Yesterday, I attended a party for the 103rd Birthday of Catherine Stovall, whom I first wrote about when she turned 101. The article, entitled, "I Would Like to Introduce the 101-Year-Old Woman to the 102-Year-Old Man," is linked to here. (It also spotlighted the leader, Timuel Black, who lived to age 102 before his death last year.) In May, I attended the 100th Birthday party for Deborah Szekely, the founder of Rancho La Puerta and The Golden Door, about whom I am directing a documentary. Last week, I had dinner with a friend who is 95 years old and still going strong. In fact, he recently married another friend of mine who is a lovely lady and an artist. And in that same week, I wrote about the 100th Birthday of TV icon Norman Lear, and Saturday night I attended a White Sox game with a friend who is 91 years old. The Sox won!
It made me wonder how I can be so fortunate as to have friendships with these distinguished elders. Part of the reason is that people are just living longer. Centenarians are one of the growing populations in the twenty-first century. And not just in the so-called Blue Zones of the world where studies are being conducted to find out why certain populations are living longer and healthier lives than normal. So we will all soon know a centenarian if we are lucky. And we will live to be one if we are luckier.
But another reason is because I have always been fascinated by older people. By the way they looked, the way they smiled, or how they were not afraid to speak their minds. I wondered why they were so willing to forgive, or, if necessary, set clearly defined boundaries for what were considered unforgivable offenses. Where did they get their wisdom, and why did they think that underneath it all, we are just about love? (Some of the facts about Mrs Stovall's life came from previous articles.)
I firmly believe that our elders are a gift and a treasure to us. Richard Branson organized a council of elders that included global leaders who work together for peace, justice and human rights. These leaders included the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who told me that he thought bringing together an international group of elders could bridge intergenerational gaps. I am hoping that we continue to include our elders in our decisions about how to reach young people and how to make the world a better place.—Chaz Ebert
August 1st, 2022, is the 103rd birthday of Mrs. Catherine Stovall. She is the mother of Joshlyn Banks, who was my classmate and friend at Crane High School on the Westside of Chicago over fifty years ago, and with whom I am still frequently in touch. I was pleased to get an invitation to attend the party because just recently Mrs. Stovall had been hospitalized for fluid around her heart, and when someone is 102, you worry. Her daughter mobilized prayer groups and asked our Crane Cougars (that name comes from the school mascot, not from any actions of the women) to join. We got frequent updates about Queen Stovall's progress. (That is our nickname for her.)
Of the eleven or so of us Crane Cougars who stay in touch, three are fortunate to have their mothers still with them. (But unfortunately, men don't usually live as long, and all of our fathers are deceased.) Katherine Branch, whose mother Mrs Katherine Williams is 98, says she and her family love taking care of her. "We are paying her back for all she has done for us." Isabella Levi's mother, Mrs Lucille Ferrell, is 97, and in our text thread we always speak of all of the older relatives as if they are our own.
"It's a true blessing to be here today celebrating Mother's 103rd birthday," said Joshlyn. "We never knew from day to day what to expect when she was in the hospital, except for one thing, she was determined to make it to this party!" Laughing hardily, Joshlyn said that there wasn't one day that went by that her mother didn't ask about some detail of the party, whether it was about the caterers, the decorations or the invitations. "When she got sick, she didn't want us to know because she thought we would cancel her party. And when she finally got out of the hospital, the first thing she said is 'Don't put any salt in my food. I want to stay healthy.'"
When I interviewed Mrs. Stovall a couple years ago, her words of wisdom were, “Live life a day at a time.” Yesterday, as she sat between her brother, Jeffrey Davis, who is 95 years old, and her "Baby Sister," Eula Davis, who is 83 years old, (her brother Herman Davis, who is 87 years old, had not yet made it to the party), she had one firm piece of advice for me: "Family is love!" Besides Joshlyn, she was also surrounded by her children Alfreda Williams, Jacinto Dortch, Alonzo Stovall, Barbara Stovall Carter and Rodney Stovall, and by assorted grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews and in-laws. Good genes obviously run in their family. Jeffrey and his wife Dorothy drove all the way from Mobile, Alabama, to Chicago in order to attend the party.
I arrived at the party later because of a previous engagement, but I still managed to get there in time for peach cobbler. I sat with Thelma Ramsey, a friend of Mrs. Stovall from Friendship Baptist Church, who told me, "She is amazing, she is soft-spoken, but people listen to her when she speaks, and they respect her. And she is still inspiring us." Her neighbors said that on her own, Mrs. Stovall organized Thanksgiving dinners for people in the building who didn’t have families, because she loved to feed people.
Joining us was Maria Perez, a neighbor who said she was worried when she didn't see Mrs. Stovall out on her regular walks. "She could walk by herself, even at this age. And when I didn't see her I was worried. We played Bingo together, and her memory is very good. I call her Mom. It is a joy to be here today."
Back in February of 2021, Mrs. Stovall was awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award in Robbins. She was interviewed by Brad Edwards of the local CBS station, and her words of wisdom for that day were, "Get an Education." She said an education can help you get a better job and live a better life. She was the model for this. She went back to school at age 71 to get her High School diploma.
Her daughter Joshlyn said that her mother was determined to get her diploma to set an example. When Joshlyn was a little girl, she cried because her hair was short. Her mother admonished her, "Remember, it's not what's on your head, but what's in your head that counts." Joshlyn took these words to heart. She said her mother had taken the GED many times before she finally passed it. But once she did, she immediately went to college. "I guess one of her other words of wisdom," mused Joshlyn, "is 'Persistence.' Mother inspired so many people to stay in school or to go back to school with her actions."
During the interview with Brad Edwards, she also said the world is in an uproar, and we need more prayer to overcome the violence. That is why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the heroes she tried to emulate with her work in the community. Those words still resonate today.
You can view footage of the ceremony from the CBS Chicago coverage embedded below...
Mrs. Stovall was born on August 1st, 1919, in Carleton, Alabama and lived through many things including the Great Depression of 1929. She spoke about not having food to eat or running water or indoor plumbing during that time, but said the grace of God brought her through. She raised seven children (the eighth died at an early age), and she learned to sew to make clothes for them. Times were tight after the death of her first husband but she worked hard to provide for her family, and eventually remarried.
Helping her children with their homework inspired her to go back to school and she was awarded her GED at the age of 71. After that, she attended Northeastern Illinois University and Malcolm X College. She also earned a Christian Education Diploma from the National Baptist Convention at a ceremony in San Francisco. Career-wise she worked for Motorola, Allied and retired from the Board of Education. She taught Sunday School until she was 95 years old! She told me about her love of travel and how it took her to the World's Fair in Canada in 1964, the Bahamas, and Ghana, in addition to cruising and visiting ports of call in Barbados, Belize, Jamaica, St. Martin, Hawaii and Alaska. She smiled when recalling she has visited 38 of the 50 states.
Although she no longer travels, her children all say that she set the bar high for living a full and active life and helping others. And that her commitment to the community and her church continue to this very day. As the party was winding down, Mrs. Stovall looked happily around the room and thought to emphasize one more word of wisdom for me: "Prayer." We need more prayer."
Happy Birthday, Mrs. Stovall.