In the hour before the start of Wednesday’s funeral for Wanda McBurnett Bateman at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Pine Bluff, a few dozen family and close friends gathered at her home and her bed and breakfast, Margland II.
Bateman, 78, died peacefully last Friday evening from pancreatic cancer at the Jefferson Regional Medical Center.
Bateman’s daughter, Deana Bateman Bailey, and her two grandchildren, Alex Bailey and Drake Bailey were there for the noon committal service, along with her life partner of 40 years Ed Thompson and his children.
Bailey said, “I want to thank everyone for loving her. She was mine and my kids and the world’s.”
As well, close friends, many had traveled from other states and nearby cities, crowded into the dining room that had so often served as a focal point of her annual Christmas parties and Thompson’s birthday parties. This day, it was red with Valentine Day decorations.
Normally, Margland was filled with celebratory visitors, that over the years included dozens of Hollywood actors and actresses and the politically famous, along with her regular guests. Status didn’t matter to Bateman and she once said, “If you’re here, you belong to the family.”
But the room that was so often marked by Bateman’s infectious laugh, was today, awkwardly quiet as Trinity priest Rev. CB Baker described Bateman “as a saint of love. It’s an appropriate time to celebrate her life.”
While the intimate service was underway, already people were gathering at Trinity for the 1 p.m. funeral service. A series of church bells rang in Bateman’s honor and the Trinity Chancel Choir welcomed the funeral-goers Wednesday and by the time the service was underway, the sanctuary was standing room only.
Pine Bluff Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant was there, with approximately 20 of his officers lining Trinity’s entrance hall as family and friends entered the church.
“She was wonderful and a great supporter of the department,” Sergeant said.
Bateman loved Trinity and until overcome by cancer, she rarely missed a service there. She served on the Vestry numerous times as both Senior and Junior Wardens.
Cindy Williams, the parish administrator, said, “Wanda was devoted to the church.”
Carol Davis, former Pine Bluff Commercial journalist and friend, said, “She loved her church and church family…She was a true and loving friend and my husband and I were blessed to be among her friends . She will be missed.”
So much so and so beloved by the church, that few hours before her death, Larry Benfield, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas of Little Rock, rushed to the hospital nearly 50 miles away to give Bateman last rites.
Prior to Baker offering a glimpse into the “good life” Bateman lived, which included incredible memory for others’ birthdays, her hats and more, Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley M. Washington, declared Wednesday as Wanda McBurnett Bateman Day in a proclamation that was unanimously ratified by the City Council.
In the resolution, they cited her contagious smile, hard work, positive attitude, as well as “her ability to accessorize every outfit with a fashionable hat, will be truly missed.”
Washington continued, The City of Pine Bluff extends our deepest sympathies to the family of Bateman, a respected member of this community, and offers this resolution in the highest honor to the memory of one who dedicated her life to the well-being of all citizens.
Carol Davis said, “Wanda Bateman was a beautiful lady with a heart of gold. She never met a stranger and was more than generous with her time and money to those in need and those she cared about.”
Baker also talked about Bateman’s selfless service to the community through her participation and support of organizations including CASA, the American Cancer Society, THV11’s and the Arkansas Foodbank’s Summer Cereal Drive, the Jefferson County Humane Society, Neighbor to Neighbor food pantry and more.
She earned numerous awards for her work but never let that go to her head, and always put the Pine Bluff community and its best interest first, Thompson said.
“Many are deeply saddened by her departure and extend their deepest sympathy to the family,” Baker said.
Betty Brown, Rosie Pettigrew and Sheri Storie, all long time friends who served on the city’s Ads & Promotion Commission with Bateman, who was a commissioner, were there to pay their respect.
“She was an incredible lady who will be greatly missed,” Brown said.
Sammye Owen and Bateman were close friends for years and started Neighbor to Neighbor together. Owen said, “Wanda was the gentlest, kindest, most gracious and generous person I’ve ever known. She fought for what was right and lived life on her own terms. She was feminine but she could be tough. Wanda never backed down.”
Vicky DeWeese. 40-year friend and Humane Society Secretary-Treasurer, said, “In the February 2013 SEA Life addition an article "A Cause For Those With Paws,” Wanda said she “believes if all of Jefferson County's homeless dogs and cats could tell Santa their Christmas wish, ‘It would be for a warm and loving home.’ Through her generosity and support of the Jefferson County Humane Society, many homeless dogs and cats have had their Christmas wish come true.”
Jefferson County Sheriff Lafayette Wood Jr., wrote, “An entire community mourns today, including the men and women of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. We are deeply saddened by the loss…She was a real estate mogul but above all, she was a true humanitarian. She was an extraordinary woman…”
Twenty-year employee and friend Mike Maxie has plenty of fond memories of Bateman.
Once, Maxie said, “We were out checking on some houses, when we were run off the road into the median by a Sanford and Son looking truck. Wanda never lost control of her Cadillac, but before pulling back onto the road, she asked me, ‘Anything coming?’
Maxie finished by adding, “We had to break for lunch.”
Joy Hunthrop, 10-year employee, said, “Wanda was a wonderful person and it was a blessing to call her my friend. She will always have a special place in my heart.”
Thompson said, “Wanda will be sorely missed.”
The Wanda Bateman family thanks Pine Bluff and all her friends who made this such a special day in honor of her. As she would always say, “Love and Blessings to all.”