By the Grace of God
by Caroline Fairey
Photography by Lindsay Gifford
When I was in eighth grade at Patrick Henry Academy, Mrs. Lillian Solomons was the first teacher to show me the transformative power of words. But try as I might, eight hundred words just isn’t enough to express the years of joy that Mrs. Lillian Solomons has given to her church, family and community.
For those readers who aren’t blessed to know her, "Mrs. Lillian" is a retired English teacher. She’s the mother of three children and grandmother to five; she’s married to Algie Solomons, her elementary school sweetheart. She loves reading, cooking for friends and family, playing piano at church, and her two Boykin Spaniels, Stella and Sambo. You’d be hard pressed to find a woman who has lived a better life. Which is why it came as such a horrible shock to the town of Estill when, after letting her dogs out one night, Mrs. Lillian was shot by a burglar in her garage.
“It was the worst pain I’ve ever known,” she said. “I was so terrified. Then, in the split second after I felt the shot, I heard Sambo snarl. And [the gunman] turned from me and shot him twice.”
Mrs. Lillian was helicoptered to Memorial Hospital in Savannah, while her neighbors, Rachel and Bob Wiggins and Laurie Hanna, drove Sambo to the closest pet trauma center, also in Savannah.
“Even in those first few minutes after the shooting, I was reminded of how incredibly supportive the good people of Estill are,” Mrs. Lillian said. “Jesse Gifford, who works with EMS, was holding one of my hands and praying for me, while Nick Gohagan, from Hampton County Sheriff’s Department, held my other hand and said, ‘We’re going to find who did this.’ They did find him that night, and he’s been in custody ever since. And by the grace of God, here I am.”
Mrs. Lillian’s strong faith was instrumental in her recovery from the shooting, as well as in her everyday life. “Not for one second do I believe God makes bad things happen. Humans are complex creatures. We have choices. And good or bad, God works through everything to sustain and support us. My Christian faith has gotten me through many things, not the least of which are these.”
Both Mrs. Lillian and Sambo recovered from their wounds with relatively few complications. They each still have one bullet in their bodies. The third shell casing, removed from Sambo, was used as key evidence in the shooter’s conviction; he received 20 years in prison.
“I’ll tell you what I told my nurse at Memorial,” she said. “Two days before I was shot, an Estill police officer was shot four times by a suspect. He and I were on the same hall in Memorial. And my nurse said, ‘It’s so strange—I’ve never heard of Estill, and now I’m taking care of two shooting victims in two days.’ And I told her, ‘In spite of that, I want you to know that it’s a wonderful place to live.’”
To talk about Mrs. Lillian means talking about Estill—a small town located in Hampton County.
“I’m the eighth generation of my family to live here,” Mrs. Lillian said. “Algie and I have lived in Estill all our lives, not counting college, or Algie’s law school, or his one year in the army. Even then, Estill was always home.”
Mrs. Lillian taught for 31 years at Patrick Henry Academy, a local private school. She retired in 2014 to the chagrin of many students. Her retirement has been much more hectic than she bargained for. About a year after being shot, Mrs. Lillian was diagnosed with breast cancer—but after the shooting, she called it a “minor note.” She had a successful treatment, and now only takes anti-estrogen pills and a calcium supplement.
In terms of health advice, she recommends regular mammograms—early diagnosis is key for treating breast cancer. She also walks with a group of friends, and attempts to keep on top of a healthy diet. “Our Southern food, with all this butter and salt and sugar, it’s just the worst! It’s hard to resist, but it’s all about compromise.”
“Really, I’m blessed with good health,” she said. “In fact, I lead an extraordinarily blessed life. I’m married to a wonderful man, our children are supportive, and our grandchildren are sweet. I love my church and my town. By the grace of God, I’ve been able to handle the challenges before me and come out whole.”
Local Ties: Mrs. Lillian’s family has been vacationing in Land’s End since she was a little girl. She brings her children and grandchildren to this day.
Back to School: Although Mrs. Lillian is an eclectic reader, her favorite book to teach was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Diehard Fans: Mrs. Lillian (and every one of her children and grandchildren!) loves watching the Clemson Tigers. During football season, it’s hard to find them wearing any shade but orange.
Decades of Influence: Mrs. Lillian taught several generations of students—including both me and my mother. She called me and other students like me her “grandstudents.”
Inspiring Words: One of Mrs. Lillian’s memorized Bible verses she left with me was Romans 8:28. “All things work together for good to those who love God and who are called according to his purpose.” She also left her students with this quote many a time: “One is never alone in the company of a good book.”