One of my goals in life is to live to be 100 years old and shoot a 99 in golf (over 18 holes, not nine, I know what some of you are thinking).
And while I still aspire to do that, I now have added inspiration.
Remember the old Gatorade commercial with the jingle “Be like Mike”? Well, with all due respect to Michael Jordan and his greatness, I want to be like Clara.
Clara Whisenant, that is.
I had the pleasure recently of spending a couple hours visiting with Clara, who turned 100 years old on Oct. 11. It was two of the best hours I will spend this year as she is as sharp as a 35-year-old, whipping off dates and memories as if they were written down on paper in front of her.
When I told her she didn’t look even close to 100, her quick response with a chuckle was, “That’s what everybody keeps telling me. I’m about to get a complex.
“God takes care of me. There’s a purpose for all of this.”
I don’t doubt that for one second, and the purpose might just well be to remind the rest of us that age is indeed just a number. That while our time on this mortal coil is limited, we should milk every bit of positivity we can out of every second.
Clara’s seen a lot in her life. Joe Biden is the 16th president to sit in the Oval Office in her lifetime. She saw the creation of the polio vaccine, lived through the hippie generation of the 1960s, disco in the 1970s, and doesn’t understand today why “many people would rather tinker with the tiny screen on their phone than hold a conversation.”
I don’t understand that, either, Clara. I’m reminded of the time the eccentric college football coach Mike Leach once said when there is only one person remaining on this planet and humankind is virtually gone, that person won’t realize it because they are too busy trying to text someone.
Clara’s life is not one of adventurous travels. She’s barely left Parker County, where she was born and raised in the Center Point community by farmer parents.
“I’ve visited a lot of places, but it always looks good to get back home,” she said.
Clara met her husband Ray and, after they married in 1940, they lived in and around Aledo for seven decades before he was moved to College Park Rehabilitation and Care Center in 2010. He passed away in 2012, the year Clara moved into the same facility and where she still lives today.
For the first couple of decades or so in their marriage they each had jobs, Ray at a dairy farm and her at the long since closed R.E. Cox department store in Fort Worth. Then, in the 1960s they purchased what was then the Aledo Mobil filling station, near downtown, which they operated until selling it in 1991.
“I was the gofer from morning ‘til night,” Clara said, smiling. “And I helped take care of the books. We had an accountant, but I kept the daily stuff.
“We knew everyone in town then. And ours was mostly an information center. People would come in trying to find a place and I’d draw them one of my famous maps. That’s what I called them. I’d say, ‘Let me just make you one of my famous maps.’ And they always got them where they were going.
“I guess they wouldn’t be so popular today, but folks sure got a lot of use out of them back then, let me tell you.”
Clara even made some extra money by making clothes. In fact, she made her own clothes until she moved into College Park. She learned the skill from her mother.
“I made all my children’s clothes and my clothes. People liked what they saw, and it supplemented the family income,” she recalled. “My mother taught me to sew. She was a beautiful seamstress and she had four daughters she had to keep clothed. We were poor, but we always had nice clothes.
“I don’t understand some of the clothes I see today. People are actually paying money for clothes with holes in them? If there was a hole in our clothes, it got mended right away.”
Clara was the youngest of six children (four girls, two boys). She remembered that during the Great Depression — she was 7 when it began — she and her sisters would gather eggs and sometimes get to keep the money from selling them to purchase fabric for their mother to make them a new dress.
“We had our chickens, livestock, grew our own vegetables, we managed during that hard time, but it was hard on everyone,” she said. “We girls would gather eggs every evening and when we were allowed to keep the money, it was a lot to us. We’d usually have about 10 to 12 dozen and they’d go for about 12 cents a dozen.
“We’d go get some fabric, which was about 15 cents a yard, about 25 cents if it was really nice, and we’d take it back to momma and she’d make us a nice dress.”
Clara and her siblings were all born in the same farmhouse, where her father was also born, as was one of his grandchildren. For grades 1-8 she attended Dixon School before then attending Weatherford High, though her family moved and it was simply too far of a drive for her to go school as a senior, she said.
“I always wished I could have finished school, but back then it was just too far and would cost too much money,” she said. “But I’d say I didn’t do too bad in life.”
Clara vividly remembers the day she met Ray and it was pretty much love at first sight. She was working as a housekeeper and taking care of a little girl for a family and Ray worked on a dairy nearby.
“It was cold, hog killin’ time, and they were rendering lard (fat from the hogs) and he had a can to put some in, but the can had ice on it because it was so cold, so he brought it in to defrost and that’s when we met,” she reminisced, a smile coming across her face as her eyes lit up at the memory.
“He asked me out about two weeks later. That was December (1939) and we were married in October (1940). There was never any doubt for us.”
They had five children; one, David, died at the age of 21 months. Her four other children, son Steve Whisenant and daughters Marlene Hoover, Sonja Spain and Neysa Clark, all live in the area.
She has eight grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren.
A century of living brings a lot of testimony after witnessing so many things. When asked what is the most amazing thing she’s seen in her life, Clara said, “The most amazing thing is there’s been so many things in my life.”
She remembered when her family got their first telephone in 1951.
“We had lived next to someone who had one, but we didn’t get our own until we moved into a house that already had one,” she said. “It was an old one with a crank. You’d get on and ask an operator to connect you. It was called a party line.”
And she remembers exactly where she was the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“I’d been to lunch. I was working at R.E. Cox and as I opened the door the news came over the radio. It was like a cloud came over the town,” she said. “They closed the store and sent us all home. It was a terrible feeling to know our president had been killed.”
When the polio vaccine was made public in the 1950s, she and her family immediately rushed out to get it.
“We brought the children, they were giving the vaccine out, and we stood on the east steps of the courthouse waiting our turn. Everybody couldn’t wait to get it,” she said. “One of my sisters in California, her daughter got polio. She lived, she grew up to have children, but it left its mark on her.”
Ray avoided having to serve in World War II because he worked on a farm and by the time it hit its apex he and Clara had two children. But that didn’t keep her from being frightened that her husband might be called away from her following one of our nation’s most devastating incidents.
“The day Pearl Harbor was bombed, I’ll never forget. We went to church that evening and there was a peaceful feeling as we all knew we needed each other more than ever. There were people coming to church I hadn’t seen in a long time,” she said.
“I just knew he was going to have to go to war, but the work he was in was considered defense work. But he passed his physical and was ready had they called him.”
Then came a similar scare with Steve when the Vietnam War was taking place.
“I prayed he wouldn’t pass (his physical) and God answered my prayers. He was double-jointed and they wouldn’t take him,” she said.
“I know our country needs defending and I would have been so proud if either or both had to go, but I’m so glad God saved them from that danger. I’m so sad for the many who did have to go, though, and for the families of the many who didn’t come back.”
Without hesitation, Clara said the moment that brought the biggest smile in her entire life was “The day my husband became a Christian in 1942, that was a red letter day. We went to church before that, but he wasn’t a Christian.”
They were members of First Baptist Church in Aledo for decades before moving to New Faith Baptist Church in Annetta in 2008.
“No one’s had a better life than I have,” she said. “I had good parents who loved me, a great family, even great in-laws. I love my family so much.”
Then, she added with a laugh, “I don’t have any presidents in my family, I wish I did, I could tell them what to do.”
And they’d be wise to listen. I certainly learned a thing or two from my time with her.
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