The adage goes it’s not what you gather, but what you scatter, and Rita Slaughter-Davis scattered her time, her resources, her love, her talent and her energy in Madison County for 77 years.
Rita passed away July 18 and was laid to rest July 22.
Her daughter, Sheila Richey, said her mother was an example to everyone — she was known and admired by many.
However, what impressed Rita were the people of Madison County, she said.
“Even though important people across the country knew her, what impressed her was the people,” Richey said. “People always have been drawn to her, even as a child.”
Donna O’Brien, the new owner of Rita’s Day Care, called Rita an amazing woman.
“I knew her growing up, and I remember attending some of the Easter parades, and bringing my children to them,” O’Brien said. “She was bubbly, joyful. She was a fierce champion of Madison County, and always looked out for the underdog. She wanted to help others, and if we are serving Jesus Christ, that’s what we should be doing. The community lost a really great person here.”
Richey said that Rita had to overcome so much to become the woman she was. “When she was very young, she lived in Elwood, the daughter of cotton farmers,” she said. “They had very little; what they wore, what they ate, everything they owned, if it wasn’t something that they made, they didn’t have it.”
After graduating high school and getting married, Rita returned to Madisonville, and made the home while she put her husband, Dr. Jerry Slaughter, through veterinarian’s school.
However, after 18 years of marriage, he left.
“We were living a nice upper-middle class life in Waco, and we went to, ‘Rita, you get nothing,” Richey said. “He wouldn’t give her her clothes, any furniture, any money, nothing. He drove us to Madisonville and dumped us.”
Richey said that only spurred Rita’s determination.
“She didn’t accept food stamps or any assistance from the government; she would go without to feed her four children,” she said. “She ended up finding work as a phlebotomist, making $15 a day at the hospital.”
Even though they were hard, lean years, Rita pulled up her bootstraps and got on with life, and did it without becoming angry, Richey said. After getting a government loan and building a home for her family, and realizing that $15 a day wasn’t going to provide for her family, Rita came up with the idea for a day care at her house.
Thirty years later, Rita took her ingenuity, her love of people, and became successful in the day care business.
“She did that on her own, without help,” Richey said.
Instead of sitting on her fortune, though, Richey said that Rita lived up to her giving spirit.
“Many people would show up at her door, because (they knew) Rita was one who always put others before herself,” Richey said. “If there was a single mother who couldn’t feed her children, if there was an electric bill that needed to be paid, if there was a family who didn’t have a car, my mother always was the one people went to.”
All of her good fortune was given back to the people who needed it, Richey said.
“That money was not what was important to mother,” she said. “It was spreading God’s love, spreading God’s joy, and that’s what was important. That’s who she was. She gave her money to God.”
Richey said that even at a very young age, Rita was influenced by the Scriptures.
“Her father was claimed by the very same brain cancer that she eventually died from,” she said. “He died when she was 13 years old. It was through her father’s brain cancer that she gave her life to God. At the end, the cancer had changed his personality and he became abusive toward Rita; he did terrible things. At his funeral, she was so relieved that he had passed, but also guilty because of that.
When the autopsy came back, its contents were the fulcrum for her passion.
“She was in the kitchen cooking, and saw the doctor’s report, and found the reason for the things she didn’t understand as a child,” Richey said. “She fell to her knees, and for the first time, understood her father’s pain, and understood why he had done what he had done, and at that moment she gave her life to God.
“She felt surrounded by God’s peace and His joy, and for the rest of her life, committed to serving God and living God’s word,” she said. “That’s where all of her joy came from.”
Richey also said that her mother had to deal with dyslexia, but through all of that, she showed the gumption and the desire to meet her full potential, and went after it like a tiger.
“She put her touch on so many people for decades,” Richey said. “She was a woman of the people. She always was drawn to the area — not because it was the most beautiful landscape in the world, but because it was the people, who were the soul of the town, that drew her there.”
In 1990, the Madison County Chamber of Commerce selected Rita as Woman of the Year, and that was because she created all kinds of events for the children of the county.
Sonny Knight, who was named Man of the Year that same year, had known Rita since high school.
“She really was a good person, and as she got older, became even better,” he said.
Some of Rita’s accomplishments in the town showed her passion; Richey said she sponsored a Halloween carnival, continued running an Easter parade each year, did a Christmas pageant, a Fourth of July celebration — every holiday the day care did something. Richey also said Rita was instrumental in creating the annual Mushroom Festival.
In a tribute after Rita’s death, granddaughter and horse show enthusiast Tatum Keys offered her thoughts on what made her grandmother special:
“You see, my Grandma didn't grow up a horse person. No one in my family was. My dad was an world renowned songwriter and musician, my mom a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader and television producer. My Grandma a DayCare provider, community leader, the ‘Mother Theresa’ of Madisonville. My Grandpa Billy rode a little as a child, but his focus was the Army. Horses are my passion, my identity and my love!! They've allowed me to pursue this big dream and each played a big part in me getting to this place. That's been a gift!
“My Grandma grew into it big-time over the past 7 years and she loved her role as the ultimate "horse show Grandma". She became obsessed with horse showing. She loved supporting and watching me. And as important as horses are and this great horse show life has been, it all pales in comparison to this real life tragedy — saying goodbye to my Grandmother — facing this side of life without her!
“Cancer has snuffed away my best friend, the one I turn to in all things. Now, I find my heart conflicted. In one way the World Show lights seem so dim now that Grandma was taken from me and in another they shine brighter as I am more determined than ever — just for her!
“This is a super blow, but God still is in control. She is not, and was not a victim in life though. She was and will always remain a warrior! She was a blessed American Christian woman who stood up to adversity with courage and faith. And I will follow her lead.
“My Grandma Rita Slaughter-Davis told me that I don't have to take home the trophy to WIN the World. She said you be the best in YOUR World, that's where the prize truly is.”