BURNET — The toughest thing about talking about Nancy Collins is stopping.
“When I start talking about her and thinking about everything she did for me and for so many other people, I just could keep going,” said Barry Drake, her longtime friend. “She meant so much to so many people. Her life was a ministry of itself.”
Collins, 75, passed away Sept. 17 after a battle with pancreatitis. She left behind a hole that likely will go unfilled.
For years, Collins was the first voice people heard when they called the Burnet County Courthouse in downtown Burnet.
“Burnet Courthouse,” she answered. From there, Collins sent them to the person for whom they were looking. Or, if the caller wasn’t sure who he or she needed to talk to, Collins helped narrow it down to the right office or person. Sometimes, the caller sought a person or office that wasn’t in the courthouse or maybe wasn’t even related to county business.
A simple way of handling a call such as that would be saying, “Sorry, but I don’t know,” and letting the caller try to sort it out on his or her own. Collins, however, wouldn’t hang up the phone without trying her hardest to help. Often, this meant pulling out her address book. She had long ago filled up the lines with numbers, names, addresses and other information. As she acquired new information and numbers, Collins scribbled it in along the sides or she stuffed pieces of paper in the book with contacts.
The chances were, if somebody needed to find somebody, Collins could, and would, help.
“She did so much more than just answer the phones,” Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger said. “Anytime somebody needed help, Nancy was there. And it wasn’t just helping people who called or came by the courthouse. Nancy was so much more.”
If somebody took ill or suffered a loss, Collins soon was at his or her door with some home-cooked food and a hug. It didn’t matter how small the problem or how large, Collins wanted to help. Even if all she could do was offer a hug.
“Oh, those hugs,” Klaeger said with a laugh. “She gave big, strong bear hugs. Nancy hugged like a man. When she hugged you, she held on. You knew she cared.”
Hugs weren’t the only thing Collins offered. And she wasn’t one to offer a little help. She went all out.
When the 40th anniversary of Drake and his wife, Angie, approached, Collins and another woman decided to throw them a party.
“Yeah, it was just a small party,” Drake said with a bit of laughter. “Seven hundred people showed up. That’s Nancy.”
But it wasn’t just an anniversary celebration. Drake suffers from post-polio syndrome after contracting the disease as a youth. The disease weakened his muscles to the point he relies on a wheelchair. During the course of the anniversary party, Collins helped raise $16,000 so Drake could purchase a specially fitted van to travel around better.
“That was Nancy,” he said.
In 2009, Drake’s wife passed away after battling cancer off and on for four years. And while many people shared their condolences and then moved on with their own lives, Collins made it one of her personal ministries to see him through the loss. Every Tuesday, the local Sonic sold two-for-one hamburgers. And every Tuesday, Collins and a few other women stopped at the Sonic, picked up a few burgers and headed to Drake’s house.
“They would come by, and we’d talk, fellowship and just be together,” Drake said. “I don’t think I would have made it through that year had it not been for Nancy.”
And after Drake remarried, his wife, Marie, faced some physical problems because of a low iron level.
“So one day, Nancy shows up at our house with a dinner of liver and onions,” Drake said. “She said, ‘I don’t know this will help, but I thought it might.’ She was just that type of person. She didn’t love you a little, she loved you full on.”
People came to know Collins’ cooking as well. Whether it was a plateful of brownies she made for a friend who stopped by the courthouse or her cinnamon rolls she baked for a co-worker’s birthday, Collins was ready to feed folks.
It was one of her ways of demonstrating her love for others. And Collins always thought of others. She pushed her own problems and struggles aside to help friends, and even strangers, with their lives.
“It was always about everybody else to Nancy,” Klaeger said. “It didn’t matter what was going on in her life, Nancy was always about helping you.”
Even as she lay in her hospital bed, pain ravaging her body, Collins’ thoughts focused on somebody else.
As Drake sat by her hospital bed, Collins struggled through the pain trying to tell him something.
“She said, ‘I made you some trail mix, but I wasn’t able to get it to you,'” Drake said, his voice cracking a bit. “Even in her own pain, she was thinking of me.”
While Collins might not have cured any diseases, traveled the globe or started a multimillion-dollar business, she showed people how just acting out of love could make life better, could make a difference.
“Nobody can ever replace Nancy,” Klaeger said. “The courthouse will never be the same. But we’re all better for Nancy having been a part of our lives.”
It’s been said that when a person dies, the headstone gives his or her date of birth and death, but between the two lies a dash. It’s what a person does during that dash that matters and defines him or her.