The May 25, 1944 edition of the Liberty Vindicator publishes a list of local residents — 28 in all — who were released from nearby Mercy Hospital that week, as it does every week.
In a time before HIPAA, in Liberty, Texas — a town along the muddy banks of the Trinity River, 43 miles northeast of Houston, where the return of Arabella, the mystic white heron, warrants front-page coverage — such news is fodder for local chatter and fills column inches. Plus, it’s good to know that Mrs. Suther brought home a baby girl or that old man LaFour’s gout is improving. Folks who didn’t make it out of the hospital alive are listed in a different, even more popular section of the paper.
Nineteen-year-old Nadine Woods, the fifth of six children born to William and Gertrude of the prominent local family, leaves the hospital not with a new baby or a fresh arm cast and instructions to take it easy. She leaves Mercy with one answer and a thousand questions. She and her twenty-three-year-old sister Sallie had been feeling more off-balance and clumsy of late. So Nadine, not one to shy away from a challenge, went looking for answers.
Progressive Muscular Dystrophy. MD. That’s her answer. That’s her diagnosis. That’s her sentence. A rare, incurable disease that starts by destroying the leg muscles and ends by destroying the heart muscles. MD strikes young boys most often and most severely. People with the disease rarely outlive their twenties.
Worse yet for Nadine, the hereditary disease is also likely the cause of Sallie’s maladies. The more she thinks about their older sister Thelma, the more she wonders if she too might share her diagnosis. Nadine’s worst fear is confirmed. She and her two sisters have MD. At 31, Thelma’s already bested the average life span.
The Woods take little time to lick their wounds. They have the means to access good medical care and the motivation to do something bigger. In a time when mental and physical disabilities are often kept out of sight and out of mind like a secret family shame, Nadine and Sallie Woods become the talk of the town, taking every opportunity to educate their community about Muscular Dystrophy and advocate for research funding.
On March 20, 1950, the Liberty sisters start the National Muscular Dystrophy Research Foundation (NMDRF), billed as the first of its kind in the nation. They also launch the first national register of people with the disease. The organization claims Mamie Eisenhower as its inaugural president. The future First Lady understands the stigma stemming from the sisters’ symptoms; she lives with Ménière’s disease, an inner ear condition that causes poor balance and spawns rumors of her alcoholism.
While their disease limits the sisters’ mobility and soon confines them to wheelchairs, it does not slow them down. Flanked by Mrs. Ada Eldred, their office assistant and constant companion, Nadine and Sallie embark on an aggressive schedule of public appearances and fundraising efforts.
In 1960, cognizant of the publicity potential of their town’s name, the enterprising sisters of Liberty decide to commission a replica of Philadelphia’s famed Liberty Bell to promote their ongoing campaign. Bill Wagner, a broadcaster on KTRK TV in Houston, convinces the station to put out a call to help pay for the commission. Eight area citizens*, including Ada Eldred and her husband, pay the $2,500 toll.
Forty-eight hundred miles across the Atlantic, the biggest, boldest symbol of the burgeoning fight to end Muscular Dystrophy is in the works. It will be heralded as the only authentic and perfect replica of the original Liberty Bell. It’s unlikely the sisters thought they were casting the first-ever Liberty Bell replica. Rather, they saw theirs as more perfect.
A decade ago, just three months after NMDRF’s inception, the US Treasury Savings Bond drive rolled into Liberty with the shiny new Texas Liberty Bell replica as part of its 5,000-mile, 120-city tour. The town’s fire siren blasted three times as children lined up to ring the replica.
It would be difficult for every one on Liberty’s 4,161 residents to not hear, or at least hear about, the visiting bell.
While the folks at Whitechapel seemed to agree they were making a first of its kind, the idea of Liberty Bell replicas wasn’t new to them either. The 400-year-old London foundry that cast the original Liberty Bell had an opportunity to throw its hat in the ring to produce 50+ replicas for the US Treasury in 1950. They declined, presumably unable to meet the tight deadline. Instead, the French foundry Paccard won the job.
Cast in the same mold pit and using the same stickle (a device used to smooth the bell’s inner and outer surface) that produced the original Liberty Bell, the Liberty from Dystrophy Bell, as it would come to be known, weighs in at 2,016 pounds (Paccard chose to match the 2,080-pound weight of the heavier, recast Liberty Bell).
More notably, Whitechapel couldn’t bring themselves to carve the names Pass and Stow into their mold. The Keystone coppers who credited themselves on the recast Liberty Bell (after the Whitechapel original cracked) are perhaps the most famous and definitely the least competent bell makers in history.
Instead, the British bell founders cast credit where they felt it was long overdue, inscribing their predecessor’s name. Where the famous Liberty Bell reads: Pass and Stow Philada, this new replica reads: Thos. Lester Of London.
“It’s a lovely bell, but this modern duplicate doesn’t have a crack in it. It has the most pleasing tone — about ‘E’ in the musical scale,” A. A. Hughes Sr., of Whitechapel, proudly claims. “It goes to Texas complete with yoke and wheel, supporting straps and clapper. For nuts and bolts, we used the old English wide threads, just as Lester did.”
On Saturday, August 20, 1960, Nadine and Sallie Woods sit anxiously on the Manchester Terminal Dock at the Port of Houston, waiting for their one-ton bronze baby to arrive. They’re joined by several hundred others, including a half-dozen children and adults living with MD, their wheelchairs piloted by young policemen in pressed white shirts, thin blue ties and crisp service caps. The morning’s thunderstorms give way to blue skies as the steamship Letitia Lykes sails into view. Boats in the harbor play their hoses, shooting festive arks of water hundreds of feet in the air.
Liberty mayor Dempsie Henley is on hand to promote his town’s upcoming welcoming ceremony. A special van will be built to transport the bell. There might be an important speaker. And there definitely will be barbecue. Anxious to prove his country can make bells that don’t crack, the honorable Allen Price, consul general of Great Britain, gives a brief history of the original Liberty Bell.
The Liberty Liberty Bell waits draped beneath a red, white and blue drop cloth while the Woods sisters sit smiling beside it. Officers uncover the replica while one gently lifts Nadine’s hand to touch the prize. A brass plaque affixed to the yoke reads: Dedicated to Nadine and Sallie Woods. Thelma, who died three years earlier, is there in spirit, if not in bronze.
Twenty-four days later, the Liberty Liberty Bell is formally introduced to its namesake town. As the mayor promised, it’s a big deal. Important people make stirring speeches. Adorable little girls dressed as the Statue of Liberty stand with torches held high. Tasty Texas barbecue is ready to be served. And the brand new bell is upstaged (no easy feat) by the ceremony’s special guest: the world’s biggest movie star, John Wayne.
The attendees’ stern, solemn expressions melt away, replaced by ear-to-ear grins as The Duke takes the rope in hand and tolls the Liberty Bell replica 16 times. By the Woods sisters’ declaration, it is not to ring again until the day science announces a cure for MD.
Hit the road
Nadine, Sallie and the Liberty from Dystrophy bell hit the road aboard a refurbished US Air Force shipping truck dubbed the Liberty Liner, visiting much of the country and traveling as far as New York.
As with the Justice Bell, when it toured from 1915 to 1920 in the cause of women’s suffrage, the public’s desire to toll the bell goes unsatisfied. The Justice Bell remained silent until its cause was won with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
In San Antonio, NMDRF national sponsors Roy Rogers and Dale Evans pay a visit to the Liberty sisters and their bell. Throughout the 1960s, the foundation raises more than a quarter million dollars, donating most of it to the Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
The 1970s find Nadine and Sallie retired from touring and their bell collecting dust in a Houston warehouse. Efforts to relocate it to San Antonio and the San Jacinto Battleground fall short.
The Liberty Liberty Bell has only one rightful home. Liberty. In 1974 it returns.
The Liberty sisters donate the bell to their hometown with several stipulations. Temporarily housed in the foyer of Humphreys Cultural Center, the bell will need to move to a yet-to-be-built belltower by the opening of the US Bicentennial celebration on April 21, 1976. Otherwise, the sisters get their bell back to do with as they please.
The town prioritizes the bell tower’s construction and encourages citizens to pay for it. Anyone donating more than $25 will receive a handsome set of Liberty Bell wind chimes.
The sisters also specify the new tower must protect the bell from weather, fire and vandalism and allow it to be seen at close range by any and all. In addition, an adjacent display area must exhibit related documents, slides, films and tapes.
They ease up slightly on the bell’s sentence of silence, allowing it to toll on each New Year’s Day and Independence Day (at 2 PM Philadelphia time), the opening of the US Bicentennial celebration, and, of course, the announcement of a cure.
A legacy of liberty
Knowing their bell will long outlive them, the Woods sisters leave their city an enduring gift and significant responsibility, stipulating, “It is further provided that those persons governing the use of this bell will, through printed material for public distribution, never allow the citizens of Liberty or elsewhere to forget that this bell does not merely represent freedom from political tyranny but freedom from all afflictions, including Muscular Dystrophy, which besets the mind, the body, and the spirit of man and that man, through supplication to the Lord Almighty can somehow break every barrier to his freedom of mind, body, or spirit.”
The people of Liberty raise the money. They built the tower on the grounds of the cultural center. And the bell sings again to kick off the town’s Bicentennial celebration, earning certiﬁcation as a National and State Bicentennial City. Reportedly, a time capsule is placed beneath the tower.
In 1979, Nadine Woods dies at 54 of respiratory arrest, from bronchial pneumonia, due to Muscular Dystrophy. Her headstone reads, “I Died Fighting the Big Ones.” Sister Sallie passes in 1984 at age 63.
A new hope
In 2001, the long-dormant National Muscular Dystrophy Research Foundation is officially dissolved. On September 11, trustees donate its remaining $229,700 to support the work of Dr. Ellen Gottlieb, a molecular biologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Her team recently uncovered the molecular mechanism underlying Myotonic Muscular Dystrophy, one of the nine types of the disease, and likely what the Woods sisters shared. Such a discovery could lead to novel gene therapies for treating adult-onset MD.
In 2008, Liberty’s bell tower takes everything Hurricane Ike can throw at it. It does not fall but sustains significant enough damage to be deemed unsafe. The town deconstructs the tower and returns the bell to storage.
In celebration of its 2013 bicentennial, First Liberty Bank displays the bell in their lobby. The following year, Liberty hatches a plan to build a new bell tower, again completely funded by private donations. The 52-foot-high hurricane-permeable tower will be made of bronzed steel and is designed to pay homage to Liberty’s ties to the oil and steel industries. Stairs and a viewing platform are included so visitors can see it close up.
In 2018, the Liberty Rotary Club sells concrete Liberty Bells for $300 (delivery included) with half the proceeds funding the new tower. Presumably, fundraising efforts were interrupted in 2020 when everything was interrupted, and the bell remains in the bank lobby.
In the town of Liberty, in the state of Texas — home to more Liberty Bells than any other — the first authentic and perfect replica of the OG Liberty Bell sits as a silent sentinel while the good people of Liberty make their deposits and withdrawals, and kids with their fresh lollipops and sticky hands paw at its cold bronze skin.
If you’re touring Liberty and you’re lucky, you might catch local history buffs performing historical reenactments in the town’s cemetery. Jackie Hartel plays Nadine Woods, dressed to the nines. “Those were the days of hats, gloves, high heels and dresses,” she tells tourists, in character. “Despite the fact that we were in wheelchairs, we always insisted on looking our best.”
Ghosts and all, life in Liberty is as it always was. The Trinity is muddy. The booms will come. The busts will come. The hurricanes will come. The people will rebuild. Arabella, the white heron watches over the workers in the oilfields and ranches and railways. And once again — hopefully soon — the sisters of Liberty’s bell will rise above for any and all to appreciate.
*Funding the bell’s casting: Earl Downey, RO Beach, Roy Cullen, Ada & Benny Eldred, Wright Morrow, WJ Goldston and Claud B Hamill.
Liberty ceremony photos by Moon Young.