Centreville's Laura Hargis was a real Renaissance woman — she painted, hiked, danced, made jewelry, was active in politics and in her community, reassured heart patients and took good care of her family.
SO IT'S NO wonder that her death, Jan. 7, left such a hole in the lives of those around her. She died at home at age 67, after living more than 50 years with diabetes.
"She squeaked through, so many times," said her daughter Susan "Sudie" Hargis of Juneau, Alaska. "She had tremendous spirit. She was a champion and had a strong will to live."
"We knew it was coming, but it's always a shock when it happens," said her husband Ed. "She had diabetes for 57 years and her kidneys were beginning to shut down."
They were married more than 47 years and lived in Bull Run Estates in a house they designed, built and moved into in 1976. Laura spent her early childhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the couple met at National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. They belonged to its Sunday Evening Club for young adults, and Ed was smitten with Laura's "good looks and talent."
"She was a smart person, and artistic," he said. "She did some beautiful paintings during our marriage — landscapes, flowers and abstracts. And we square danced for years with six or eight groups, as many as five or six times a week, up until a few years ago."
One of those groups was Rawhide 'N Ruffles, and the Hargises danced with them in the first Centreville Day celebration, 14 years ago. "Square dancing was good exercise, and we made a lot of good friends," said Ed. "Laura also worked on the first Centreville Day committee."
"She was a warm, giving, sharing person," said close friend Judy Heisinger, who knew her since 1992. "And she had a nice way of working with people."
Heisinger said Laura sewed the dance outfits she and Ed wore and also made beaded jewelry, painted on cloth and loved gardening. "She knew the names of all the wildflowers and plants around her," said Heisinger. "One spring, she came and told me all the flowers I had in my garden. She was also a birder of some ability and was a member of the Centreville Historic Society."
APPARENTLY, Laura also knew her snakes. One day, she discovered a copperhead in her garage and called the National Zoo. "She wanted to find out if they came in pairs and she should be on the lookout for its mate," explained Heisinger.
But this snake was 4 feet long, and the zoo told her copperheads aren't usually longer than 20-24 inches. "So she put a yardstick next to it, took a photo and sent it to the zoo," said Heisinger. "They called back and said, 'Lady, that's the largest copperhead we've ever seen.'"
Sudie — "In third grade, there were five Susies, so I became Sudie" — said her mom was always "engaged with life." And she recalled the good times she and her sister Lee had with their mother, while growing up.
"She had a VW bug with daisies on it and we drove around singing showtunes," said Sudie. "She had a zest for life; it was lots of fun."
Laura was also a Girl Scout leader who believed in camping once a month. "That led me to have an adventurous spirit," said Sudie. "And both my parents taught me that I could be whatever I wanted to be." The lesson stuck — Sudie later became the first woman to command a Coast Guard cutter in Alaska. She also remembers how her mom fought for her when she wanted to take shop class at Lanier Middle School, but only boys were allowed. But after Laura got involved, the school changed its policy to allow girls in shop, too.
The Hargises also enjoyed hiking and camping as a family. They visited 49 of the 50 states, plus half the provinces in Canada. "In 1994, we spent 30 days tent camping in western Canada and Alaska," said Ed. "After that, we decided to buy a trailer."
Still, Sudie won't ever forget the time she and her mom went camping alone in upstate New York. Things got hairy and "we chased away bears with canoe paddles."
She also has some "pretty fond memories" of talking with her mother about life and philosophy, as well as hopping on a bus when she was 10 to visit Laura at her office in Georgetown when she worked in real estate. Sunday breakfasts were also special.
"Most Sundays, we'd have big waffle breakfasts," said Sudie. "She made gourmet meals and was an excellent cook, but probably her waffles were my favorite thing." Her mom also taught her some important lessons about honesty.
"When I was about 6 and we were walking in a grocery store, I reached in a Brach's caramel bin and stuffed a caramel in my mouth," said Sudie. "When she asked what it was, I said, 'Oh, nothin.' She went into another aisle and I put more caramels into my mouth. Then the store manager asked, 'What's in your mouth?' and told me it was stealing and it would cost a nickel. I burst into tears and had to borrow the money from my mom. Thanks to her, it was a short 'life of crime.'"
LAURA WAS 16 years older than her brother, Bill Pierson of College Park, Md., and was married when he was 5. "So I had a fantastic second family through Laura Jane, Ed and the girls." His big sister was also his confidant and mentor.
"My sister taught me about life and gave me advice about girls and how to behave on dates," he said. "And she was enthusiastic about everything I did. I acted in musical theater, and she sent me a telegram, every opening night, and went to all my shows. Even when I was in the boonies, she'd drive out to where I was and sustain me with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and soup."
Saying she was "always there" for him, Pierson called himself lucky to have had Laura in his life. What's difficult, he said, is "the realization that I'll never see her again. But I'll always remember her the way she was. She's in a better place now; she's in heaven with our mom and dad."
Laura didn't like funerals, nor want one for herself, so her family honored her wish. "But Laura's ashes will go to the Cathedral in the Pines in New Hampshire," said Ed. "It's an outdoor ampitheater in a beautiful, wooded setting. She attended the Joslyn Center's diabetic camp there when she was a teen-ager."
"She got diabetes about a week before her 10th birthday, and that's where she learned to manage [it]," he continued. "She thought it was one of the most peaceful places she ever saw."
About six years ago, the Joslyn Diabetes Center presented a medal to Laura to commemorate her being a diabetic for 50 years. And in lieu of flowers, her family requests that donations be made to: Joslyn Diabetes Center, Development Office, 1 Joslyn Place, Boston, MA 02211.
Because Laura loved Christmas so much, she designed her living room with a cathedral ceiling to accommodate her 16-foot tree with nearly 4,000 ornaments. So her family plans a celebration of her life, next December; they'll decorate the tree and give away ornaments to those attending.
Neighbor Carolyn Glade knew Laura for 30 years and is having a tough time accepting Laura's death: "She was a strong person with a great attitude, and it was encouraging to see how many times she made a comeback and beat the odds."
CALLING HER a "wonderful, good-hearted person," Centreville's Carol Hawn said she "considered Laura a dear friend. I feel terrible that she lost her battle." Added Judy Heisinger: "She fought this all the way. All the neighbors were praying for her. I just can't believe she's gone; it's a real loss for our community."
Besides her husband, brother and daughter Sudie, Laura is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, Lee and Mark Huntzinger of Roswell, N.M., and three grandchildren, Helen, Gray and Sarah.
"When you've been with someone so long, it's hard to let go," said Ed. "But we've had a wonderful life together." Added Sudie: "His love for her shone through every day. She lived a really full life and had such amazing vitality. [But in recent years], her spirit was trapped in a body that no longer served her. So I'm grateful that her spirit is again free."