By Jen Gennaro, Editor
In 2017, former Zachary resident Veronica Waldrop lost her battle with cancer. Veronica was the mother of two beautiful girls, Natalia and Nina, the beloved wife of Will Waldrop, and the precious daughter of John and Olga Sparks. She was a warrior, and a writer. She kept a blog documenting her journey throughout her two-year battle with breast cancer, and the Zachary community as well as readers around the country followed along, celebrating her victories, hoping and praying along with her, and ultimately, mourning her loss on November 4, 2017.
While her blog page is no longer visible, I remember many of her words to her readers. “Go easy on your spouse and kids,” she’d say. “Hug your people.” It became a catchphrase around town, a reminder of what’s truly important in life.
V and I were friends, having met through the CrossFit community. She discovered a lump while breastfeeding her one-month-old baby. During one visit the summer before she died, I sat with her in a room in her home. The girls and Will were having breakfast in the kitchen, their little giggles floating like bubbles through the air, each one breaking my heart more and more. She loved those girls. I don’t remember the exact update or reason for that particular visit, but it wasn’t good. We hugged and cried, and she took my hands and looked at me, eyes filled with tears. “Take care of my people,” she whispered, as though she even had to ask.
Our girls were close, and remain long-distance friends (to everyone’s joy, Will found love again and remarried a couple of years ago, and the family now lives in Mississippi). John and Olga were there in the hospital when our third baby was born in 2019 and have hosted our daughter for countless sleepovers with the girls. John was a guest columnist for a while here at P&P, writing the “Texpat” column in some of our earlier issues. A retired journalism professor, we share a love of texting cringeworthy grammatical errors and ridiculous memes. John and Olga moved back to Texas this past summer, where their son Michael and his family lives.
John and Olga are both native Texans, having moved to Zachary to be closer to Veronica and her family years ago. While John’s parents were both “garden variety honky Texan Americans,” (his words, not mine!), Olga’s were both of Mexican heritage, making Veronica half Mexican. Olga’s mother immigrated to Texas at the age of 9, and the family settled in Lamesa, a town outside San Antonio.
Sadly, it would take an unspeakable series of tragedies over the next few months for Hug Your People to not just become a catchphrase, but a memorial. On January 28, 2018, Darrin Vince, a friend of the Waldrop’s and member of the close-knit CrossFit community, was killed in a boating accident while hunting, along with his sister-in-law Madeline Hemba and her young son Joseph. Vince was an owner of Pat’s Home Center, a well-known and well-loved member of the Zachary community, and loving husband and father. Madeline was also many things to many people: a loving wife, mother to Joseph and her surviving daughter, Rebecca, her sister Tatum’s best friend, and a longtime employee of the City of Zachary, where she was lovingly referred to as “the golden child.”
And then, in March of 2018, Officer Chris Lawton, a reserve police officer, full-time firefighter, and fellow Crossfitter, was killed in the line of duty while trying to make an arrest.
These deaths rocked the town of Zachary, and the grief was quickly channeled into action. Beetle Fisher started the “Hug Your People” Foundation fundraising campaigns with her daughter Christy Anderson, Claire Simmons and Katie Amorello, a lifelong friend of Madeline Hemba. There were ball tournaments and crawfish boils, and plenty of donations. It didn’t take long for the park to come together, transforming an unused parcel in the heart of downtown to the gathering space it is today.
“The playground park equipment and its amenities were purchased through fundraisers and the generous city partnerships of The Zachary Charity League, The Rotary Club of Zachary, The Kiwanis Club of Zachary, Farm Bureau Insurance, Armco Electric and those who participated in the engraved brick campaign,” reads a statement from the City about the park’s dedication.
Tributes to those who lost their lives are all around the park, and the space is constantly being improved upon. Most recently, an ADA compliant, air-conditioned, pigeonniere-style bathroom was constructed. Artificial turf has been installed, so that the city can host Movies in the Park and viewers can sit comfortably. It’s become a gathering place for the community, and the park plays host to the Farmer’s Market every Saturday morning. The ancient oak trees in the park are professionally lit year-round, setting a beautiful scene every night, and serving as a constant reminder that though these five are no longer with us, their light and their legacies shine on.
Veronica passed away of metastatic breast cancer. One of her final posts was on what she called “PinkTober” and breast cancer awareness. Let this be a reminder to get checked! Here’s some info from Lane RMC. For more information on Veronica’s legacy and the poem she wrote for her daughters that was published, click here.