ANDERSON, S.C. — Jimmie Sue Evans Swilling got a Valentine's Day card Tuesday from her husband, the last gift from a man who had sparked a nationwide search to find his bride a kidney.
Swilling, 80, died in hospice Wednesday as the result of complications related to Parkinson's disease, her family said.
The kidney and her husband's love were both going strong until the end.
William Larry Swilling Sr. became known throughout the nation when, around Labor Day in 2012, he walked down Main Street in Anderson with a sign: "Need kidney 4 wife" with his phone number at the bottom.
“We were close,” Swilling Sr. said, “you get to be one after 60 years.”
When his wife’s kidney began to fail, Swilling said, he struggled to figure out what to do.
“I said, ‘Mama, I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I ain’t going to be just sitting here.’”
Later that night he had the idea for the sign, a bit of divine inspiration, Swilling Sr. said.
At the sign shop, one of the employees wanted to change his wording.
“I said I want it like that,” Swilling Sr. said. “Need kidney 4 wife.”
It was 94 degrees that first day he walked, and he quickly drew attention.
His son, William Larry Swilling Jr., said by the time the family knew what was going on, the sign had taken on a life of its own.
Swilling Sr. walked miles up and down Main Street.
Swilling Jr. said his mom wasn't surprised.
"She knew he was that crazy. Crazy in love," Swilling Jr. said.
Swilling Sr.'s story was picked up by the Independent Mail and then newspapers and TV stations around the nation.
It was such a simple way to help, just walking with a sign, Swilling Jr. said.
Within days, people were calling from around the country and around the world. Jamaica. Germany. Switzerland.
“I appreciated those. I answered as many as I could,” Swilling Sr. said.
Many of them were willing donors.
But the match was complicated. No members of the Swilling family were a match, and hundreds of others didn't match either.
A kidney that had been damaged decades ago as a complication of childbirth had steadily gotten worse; Jimmie Sue Swiling was facing dialysis and an uncertain future.
She would have died long before she did if not for the donation, Swilling Jr. said.
The kidney donor, Navy veteran Kelly Patrick (who had the last name of Weaverling at the time) was living in Virginia Beach, Va., when she saw a Yahoo! News version of the story.
"I like to say that it wasn't my choice, it was meant to be. God intervened," Patrick said Wednesday. "When I finished reading the story, I knew I was going to be a match. I predicted it."
After two days at the Medical University of South Carolina, she was told she was a match. The only one.
"It saddens me that Jimmie Sue died, but I'm happy she was able to enjoy a few more years," Patrick said. "I have no regrets, I never will."
Patrick didn't know the Swilling family before she donated her kidney, but after the Sept. 11, 2013, operation they started identifying coincidences. Swilling Sr. had visited property owned by Patrick's uncle years ago. Patrick just recently moved back home to Athens, Ga., and her church in Hartwell, Ga., Cokesbury United Methodist, is on property that was donated by Swilling ancestors more than 100 years ago.
At the Swilling house, a home that Swilling Sr. and his wife helped build on a vacant lot on Lake Hartwell, three small black dogs danced Wednesday around ankles of family members.
Two of the dogs, both miniature poodles, were gifts from Swilling Sr. to his wife right around the time of the kidney transplant.
He had bought one of the dogs, named Jake, and took it home and told his wife about the other one, Lizzy.
"She told him to go back and get the other one, she felt sorry for her," Swilling Jr. said. "And he did, too."
His parents were normal folks, Swilling Jr. said. His father worked at a car dealership and several other jobs. They struggled and survived and loved each other, up to the end.
Jimmie Sue Swilling, he said, smiled Tuesday when she got that Valentine's Day card and some candy.
She never let her husband forget about his crazy idea to get her a kidney, Swilling Jr. said.
"I never put it past him to do that," he said. "And she loved him for it."
Follow Mike Ellis on Twitter: @MikeEllis_AIM