Gaynelle Spencer Tillett was an Ocracoke brand.
That brand was her famous fig cake, which was sold in the Ocracoke Seafood Company up until a few days after she died April 13 at home at the age of 81.
The following are edited excerpts from the eulogy given by Ruth Toth during Tillett’s funeral April 17 in the Ocracoke Assembly of God Church of which Tillett was a member. Toth, who as a newcomer to the island was mentored by Tillett while both worked at the erstwhile Island Inn restaurant, was a lifelong friend:
Born on May 18, 1936, to the late Herman B. and Flora Burrus Spencer in Miss Erma’s house across from Albert Styron’s store, Gaynelle lived her entire life on Ocracoke. She has one sister, Louelle Spencer Midgett, and she and Louelle were very close and loved each other dearly.
Gaynelle’s greatest joy was her son Ricky. The first thought that enters your mind is how close and sweet their relationship was and will always be. For every step of Ricky’s life, Gaynelle was in front of him, encouraging him, providing for him and teaching him.
Ricky saw how devoted Gaynelle was to both of her parents and how one should care for your parents. Likewise, Ricky provided care for Gaynelle during her illnesses.
I think the happiest day of Gaynelle’s life was the day that Ricky and Cindy (Gregory) got married in March.
Gaynelle prayed that someone special would come into Ricky’s life. She said her prayers were answered in spades. Not only did she get a beautiful and kind daughter-in-law, but she also got eight grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. Nothing brought her more comfort than to know that Ricky had so much love in his life.
Gaynelle was not only a very special person in our community, she was also a “brand.”
She would put up, on average, 50 cases of fig preserves every summer to sell in the local gift shops, and she started selling fig cakes in 2007.
In any newspaper or magazine article about Ocracoke figs, Gaynelle would be featured. When the Raleigh News & Observer published an article listing the top 100 foods in North Carolina, Gaynelle’s fig cake made the list, but not just fig cake. It was “Gaynelle’s fig cake.”
She appeared on television in 2014 on WUNC “N.C. Now” in an interview with Bob Garner, the WUNC food correspondent and a fig cake fan. In the interview, Garner asked if he could come to her kitchen and observe her at work.
Without any hesitation whatsoever, she said, “No.”
He also asked her if she entered the fig cake contest at our local Fig Festival. She replied, no, that she didn’t have time or need for that. He asked her if people knew about her fig cake and she replied, “Well, they do now.”
Gaynelle loved to feed people. She loved to share her time-honored special dishes with friends and developed a recipe for seafood fritters that included crabmeat, scallops and clams. She would make 80 fritters at a time and Ricky would deliver them around the island. Stewed shrimp and corn dumplings were another of her specialties.
Gaynelle retired from the N.C. Ferry Division but she liked to keep busy in her retirement.
Gaynelle worked in the fish house retail shop and became a special member of the Working Watermen’s family. She was so tiny that she could barely see or be seen over the counter. The customers just loved her and would ask so many questions about growing up here.
“She was a treasure,” said Pattie Plyler, fish house manager
Gaynelle and her friend (the late) Maxine Mason had a special bond. Maxine had about the best laugh in the world, and Gaynelle could bring it out with her constant joking.
Gaynelle knew that Maxine hated sunflowers. So, of course, Gaynelle would secretly plant sunflowers in Maxine’s garden just to get a rise out of her. Jenny Mason, Maxine’s daughter and Gaynelle’s surrogate granddaughter, said she could only hope to have a lifelong friend like that.
Gaynelle and Joyce Spencer also had many good times together in recent years. The two spent many an evening riding around the village in Joyce’s golf cart.
A very maternal person, Gaynelle took special interests in many of the girls who came to Ocracoke to work summers. She would rent rooms to some of them. For $25 a week, you got room, board and laundry and were treated just like family.
Ricky and Cindy would like to acknowledge the whole community, too many to name, who have been supportive in so many ways, who dropped off food, sat with her, provided for their wedding reception and made sure she was OK during the (2017) power outage.
Gaynelle lived a very full life. She worked hard and long, she played hard, she prayed often, and she developed and cherished her relationships with others, whether they were family, friends or someone she had just met for the first time.