Eunice Terry, a woman of deep faith and wide friendship in this community and many other others, died Sunday at her home in central Billings. She was 87.
Her nephew, Jeffery Booth, described her as a “God-given woman who touched a lot of minds and hearts.”
Longtime friend Christine Pierce said Terry was “like a cross between Rocky and Mother Teresa.”
Another old friend, Ron Walker, said Terry was a “kind and generous soul” who was one of the “spiritual strengths” of Billings.
Twelve years ago, Miss Terry, as most people knew her, founded the All Nations Christian Fellowship Church, where her son, the Rev. Melvin Terry, is still the pastor. As she said in an interview not long ago, “I’m not lookin’ for no big crowd. I’m lookin’ to save souls.”
Terry was one of 19 children, born on Oct. 3, 1926, in Wilcox County, Ala., to Elijah and Fanny Kimbro. In two interviews conducted in 2012 for MasterLube’s “Master Your Smile” series of video profiles, Terry told of going to work at 5 years old, working in the house and fields for her family, which had little money but always enough to eat.
Her father was a minister and her mother a missionary, described by Pierce as “extremely well-thought-of, powerful people.” In her MasterLube interview, Terry said her father talked so often of sin — and even drinking Coke was a sin — that she once said to her brother, “I sure be glad when we get old enough where we can go and see what this sin is all about.”
She got her chance in 1945, when she and a brother and cousin all caught a bus for Chicago. There, and in Billings after she moved here with her husband, William, in about 1950, she said, she was under the sway of the devil.
“Whatever he told me to do, I did go do it,” she said. She used to drink and curse and carried an ice pick, a switchblade and a .32 pistol. Then, one night in the Maple Leaf Bar in downtown Billings, she was saved; she crossed over to what she called “the hallelujah side.”
For the rest of her life she was a woman of God who used her friendship, her cooking, her kindness and her powerful voice to bring others into the fold. Her husband died early in their marriage and she never remarried.
Pierce had known Terry most of her life. She was 3 when Terry began housekeeping twice a week for her mother, Tillie Pierce, and Tillie and Eunice became lifelong friends. Ron Walker, who met Terry when he began managing a Pierce Automotive store on Broadwater Avenue decades ago, said Tillie would take the morning off to tidy up the house before Terry came to clean it, then would go home at noon to make her lunch.
Two years ago, Christine Pierce had the pleasure of driving Terry and her sister, a niece and grand-niece all over Alabama and Mississippi to visit Terry’s relatives. Pierce said she has a hundred pages of notes full of Terry’s stories.
Terry told of feeding sugar cane into a grinding mill, chopping cotton, working bean fields, helping her father butcher hogs, putting up crates of sauerkraut for the winter, milking cows and working with Old Sam, the family’s ox. In Wilcox County, a couple of hours “upcountry” from Mobile, Ala., Pierce said, she met relatives of Terry who had never been outside the county.
Christine’s brother Jim has known Terry all his life. His mother was sick the day he was brought home from the hospital, he said, so his father handed him to Terry and she placed him in his crib for the first time. Jim Pierce, now 58, said “she’s been a blessing ever since.”
When she used to come to clean their house, he said, she’d come in singing.
“I can remember being in bed, awake, but lying there waiting for Miss Terry to come in singing.”
Much later in life, when Jim moved to Great Falls to take over one of the family stores there, Terry would drive up once a year, every spring, and feed everyone in the store — all 35 employees and any customers lucky enough to be on hand. Pierce said she would start preparing food two weeks in advance and would show up with fried green tomatoes, collard greens, peach cobbler, at least 10 salads, cornbread, ribs and “the best macaroni and cheese you’ll ever have.”
Eight years ago, Jim moved to Polson to run another store and she started making the same trip there every year. Her last one was in 2013.
Booth, her nephew, said Terry had relatives in California, New York, Texas, Alabama, Illinois, Mississippi and Tennessee, among other places. “She touched folks from Day One” and stayed in touch the rest of their lives, he said.
Michael Yakawich, a Billings City Council member and longtime friend of Terry’s, remembers her always sitting in the front row of the All Nations Church, “smiling, supporting her son the pastor and all the church.”
When she sang, Yakawich said, “she would ignite and fill the room with the Holy Spirit.”
She was active in Church Women United and in countless community events, gatherings and rallies.
Terry was hospitalized in mid-February with kidney failure and returned home a bit less than two months ago, cared for by family and friends. Christine Pierce estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 people stopped by to pay their respects during those final months.
Booth said that although her health declined after her hospitalization, “she remembered whoever walked in that door.”
Her faith was strong to the end.
“A lot of people have religion,” Jim Pierce said, “but Miss Terry, she had the whole picture.”
Not long ago, Pierce said, she told him, three times, “Don’t you shed a tear for me. You rejoice. … It’s hard not to shed a tear, but that’s what she said.”
She is survived by her children, Melvin, Mary and Lashelle. Services are pending.