Centenarians’ lives full of change

Published 10:35 pm Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The evidence is entirely anecdotal, but membership in Suffolk’s Main Street United Methodist Church might just improve your longevity.

Parishioners Yancey Birdsong and Jessie Cross passed in recent weeks at ages 108 and 107, respectively. Love of their church community was but one common tie. Another was their devotion to Suffolk, a city that changed dramatically during their lifetimes.

Miss Cross, a member of Suffolk High School’s first graduating class, would see the school educate thousands of Suffolk children over eight decades, close its doors, physically crumble, and then come back to life as the crown jewel of Suffolk cultural life, the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.


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Mrs. Birdsong, a trailblazer who moved to Suffolk as a single woman for a teaching job in the 1920s, surely marveled at her new hometown’s transformation from bustling Tidewater bedroom community to a fully functioning, and indeed the fastest-growing, city of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area.

The societal, technological and economic changes they witnessed during their 100-plus years boggle a younger mind.

Schoolteachers of Mrs. Birdsong’s era made in a year less than what today’s teachers earn in a week. Only the Bible was read more than the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs.

Teddy bears, the rare toy to stand the test of time, burst onto the scene during the decade Mrs. Birdsong and Miss Cross were born.

Mrs. Birdsong was a teenager before women had a federally guaranteed right to vote in this country. She would go on to cast many important ballots, and even to serve on the Suffolk School Board, an accomplishment unthinkable a few decades prior.

In the decade that Mrs. Birdsong and Miss Cross were born, radio broadcasts mesmerized listeners. Barbershop quartets harmonized on Saturday nights. Nickelodeons offered “moving pictures” for 5 cents. Henry Ford introduced the Model T, and instant coffee debuted in stores. Crossword puzzles and pop-up toasters didn’t yet exist.

The world was relatively peaceful at the time of their births, but they’d live through three world wars, if, like me, you count the global battle against terrorism, still raging.

Tragedy was more innocent in those days, like the sinking of the Titanic, and rarely sinister, such as the despicable act they’d witness in New York and Northern Virginia on Sept. 11, 2001.

Black people went from disenfranchised to full participants in our democracy, now holding some of the community’s and nation’s highest positions of authority.

Mrs. Birdsong and Miss Cross marveled as children at airplanes and automobiles. Yet, they’d live to see spaceships, computers and cell phones, which now we can’t live without.

Agriculture, including the peanut industry to which Mrs. Birdsong’s family has contributed so greatly, was fully mechanized during their lifetimes.

The list goes on and on, event after event and invention after invention marking long lifetimes full of revolutionary change. That they experienced nearly all of it with sound minds, with mental stamina to match their rare physical endurance, might be the greatest blessing of all.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.