Woman receives letter jacket ... 38 years later

JASPER, Ga. -- In the part of north Georgia where men are called roosters, and meat-and-threes are the restaurants of choice, a lifelong resident received a high school gift, nearly four decades graduating.

"Just to know what I've been through, and that I'm sitting here talking to you today, is enough to make you emotional," said Pickens County resident Fredia Watkins.

She was born in Pickens County with congenital heart disease; she had a hole in her heart and malfunctioning valves. By the time Watkins reached Pickens High School, she had already survived major open-heart surgery. She was barely allowed to run, but Watkins wanted to do more than run.

She wanted to play tennis -- and she did.

"I finally got to do something that I always wanted to do -- be like other kids and play sports," she said. "Nobody could have wanted it more than I did."

Her dream was fulfilled, except for one thing.

"Because tennis was a spring sport," says her then-principal, Lawton Baggs, "she finished near the time of graduation, so she did not have time to get and wear her letterman's jacket."

Through her adult life, Fredia never thought much about the jacket … until three years ago. That's when Watkins' heart problems returned, more fearsome than ever.

"I wasn't even able to walk and was put on hospice, without any hope of living," Watkins said. "The doctors told me, 'You'll probably only have a few weeks …' And then a few days later, they said, 'You probably will only have a few days to live.'"

To this day, Watkins cannot say how she survived. But when she did, she decided she had no time for unfinished dreams.

At a nearby restaurant, Watkins bumped into her old principal, Lawton Baggs, and asked if she could have a jacket.

"I said, 'Why in the world would you want a letterman's jacket 38 years after the fact?'" Baggs recalled.

But he pursued it. He approached the school, which found a company to make a custom jacket.

This past Thursday, Watkins received her long-awaited jacket.

"You have no idea what this means to me," she said, "that the Lord let me live this long."


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