(Be warned. In ten years here at the Houston Press, we've seldom come across a story sadder than this one.)
Lynde Chunn had a tough row to hoe for many of her 28 years. The Houston-born Caney Creek High School graduate was mentally challenged but had long lived alone in the Nacogdoches area, where she had gone along with her sister when sis enrolled at Stephen F. Austin.
She suffered from scoliosis and had a lazy eye. She lived in government housing. Until she got a low-paid job at a dime store, she lived off $694 a month in government assistance. She was picked on at school by both other students and even some teachers. Boyfriends walked all over her and worse.
"Her age level was probably about 15 as far as IQ and that type of thing," says Kathy McGough, a friend who met her fairly recently. "But she was a wonderful girl with a strong independent flair and she was very kind and considerate. She just had an outward appearance that was not good. Her teeth were in terrible, terrible shape. She had no means to take care of herself. She had no idea how to fix her hair, no make-up, her clothes were not good."
That was why Chunn entered the Piney Woods Makeover contest in 2010. She wasn't picked then, but she reentered the 2011 contest. McGough helped run the event, and she says Chunn presented them with challenges they had not foreseen. "When she resubmitted her application this year, and we went into a deeper thought process with her, because we had never chosen someone who was disabled and who was mentally challenged," says McGough.
Chunn's application could wring tears out of a slab of cold Italian marble. When the application asked for any big events on her horizon, in a childlike hand, Chunn scrawled that she wanted to "Continue to be a great employee at the Dollar Tree." Asked for one word to describe herself, she wrote "A wonderful person."
"I wish so much for you to make me over from head to toe," she wrote in the essay section, "as this would help me with my confidence in myself and so people I meet will want to get to know me as I try to make better friends and a better employee. This makeover could help so I can see a better future for myself with all my relationships."
Letters of support flowed in to the contest from Chunn's fellow parishioners at Holly Springs Baptist church.
"She has been a blessing to me and has taught me what it means to accept things we have no control about and to be grateful for what we are and share what we have," wrote Betty Couchin, a good friend who also noted that Chunn has spent part of the Christmas season ringing bells for the Salvation Army outside the Nacogdoches Walmart. "If she should not be chosen this year," Couchin closed her letter, "she will as always just say 'Dang it I can try again.'"
Her pastor wrote that the makeover could match the transformation that had occurred inside her soul. The music director at the church noted that Lynde had gone from awkward wallflower to social butterfly. "Today, she will come up to you and start a conversation," he wrote. "This is so huge!" Another parishioner noted that she had a "radiant glow" about her and invariably shared what little she had with anyone who asked.
And it all worked. Chunn was chosen as the recipient of the 2011 Piney Woods Makeover.
She would be getting cosmetic surgery on her teeth -- years and years ago, she had gotten braces, and Medicaid had stopped paying for them, so Chunn had simply left them on her teeth with no maintenance.
She was going to have LASIK surgery courtesy of McGough's employer, the Lehmann Eye Center in Nacogdoches.
The people at Merle Norman were going to have her in for a shopping spree and give her some pointers on snappy dressing, too. She'd already started working out at Curves, a gym for women. She was consulting with a plastic surgeon about a brow lift and a Botox treatment or two, and an orthopedic surgeon was going to donate his services toward repairing some of the ravages of her scoliosis.
"I would laugh with her, I'd say 'We're gonna make you into a movie star,' and she would just laugh," remembers McGough. "She was so excited. She was so thrilled."
McGough also went shopping for furniture with Chunn. McGough says she had none in her apartment whatsoever. She took up a collection and away they went. "We actually raised enough money to buy her an entire bedroom set and an entire living room set, down to the decor, rugs and lamps and decorations on the walls," McGough says.
Chunn did not know how furniture stores worked, McGough recalls. She thought that customers could only buy the furniture groupings exactly as the staff had them arrayed n the showroom.
"And so I said 'No, Lynde, look! Come with me, and let's find what you like.' And so a couple of ladies and I would move everything around -- we'd set it up right there in the furniture store the way it was gonna look in her apartment," recalls McGough. "And oh, she loved it, she just loved it. She lay down on this big leather couch and said 'I don't think I'll ever wanna get up out of this couch.'"
The big day was coming up fast. "We were just so thrilled with the anticipation and with her," McGough says. And then one Tuesday morning in February, Betty Couchin, Chunn's church friend and supporter, came in with another woman to the Lehmann Eye Center.
"She and another church lady got out of the car and they looked pretty bad, and I said 'Are you a patient today? Do you have a problem?' I thought maybe she had an eye problem," McGough says. And she said, 'No, I wanna talk to you,' so I invited them into my office and we all sat down. And then she just took my hand and told me that [Chunn] had been killed instantly when she stepped out in front of a car the night before."
Police later said that Chunn had gone to Walmart across busy North Street from where she lived, and then recrossed North Street to go rent a movie at Hastings. That was when she was killed. (No charges were filed against the driver.)
"It was almost unbelievable to just hear that and think, 'Oh my.' You just can't believe it," says McGough. "So I called everyone on the makeover team because I didn't want any of them to find out about it on the news."
"She was so happy and so excited thinking her life was going to change," McGough said around the time of Chunn's death.
Chunn was buried in Conroe this past Valentine's Day. Her obituary noted she loved animals, movies and shopping. McGough's son told his mother that Chunn had been given "the ultimate makeover."
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"We were just so thrilled about seeing her happy," McGough says. "It's hard to even believe right now that she's gone, that it's over."
About all we can do at this point is quote John Prine: "You can gaze out the window get mad and get madder, throw your hands in the air, say 'What does it matter?' but it don't do no good to get angry, so help me I know.
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter. You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there wrapped up in a trap of your very own chain of sorrow.