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Carol Hensley Singletary: A loss that won't soon be forgotten

Trey Williams • Mar 11, 2013 at 1:36 PM

Carol Hensley Singletary sailed across earth like a warmhearted whirlwind, lifting spirits and flipping frowns before leaving loved ones feeling both upright and upside down.

Her short, happy life sounds like an inspirationally heartbreaking romance movie when relived by friends and family still stunned by her tragic death on Feb. 27. She died when a piece of glass severed her aorta after she fell unconscious and collapsed into a glass showcase in a Gatlinburg mall.

Hensley Singletary had married her high school sweetheart, Cooper, last year and moved to Gatlinburg to start a business with a cell phone accessory store. She passed up a substantial offer from Milligan College to play basketball after winning two state tournament MVPs while leading Tri-Cities Christian to Tennessee Athletic Association of Christian Schools state basketball titles in 2011 and 2012.

Cooper spoke with otherworldly aplomb at Carol’s funeral service Monday, summarizing a strange series of circumstances that convinced him she was destined to die without suffering, perhaps avoiding the agonizing struggle with what he and others suspected might be a brain aneurysm.

“About three weeks ago, crazily and randomly, I asked Carol if she feared death,” Cooper said. “I don’t know why I asked her that, but I did. And she had responded and told me that she was sort of afraid of death, but if she was to die that she would ask God that he would take her very quickly and painlessly.”

She had been complaining of headaches and pain in her neck and upper back for 3-4 days in advance of her death. And Cooper said she had no recollection of a conversation they’d had perhaps 12 hours earlier during that time, too.

A famously sound sleeper, Carol was restless the night before her death. Her husband had never seen such tossing and turning, and consequently insisted that he’d open the store that ill-fated morning. She would’ve previously accepted such an offer eagerly, he said, but for some reason she wouldn’t hear of it that day.

Cooper sought peace through prayer after hearing the shocking news of her death, and within days he believed God had spared her a protracted death with the sudden departure. In hindsight, events convinced him it was her time.

An atypically high number of friends and family had visited them during her last month. And he and Carol had a wonderful day during her last full day of life. Choosing not to work, they took the dog early to get spayed, ate chicken biscuits for breakfast, napped and then played Uno with friends – Carol was delighted to win both games – before capping the night with an unprecedented opportunity to attend Tennessee’s home basketball game against Florida.

Cooper could’ve attended the Missouri game four days later instead. Further fueling feelings of providence, he said, was the fact that the resurgent Volunteers beat Florida, and in even more of an upset, the frugally raised Cooper was an uncharacteristically big spender at the concession stand at halftime.

“I spent, like, $30 for us to get Petro’s and drinks, and I thought that was ridiculous for a halftime snack,” he said at the funeral service. “But I can tell you this: that was the best $30 I ever spent. The game was a very close game, and after the game was over and Tennessee won, she told me that was the best basketball game she had ever seen. And everybody … who knows Carol knows how much she loved basketball, and for her to say that meant something. …

“And she gave me a hug and a kiss and she told me how much she appreciated that I brought her. And that was our last day together.”

Tri-Cities Christian coach Brandon Stamper learned of Carol’s death while the team was traveling to the state tournament in Nashville looking for a three-peat which Carol had helped make possible.

“I still can’t even really describe the feeling,” Stamper said. “I mean, it was just surreal … complete shock.”

Stamper didn’t know what to tell his players, but soon got an assist from Carol’s parents, Judy and Bill. Hours after their daughter’s shocking death they texted and called to inform the team that Carol would want them to play and play with passion.

“I just found it phenomenal that two parents that were going through the grief and experiencing what they were having to deal with,” Stamper said, “both thought it necessary to take the time to call and put that message out there. So that was a very humbling, unbelievable experience for us.”

And inspirational. TCC won three games in three days for a third straight state title.

“Pretty much any moment we were on the floor there was just a lot of tears and memories and things like that going on,” Stamper said. “It was just surreal, like there was no way that it was actually happening.”

Carol’s mother said the family, including Carol, had planned to attend, and Carol’s spirit was certainly filling the No. 22 jersey hanging on the back of a chair at the end of the bench.

“I just wanted them to focus and know they started something and they just needed to finish it strong,” Judy Hensley said. “Carol would’ve wanted them to do that … and I don’t think she would’ve necessarily wanted them to play it for her. She would’ve wanted them to play for themselves, because they put a lot into this year and that’s what you practice for. You play for your team.

“Her spirit was there with them. That was what was cool, you know, from my standpoint.”

Carol was attractive, vivacious and funny. She worried for the welfare of panhandlers and frequently tried to cheer up classmates who didn’t appear to be having a good day.

“She was one of the most beautiful people that I have ever met – inside and out,” Stamper said. “When she walked into a room her smile was just captivating to anyone. Everyone was just drawn to her presence. I mean, I just cannot express what a sweet spirit she had about her. …

“And she had incredible leadership. … Whatever it was, I mean, she hit it with full force, and did it with unbelievable humility. There wasn’t any type of air or haughtiness or anything about her.”

Carol easily could’ve gotten stuck on herself. She met the man of her dreams when she was a freshman and he was a junior. She scored over 1,000 career points and also excelled at volleyball.

“She liked volleyball,” Carol’s mother Judy said, “but I think she just played it because I played it in high school and I loved volleyball. She was always thinking of others.”

Of course, Carol’s competitiveness could eclipse her sunny disposition when she thought teammates weren’t giving their all. Teammate Ashley Hofer was friends with Carol from the time they met in kindergarten.

“We were at regionals and we were playing Cedarview our junior year and we were down like 12 points at halftime,” Hofer said. “And she goes in the locker room before Brandon even got in there and she just starts laying down the law like, ‘This is what we need to do. This is how it’s gonna happen. We are going to win.’ I think it was for the regional championship, and she got us all hyped up.

“And then Brandon came in and we were all, like, real quiet. He could tell we were ready to go and he was like, ‘Do I even need to say anything?’ And one of the girls was like, ‘Nope, Carol took care of that for you.’ And we went out and won that game. She could light a fire if you weren’t playing to win. She didn’t care, she’d tell you if you were not playing your hardest, but she’d do it in a nice way.”

Hofer and Carol’s father remember Carol punching the ball out of the hands of 6-foot-6 Rachel Carter during TCC’s state tournament loss to Franklin Road (Murfreesboro) in 2010. Carol was giving up some nine inches to Carter, and her determination in defeat sent a message that Franklin Road would be seeing the Lady Eagles again. Indeed, Carter was on the teams that lost to the Eagles the subsequent two seasons.

“That girl would catch the ball and hold it way up in the air,” Bill said. “Well, Carol finally had enough of that crap, and she went up to that girl, jumped straight up and took a fist and knocked it out of her hands. We were hootin’ and hollerin’ over that.”

Judy Hensley remembers Carol having a productive game in a victory against Johnson County and Hofer recalls Carol’s stellar performance against Sullivan North, but Stamper said Carol’s final two postseasons were when she painted her masterpieces.

“They were both about six-game stretches there that, I mean, she just absolutely played her heart out, shot the ball incredibly well and acquired two state tournament MVPs out of that,” Stamper said. “She’s had a pivotal role in changing the landscape of the girls’ basketball program at Tri-Cities.”

There were no shortcuts to the success of Carol. Her parents helped instill the value of work. Judy wouldn’t let Carol play basketball until she got a black belt in karate. So Carol began at four years of age, and had her belt in 3-4 years.

“Carol wanted to be the best in everything she did and that was evident whenever she played basketball or volleyball,” teammate Hannah Hayes said via email. “She was always doing more than what was asked and going the extra mile. I remember one time we were really struggling with our free throws as a team, so several of us started going to the gym early in the morning to shoot free throws before school started. Carol was always the first one in the gym and the last one to leave.”

Also a good student, Carol finished third in an accounting competition at a national event. She might be the last one to get a joke, but was the first one to laugh at herself when she did something like launch a half-court airball long before a quarter’s end. Multiple teammates laughed at that memory Friday.

“There was like a minute left in the third quarter and someone in our student section jokingly shouted, ‘three, two, one,’ and Carol was the only one who heard him,” Hayes said. “So she launched the ball up from half-court and completely missed the goal. Everyone was so confused about what had happened and just stared at her like she was crazy, but she just laughed it off and got back on defense.

“During the fifteen years I knew Carol, I never heard anyone say anything negative about her. She had such a good heart and was kind to everyone she met. Her faith in God was visible in everything she did.”

Hofer’s faith has been tested by Carol’s death – irony not lost on Hofer.

“She led me to Christ, actually,” Hofer said. “When Carol and I were young we used to have this group called BFFEIH, and it meant Best Friends Forever Even In Heaven. We were best friends for 14 years. … It was like we just clicked. We started basketball in first grade together. We won two state championships together. …

“I feel like I’m just gonna wake up out of this horrible nightmare, everything’s gonna be okay and this is all a terrible, terrible dream. I’ll still call her just to ask her question, and then I’ll remember when it gets to her voicemail – and I’ll just listen and then call her another 10 times just to hear her voice again.”

Hofer, who said she still can’t eat or sleep enough to mention, was hollow with bitterness after the death, but said she finally found some semblance of peace when Cooper said during the service that he’d essentially heard the voice of God tell him to “let it be” when a Beatles song popped into his mind while he prayed for understanding.

“And I’ve only heard this song once, but it’s like every word flooded into my body,” Cooper said. “But the chorus stood out the most: ‘Let it be, let it be. I’m speaking words of wisdom, let it be.’”

Cooper began to feel peace, and was able to transfer a bit of that tranquility.

“Cooper gave this amazing speech about her and what had happened,” Hofer said. “He said … he kept asking God ‘Why? Why? Why?’ and he was asking ‘Please bring her back’ and he said God told him just to ‘Let it be. Just let it be.’ And that really, really stuck out to me. I’m actually gonna get a tattoo that says ‘Let it be,’ and it’s gonna say, ‘02/27/13’ underneath, because it gave me peace – kind of gave me peace, because I’m still mad and want her back.’”

Hofer laughed through voice-rattling tears while recalling memories such as when she and Carol would race barefoot in bikinis through the snow from Carol’s hot tub to her trampoline. Hofer nudged her once, just because she wanted to win the race for a change, but said it led to Carol falling to the snowy ground in her bathing suit. She said Carol’s legendary low tolerance for discomfort added to the hilarity of the moment.

Hofer was like sisters with Carol and Riley Barker, and they’d planned to have a getaway this spring, what with Hofer getting ready to start school in Texas and Barker beginning school in Knoxville.

“I was like, ‘We need a trip where we can let loose, have fun and just hang out with each other before we part our separate ways,’” Hofer said. “And God had a different plan in parting our separate ways.”

Bill Hensley’s initial plan was for his daughter to attend Milligan College. Passing up a great education was hard to assess as a smart move, and coming to grips with the end of a basketball career was difficult for Bill and Judy. But he said things changed when he saw how happy his only child was with her husband.

“Once they got married she was so, so happy,” Bill said. “And it was the real thing. Everybody that ever saw them talked about how happy they were together and how much they loved each other. … It was a storybook life. It just ended before we wanted it to.”

Maybe Carol sensed she didn’t have time for Milligan. It’s easy, several suggested, to understand why she was eager to vow “’Till death do us part” to Cooper.

“Oh man, he stood up at the funeral and talked about her and their story for about 30 minutes,” Bill said, “and then he played a song that Carol had said was her favorite song that he’d ever written. He didn’t cry, he didn’t choke up. … He’s every bit as special as she was, and they were perfect for each other. Everybody wishes their kids could have that happy of a life, and even though it was a short one, it was a dream life.”

Judy can’t help but feel gratitude in the midst of misery, too. An overwhelming outpouring of emotion has sedated much pain.

“A lot of parents in my position, you know, they might be sitting here saying, ‘What could I have done differently to have kept my kid from overdosing or driving that car drunk and killing somebody,’” she said. “Here I am thinking, ‘What did I do so right to have a daughter who has influenced so many people like this?’ I didn’t do it. We had a lot of help. A lot of people loved on her and I just feel truly blessed.”

Judy credits people like the late Bob Anderson, who coached Carol in seventh and eighth grade and coached Stamper when he played for the varsity boys.

“Bob said, ‘I’ll just tell you up front, your daughter’s not gonna like me at all the first year. But usually they kind of warm up to me,’” Judy said.

They grew fond of one another. In fact, Judy said Anderson was the first she heard predict Carol would be a star for the Lady Eagles.

“He said Carol’s got a lot of potential and she’ll be an exceptional player,” Judy said. “He could see that six or seven years ago.”

Anderson also died in February, three years ahead of Carol and just before her first state tournament appearance. He was 69.

“He passed away right before they were playing the regionals and those girls wanted to win so bad the year he passed away, but it just wasn’t meant to be,” Judy said. “But the next year they won it, and Carol was fortunate to play on two state championship teams. And then they won it this year.”

Judy looked in on Anderson when he was ailing.

“I visited him at nursing home,” Judy said. “He wasn’t really with it. … He said a few words. I just wanted to thank him. He said 'I keep up with Carol. I get my wife to read the sports scores to me.'

“His wife graduated with my parents at Jonesborough. My mom died of colon cancer, which is what killed him. I remember he told me one time, ‘Your mom’s been a real fighter, a real trooper.’ … Coach Anderson left an awesome legacy.”

A considerable part of that legacy is Stamper.

“Brandon Stamper has a special talent, I think, to motivate those girls without, you know, really bearing down on them,” Judy said. “I don’t know how he does it, but he does. He was just a joy to have as a coach.

“Now, he made ‘em walk the line. He worked them hard. His whole family is behind him, and they embrace the whole team as girls that they care about. And you can just see it.”

Another assistant, Jack Blevins, was also credited for his kindness, as was former TCC coach Mike Cash, now at Providence Academy. Certainly, no Tri-Cities girls have been hard up for father figures, not that Carol needed one. Bill surely never felt more like a father than he did after Carol quit basketball and got married.

“I realized basketball was a part of her life, not the passion of her life,” Bill said. “So it was okay. It was something I was gonna miss, but it was gonna be okay because she was my daughter and she was happy.”

Bill knows Carol would want her parents to be happy again, but things obviously won’t ever be the same – not in this world.

“She was the center of my life and when that happened it shook my entire world,” Bill said. “I don’t know how I’m talking about it and not crying.”

Judy cried when she recalled her last conversation with her daughter.

"You think about the last time you talk to them," Judy said. "She called me Tuesday morning and said, ‘Mama, where are you at?’ I said, ‘I’m at home. I’m sitting here talking to a friend.’ And she said, ‘Well, I was calling to check on you, because one of my friends texted me and said there was a wreck out by the airport and somebody got hit.’

"That’s the last time I can remember speaking to her, and it was neat that she was calling to check on me instead of me checking on her."

Judy would like to believe her daughter’s time on earth was predestined to be short and sweet, and that phone call and way the funeral concluded with a video snippet of Carol responding to what she’d learned on a mission trip last year in Georgia helped.

“The pastor said, ‘We had just been at this nursing home and Carol came out the door,’” Judy said, “and they asked her what she’d learned on the mission trip and she said, ‘I’ve learned you’ve got to appreciate each day … because they say life just flies by.’”

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