Family and friends gathered at the Mack Gaston Community Center on Sept. 1 for the fourth annual Wes and Lula Austin Labor Day Weekend Family Barbecue. Friends and relatives traveled from Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas to participate in the celebration. First-time attendee Melvin Pender, a family member and Olympic gold medalist track star from Marietta, was delighted to be back in his hometown of Dalton for the celebration.

Grandchildren Dalpha Austin Pender with her brother Steve Austin of Dalton, and their first cousin Gary Austin of Louisville, Kentucky, planned the event with a twofold purpose: 1. To honor the loving memory of their grandparents and 2. To educate and inform the younger generation of Austins about the strong legacy of their grandparents and great-grandparents in the Dalton community.

"Big Mama" and "Big Daddy," as they were affectionately called by their grandchildren, lived in south Dalton on Brook Street before moving to Croy Drive, where they lived and raised their seven children. Wes and Lula were married for more than six decades -- 63 years. Wes Austin was a highly respected member of the community. He served as a deacon and finance officer at Hopewell Baptist Church and the Grand Master of Mason's Lodge No. 238. He was recognized for 52 years of service in May 1990. Most notable of all awards and recognitions was his service in the United States Army in World War I. Wes Austin was honored by the citizens of Dalton and recognized as the oldest surviving World War I veteran with a plaque for his service to his country. Their five sons -- Wes Jr., James H., Henry, William L. and Larry -- all followed in their father's footsteps by serving in the military. Their two youngest sons, William L. and Larry, are Vietnam veterans.

During the family barbecue, family and friends reflected on great memories as they listened to Betty Akins share her memories of the couple, from a neighbor's perspective. Akins shared that she was the Austin's neighbor for more than half a century. Sharing details, Akins recalled how she and the oldest son and daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Austin, Wes Jr. and Betty Louise, walked to school to Emery Street together when they were growing up.

Steve Austin, the oldest grandson, shared precious memories of his grandparents from a grandchild's perspective. He warmly remembered the fried chicken Big Mama and Big Daddy prepared for breakfast every Sunday morning. They were both excellent cooks, so one of them would fry delicious, golden brown chicken every Sunday. The meal was complete when they added white rice with brown gravy and fluffy golden biscuits made from scratch.

Steve Austin drove the church van for Mountain Ridge Baptist Church and vividly shared how he was tempted to stop and get a piece of fried chicken from the kitchen of Big Mama and Big Daddy while picking up passengers one Sunday morning. Steve Austin couldn't resist the temptation, so he stopped the van in front of his grandparents' house and quickly ran inside and grabbed a piece of chicken while the church members waited on the van. The only comment the passengers made when he returned to the van was, "Lula and Wes always did take care of that boy!" Steve Austin continued driving the van with chicken grease flying everywhere.

The event provided family members an opportunity to fellowship with one another, share stories and of course enjoy the delicious spread of food prepared by Wes and Lula's great-grandsons, Tremayne Pender and Eric Curtis of Folks BBQ. There were plenty of awesome door prizes and $50 cash drawings every hour. The last cash drawing for the night was for $100. Ashton Pender, one of the great-great-granddaughters, was the lucky winner.

Everyone enjoyed the Kids Dance for Dollars contest by the children. The great-great-great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews entertained the crowd with their latest dance moves. Everyone was a winner and received dollars for participating and joining in the fun.

If Wes and Lula Austin were alive today, he would be 121 and she would be 108. They left a strong and rich legacy for the future generations of 14 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren, 16 great-great-grandchildren and five great-great-great-grandchildren to keep alive in the Dalton community.

Sponsors of the event, grandchildren Steve Austin and Dalpha Austin Pender, reside in Dalton and their first cousin, Gary Austin, lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Plans are already being made for a bigger and better recognition and celebration next year for the fifth annual Wes and Lula Austin Family Barbecue on Sept. 6, 2020. They would like to expand the family barbecue to include participation from the community. The three hosts wore T-shirts to the barbecue with a beautiful picture of their grandparents and words that express their sentiments perfectly, "Forever in our Hearts, Big Mama and Big Daddy."

The Austin family reunion will be in Chattanooga in July 2020. For more information about The Austin Biennial Family Reunion visit www.theaustinfamilyreun ion.com.

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