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105 and going strong


Betty Stone



I drove to Starkville to interview Elizabeth Gwin, who is a vital 105 years old. I have known her for many of those years, so I was not surprised when she met me outside her door and welcomed me into a charming room bright with several vases of fresh, multicolored tulips. She offered me strong Cajun coffee and homemade cheese straws, and we had one of the most delightful visits -- for me -- that I have had in a long time. 


The woman is amazing. She stands tall, elegant and stylish as the days when she walked the runways as a New York City model. Her gray hair is chicly bobbed and turns under in a loose pageboy style. Her smile is infectious. 


Somehow the question as to the secret of her longevity seems inadequate. Instead the question as to the secret of her vitality seems more pertinent. 


"I was just a little old Columbus girl," she says, "but I've been fortunate. Of course I've lost loved ones in the length of my life, but I have had no dramatic crises. I've just been living and staying busy. I believe in seeking challenges." 




Growing up in Columbus 


She grew up in Columbus, lived on Seventh Street South back when the city streetcar traveled north and south on that street and east-west from town to at least the M&O Railroad.  


One of the highlights of her childhood was visiting her grandparents on their farm in the summertime. There she played with the children of the tenant farmers. She stresses the fact that they were not sharecroppers. "There is a big difference," she says. 


She remembers spending literally whole days in the woods, swinging on grapevines, trekking all over the ground. There were nine other children available as playmates. No one seemed concerned about their whereabouts; nor were the children afraid of anything, not even snakes. There was a mill nearby with two millponds, but Elizabeth says they did not swim unsupervised. The reason? They had promised not to. 


(Does it seem remarkable to today's parents that children could be so trusted? Or have we just become more conscious of litigation? Do today's parents feel they can safely count on their children's prudence to that extent? Maybe in more sparsely populated times, all hazards could not be fenced in. In my own childhood, we often swam in gravel pits with no lifeguards. Were all of us foolish or just more free?) 


Anyway, Elizabeth says all the children learned from each other. She especially remembers one little girl with golden curly hair. 




From college to the runway 


Like most Columbus girls in her day, Elizabeth went to MSCW (Mississippi State College for Women, now Mississippi University for Women). She did not really want to go there, but she later became one of the college's most enthusiastic graduates and very active in its Alumnae Association. 


However, while a student, she did get to go to summer school at Mississippi A&M, now Mississippi State University. There she met the man she would marry, Howell Gwin. She taught piano briefly in the Delta, but as a young bride, she accompanied her husband to New York City where he got a PhD at Columbia. Their two children, Howell and May, were born in New York. 


"It was the middle of a golden age in New York, a wonderful time to be there. Graduate students always run out of money, so I looked around for some way to help. I answered a little newspaper ad for a modeling job." 


She got a job with the Charles Amour agency. Her audition was interesting. She was given a dress to model that was, she says, "the tackiest dress you've ever seen." After trying it on, she was so discouraged, she just re-dressed and prepared to leave. Mr. Amour stopped her, saying, "Who told you that you could go?" He later said that if anyone could make that dress look good, she was hired! 


The runway shows were exciting, glamorous and festive. Elizabeth says they did not walk the way models do today. "Miss Pohl taught me how to walk." (Pohl was a long time dance professor at The W.) 


The New York interlude came to a close when the little family moved back to Mississippi and Howell became a professor at Mississippi State. They bought and remodeled a house that others had called a "wife killer." It had no insulation and one could see the sky in places through the walls. However, when they had an opportunity to build, they built an improved replica of that house. It was the one I visited, a charming home. 


Although Elizabeth voluntarily quit driving when she was 103, she still walks two miles a day around the circle of road by her house. Recently a car pulled up beside when she was walking, and the driver asked her, "Do you exercise?" 


"No," she answered. 


"Thank God," said the driver. 


But she does stay active. In fact, for years she was executive director for a 19-county area for the Girl Scouts. Shortly before she stopped driving, she was stopped by a traffic cop for going 25 miles per hour in a 15 miles per hour zone. "I am so sorry, officer," she explained. "I was in a hurry because I just left a Bible study, and I have to deliver Meals on Wheels." He waved her on. 


"It's all part of living," she says. "I have wonderful blessings, four grandchildren, company all the time. You have to learn how to listen and work with what you have." 


This, Elizabeth Gwin does. With flair. 


Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.


Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.


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