that by. I kept him when he was a little boy. He brought it over here one night and set it up for us.”
Former President Bill Clinton, who befriended the Catos during his years as governor, sent a letter after the explosion. Flora read it aloud:
Dear E.J. and Flo,
I was very sorry to hear about the tragic loss of your home, and I wanted you both to know that you’re in my thoughts and prayers. The optimism, gratitude and love you share for one another is truly heartwarming, and I’m so glad that the two of you are together safe and sound. Hang in there. I’m pulling for you, and I wish you all the best.
“The Clintons and us were friends,” Flora explained. “We lived two blocks from him when he was governor.”
Clinton sometimes sent letters to the Catos, especially on birthdays. After being elected president, he invited them to his inaugural ball. When the couple celebrated their 65th anniversary, he called with congratulations.
Every year, Flora faithfully sends in an anniversary announcement and accompanying photo to the Democrat-Gazette. She’s also a frequent contributor to the newspaper’s letters section of the Voices page.
On the day of the explosion, which authorities later blamed on a gas leak in the couple’s water heater, crowds of friends and family surged onto the couple’s property in rural Pulaski County.
“We went to pieces when we got the call,” Zanette recalled. “We didn’t know what to expect. But they were so strong.”
The couple’s only worry is making sure everyone knows how thankful they are for thehelp they’ve received.
Flora gave a handwritten thank-you letter to a reporter, asking if there were a way it could be made available to newspaper readers.
An excerpt reads:
There is no way we can ever thank people for clothes and gifts to make our cottage a beautiful home. … We received so many offers of help – sweet cards and copies of lost pictures. God has supplied our needs.
A LASTING LOVE
That the couple survived the explosion was deemed a miracle by many.
Both were in the living room at the time. Normally, Flora would have still been asleep in the bedroom. But she awoke early that morning.
“If it had happened 30 minutes earlier, you’d have had a double funeral,” E.J. said.
He and Flora first met in early 1937, when Flora’s father, a Woodruff County farmer, hired E.J. to help with that year’s crops.
For five months, the young man boarded with Flora’s family. E.J. considered Flora a “pretty little girl,” but too young for romance. He was 22. She was 14.
Later, when he realized he had feelings for Flora, he decided to move out for fear of things looking improper.
E.J. briefly worked in Blytheville before heading west, working crops in Arizona and California. In 1938, he returned to Woodruff County and the woman he would marry.
E.J. farmed with Flora’s dad until 1953, when he and Flora moved to Little Rock. E.J. took a job as building engineer for the Winfield United Methodist Church, where he worked for 32 years.
When he retired, the couple bought a half-acre in rural southern Pulaski County. They wanted more room for a garden, flowers and especially a shed for E.J.
“He’d go out there and piddle every day,” Flora said, shooting her husband a fond smile. By “piddling” she means playing his prized electronic keyboard.
These days, E.J.’s keyboard is parked in the cottage’s dining room, which means Flora enjoys a free concert each day.
Well, mostly. Sometimes she’s relieved when he takes a break to watch television.
Ask the Catos how they’ve remained married so long, and you’ll get two answers – one serious, the other joking.
“We’re not just lovers, but best friends,” Flora says.
“Well, she never considered divorce. Maybe murder a few times,” E.J. adds.
“Papa and I have had a really good life, with so many blessings,” Flora continues.
After the explosion, someone asked, “Well, Papa, how does it feel to be homeless?”
E.J. had a ready answer: “I didn’t have anything when I came into the world, and I won’t be taking anything on my way out.”
On Christmas Eve, the Catos will celebrate their 71st anniversary.
Their tree, only a few feet high, isn’t as tall or dazzling as the one they stood beside at their wedding.
But to Flora and E.J., who will spend yet another holiday together, it’s the most beautiful tree ever.