By Natalie Simms
Rome neighbors Robert Rakestraw and Millie Lockley have found a bright side to the pandemic … a close friendship and neighborly love strengthened through the quarantine and more time at home.
“He and I have truly connected through this,” says Lockley of Rakestraw, who is 97.
“The first few weeks of the quarantine this spring wasn’t too bad…it brought us together. I don’t know what I would do without him. His relatives would like him to go to a nursing home but he wants to stay home. As long as I’m here, I will help him.
“He’s very active and I’m active so we do lots of things together. I learn from him every day.”
One thing Lockley discovered, aside from stories of his military service in World War II, his artistic talent and enjoyment of pipe smoking, was his love of dancing.
Rakestraw met his future wife after he returned to Rome from World War II while working at his uncle’s Third Avenue hotel. Bobbie Roberts had moved to Rome to open a dance studio and stayed at the hotel until her business was up and going. Their relationship blossomed and they married just six months later.
“We ran the Bobbie Roberts School of Dance for about 20 years,” he says. “She was a ballerina but she needed me to help teach ballroom dancing. I had taken ballroom dancing as a teenager at the AVI Club in Shannon. I also learned new stuff with my wife.”
The couple ran the dance studio, located next to the old train depot near the intersection of East Sixth Street and Second Avenue, near where the Rome Tobacco & Liquor store sits today, until retiring in 1966. They continued dancing together in various clubs/teams and also taught dance at the Rome Senior Center until Bobbie died in 1998.
“My honorary granddaughter introduced me to Ms. Louise (Sutton) and she became my new dance partner. She enjoyed square dancing so we did that a lot. We also danced ballroom…everything including the Tango, Rumba and Waltz,” says Rakestraw.
The new pair danced together for years, until Sutton decided to help a friend who had just lost his wife. The friend wasn’t getting out much, so Sutton thought she would take him to a Beginner Square Dance class.
“We went together to the class and I partnered with a lady friend of Louise and she danced with her widowed friend. But after graduating from the class, you were to get our own partner. Louise and I were going to partner back but her friend only wanted to dance with Ms. Louise…so I had to get a new partner,” he says.
Rakestraw moved on to find Ms. Linda Holder, who became his third and final dance partner. They danced together at all the Senior Center dances and classes until she passed away. Meanwhile, he and Ms. Louise lost touch over the last 20 years. Until recently.
“I play Bridge (game) and my Bridge partner’s wife knew Ms. Louise and knew where she was…they had worked together at what’s now Georgia Northwestern Technical College. She told me she was living at Brookdale,” he says.
After learning in August that Sutton, who is nearly 95 years old, was still in Rome, Rakestraw wanted to see his old friend.
Lockley, his neighbor, contacted Brookdale Senior Living Center in Rome to arrange for a visit but because of the pandemic, it would be difficult.
Kay Miles, business director at Brookdale, says they have to set up visits through windows and arranged for Rakestraw and Sutton to see each other in early September.
“She is a very quiet and reclusive lady but when she saw him…it was immediate recognition. They were able to see each other through the window and spoke to each other through the phone,” says Miles. “She was laughing and smiling the whole time. As he was getting ready to leave, he sang her a song and did this little shuffle…she wanted to go out and dance with him, she kept trying to get around me and go out the door.
“It really was an amazing transformation to see the way she remembered him. She loved dancing and I kept telling her that when this terrible virus was over, we would have him over to dance.
“It was a beautiful moment…I was definitely teary-eyed.”
Sutton’s nephew, Jim Jordan, says his aunt loved to dance and especially with Rakestraw.
“It’s always been a desire of hers to dance. As a teenager, she said she wanted to be a dancer but her parents wouldn’t let her,” says Jordan. “But she loved to dance…she danced for several years with Mr. Rakestraw…they were always going somewhere to dance.”
Rakestraw is happy to have reconnected with Ms. Louise. Since that visit in September, he has tried to call her once a day and has plans to visit again soon.
“I drew a picture of her with her dog, Cuddles. She immediately recognized it as her and she recognized my voice. It was so nice to see her…it made me happy to see her again,” he says.