Helen White’s blue eyes sparkled mischievously when she was asked the secret to her long life.
“You just have to keep breathing,” she said,.
On a more somber note she added, “The Lord has been good to me.”
Friends and family gathered at Mrs. White’s home in Centenary Sept. 21 to celebrate her 108th birthday, making her one of the oldest persons living in South Carolina.
As a musician played one of her favorite tunes on the saxophone, Mrs. White did a little dance as she made her way to the table holding a birthday cake.
Amazingly, she remains quite mobile and attends many functions in her community.
Although Miss Helen is a little hard of hearing and wears hearing aids, she has her own teeth, and good vision.
She occasionally reluctantly uses a cane. She manages her business affairs, pays bills, makes decisions about upkeep of the house and property, and keeps herself and others fully informed on all sides of political issues.
Born Sept. 21, 1906, Mrs White was a “middle child” of eight children. She grew up in the small village of Ft. Lawn, S.C
Her father was engaged in a mercantile business, farming, and selling horses, mules, and buggies; read and practiced law, and was active in local politics. He was Mayor of the town for 20 years. The family had many personal, educational, and economic advantages.
All eight children graduated from college and several achieved advanced degrees.
The family lived in a rambling Victorian home that had electric lights and indoor plumbing before many other places in rural South Carolina. They were active members of church and community.
Helping other people was a hallmark of their philosophy that led them to run a “soup kitchen” for the community during the flu epidemic of 1918 and to provide food, clothing and transportation for anyone who needed it anytime.
Mrs. White was, and is now, something of a “free spirit”, with a strong will and forward looking ideas.
As a young person she reveled in activity and relished clambering up a pole to pull the cord that turned on the streetlights of the village. As a teenager she had contact with many different people and situations as she drove the car for her father to visit his business and political contacts.
She especially enjoyed playing tennis and dancing, once dancing with a partner and other teens over the new Catawba River bridge before it was opened for traffic.
As a college student at Flora McDonald College in Red Springs, N.C., about 1927, she took her first airplane ride in an open cockpit single engine plane.
With a degree in Home Economics, Mrs. White first taught English and math as well as Home Economics in rural Centenary, and coached the girls’ basketball team (even though she had never played basketball!).
She then made a career change to work as a Home Demonstration Agent for Florence County and then Saluda County.
During her stay in Saluda, she and Harry White were married in Seneca on Christmas Day 1933.
Several years later, after their daughter Jerri’s birth, Helen was employed with WPA to pioneer school lunch programs, nursery projects in industry, gardening and canning projects, and in home services for indigent families. She supervised these WPA operations in nine counties in western South Carolina.
The family then lived in three places in Georgia and North Carolina. After the birth of their son, Harry, Jr., Helen was a homemaker and church and school volunteer most of their time in Georgia.
In Raleigh in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Mrs. White taught Home Economics at the Governor Morehead School (School for the Blind) for 16 years. This position further challenged her creativity.
Imagine teaching blind and partially sighted children to cook, sew, clean, care for children, and generally maintain a household.
This required at a minimum rethinking and tailoring tasks so that they could accomplish their goals.
Mrs. White also involved community people, using nurses to conduct child care sessions and garden clubs to help students learn home decoration, and arranged field trips for students to museums and cultural events to expand their opportunities and experiences.
She pioneered a course incorporating a segment on sex education for girls that later the superintendent had her expand to similar courses for boys and for house parents. Some of her former students continue to maintain contact with her by telephone and email.
During her retirement years she and her husband traveled mostly by ship, due to his declining health, in the Caribbean.
Since his death in 1984, she has also traveled with relatives and friends in the United States and to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada and Nova Scotia, England, and her ancestral Scotland, among other places.
Mrs. White’s mission and forte in life has been to serve others, and she has done that in a number of ways, not only individually and through her work but also through church and service organizations.
A person who reaches out to people in any and all circumstances, she is a respected and loved member of the communities where she and her children and grandchildren live.
Locally she has served in many church offices, currently as President of the Women of the Church, and she is a member of seniors groups, the Pee Dee Chapter, South Carolina Genealogical Society, Friends of the Marion County Museum, and other organizations.
She and her daughter live together in her home in the Centenary area and at her daughter’s beach home in North Carolina.
Her children and grandchildren all are residents of North Carolina.
DURING HER LIFETIME
Over the course of her life, Mrs. White has witnessed:
--World War I, World War II, the Koren War, the Vietnam War and many others;
--the San Francisco earthquake that killed more than 500 people;
--sinking of the Titanic;
--the Great Depression;
--the first radio;
--the first television;
--creation of the internet;
--first man on the moon;
--a vaccine to eliminate polio;
--the discovery of penicillin;
--the splitting of the atom.