When the county called, Nathan and Viola Marshall just couldn't seem to say no. If their home had been big enough, they probably would have taken in every orphan in Guilford County.
As it was, they raised 64 foster children in their three-bedroom house in Summerfield.The numbers would have been larger, but the Marshalls got a late start. After all, they had to raise six children of their own first.
Nathan Marshall - a retired laborer at Cone Mills - died at age 81 in a nursing home last week, leaving behind a long list of survivors. Viola Marshall died four years ago at 78. She was caring for foster children almost to the end.
John E. Page, a foster home supervisor for the Guilford County Department of Social Services, says he never kept track of just how many children the Marshalls raised, but he accepts the family's count of 64.
He knows it was a lot.
``I don't remember her ever turning a child down,' Page says of Viola.
He doubts if the Marshalls will ever be topped. Most foster parents today don't have the time or space to care for more than two children. Yet the Marshalls once took in six homeless brothers and sisters and raised them until they were grown.
``They were just wonderful, just super. The took us all at a very difficult time in our lives,' says Elaine Summers Morehead, one of those six siblings. She's now a field executive with the Girl Scouts in Greensboro.
The Marshalls accepted infants to teenagers into their house on N.C. 150. Once, a teenage foster child got pregnant by a boyfriend. Usually in those situations, Social Services would move the mother and baby, worried that motherly roles might become confused in the foster home.
But the baby and mother remained.
``Mrs. Marshall could handle things like that,' Page says.
A devotion to children runs deep in the Marshall clan. Viola Marshall's sister, Iula Troxler, who lives in northern Greensboro, raised many foster children herself.
``If I was able, I would have some here in the house right now, but I'm 83 years old,' Troxler says.
Viola and Nathan Marshall were not only loving of others, but of each other.
On their 50th anniversary about 10 years ago, they went to St. Thomas Chapel in Summerfield and repeated the same marriage ceremony of a half century before, while their natural and foster children watched.
It was at that ceremony that the family decided to take inventory of just how many foster children had passed through the homeplace.
Until his retirement, Nathan worked a full day at the mill, leaving most of the foster care to Viola. She was the county's equivalent to the old lady who lived in shoe, although Viola was never at a loss about what to do with all those children.
A God-fearing women and a leader in St. Thomas Chapel, she laid down strict rules. The children had to go to church. They had chores. Some balked at such regimentation and life in the country at first. One or two ran away - but they returned when they got hungry.
The county paid the Marshalls a stipend for each child, but it didn't cover the actual cost of raising the child. Viola went to the Salvation Army and other charitable organizations to help clothe the kids. She also dipped into her own money to buy items for the children.
``She would just make a way,' says John ``Lucky' Marshall, a 38-year-old truck driver who is the youngest of Viola's and Nathan's natural children. ``She didn't mind sharing her life with others.'
As a result of Viola's persistence, her foster children didn't dress or look like orphans when they went to school or church.
``We would say, 'Mother, you treat them better than you did us,' ' says a chuckling Cordia Marshall Harrison, a daughter. ``There might have been a little jealousy on our part. Maybe she didn't treat them better, we just thought so sometimes.'
Harrison, who owns an alterations shop in Greensboro, feels especially close to one of the former foster children, Geraldine Summers. Summers married Harrison's son, Donald.
No one in the Marshall family boasts that all the foster children turned out to be angels, but most seem to be doing well.
There is no doubt in the Marshall family's mind who the real angels are. Nathan was buried Tuesday beside his wife in St. Thomas Chapel cemetery.