Centenarians celebrate lives well-lived

Miss Erna best 301Miss Katie best 1259

Photos by Anthony Caciopo

Unable to see the bouquet she received for her 100th birthday, Erna Sherman (above, left) uses touch and smell to admire the arrangement. Katie M. Howard, 103, smiles as she recalls experiences from her long life.

Katie M. Howard says there are three things a person should never ask a woman.

Number one is age. But at a celebrated 103 years old, the cat is out of the bag on that count.

“Oh, I ain’t no 103!” she said, slyly.

Miss Katie—as we’ll refer to her in this article—was born in a rural area of Arkansas. She came to Chicago with her husband, Mansfield, and they settled on the south side of Chicago.

Although she’s happy to talk with a stranger who visited with her recently at the Park Villa Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Palos Heights where she lives, she admits a lot of memories have faded.

“It’s been so long, it left me,” she said about certain aspects of her life.

However, with the gentle guidance of her daughter, Nancy, a picture of Miss Katie’s life emerges, a life of faith and independence.

“Arkansas, it was the best place to grow up,” Miss Katie said. Along with her two sisters and three brothers, she said she used to “love to play, and we weren’t scared of nobody.”

Miss Katie had a horse named Billy, which she would ride into town. But it was animals of a different kind that she seems to remember more.

“We had chickens,” she said. “I had to clean the chicken house but it wasn’t bad.”

Nancy reminded her that Miss Katie’s mother would not only cook the eggs for the family but that she’d sometimes take the eggs into town to sell.

“And you had a dog and a cat and a goat, too,” Nancy told her.

Miss Katie and her husband eventually moved to another area of Chicago, the west side. After Mansfield passed away Miss Katie lived there independently until age 100. She visited Arkansas most recently when she was 97 and enjoyed time with numerous nieces and nephews.

She was a homemaker with three children in addition to Nancy: Fotra, Mansfield Jr. and the late James. Miss Katie has 20 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren and 12 great-great grandchildren.

“I always tried to keep my house clean,” she said of her days raising her family. “I used to like baking cakes and pies,” but she admitted that if she tried her hand at baking today “it would be a terrible cake.”

Miss Katie typically wakes at 7 a.m. and attributes her longevity to her trust and love of God.

“Tomorrow is church day,” said Nancy who explained that her mother’s favorite passage in the Bible is the 23rd Psalm.

Oh, and the other two things Miss Katie says should never be asked of a woman? Her weight and her bank account. Miss Katie kept both those facts under lock and key.

Erna Sherman is seated near Miss Katie in the study at Park Villa, 12550 S. Ridgeland. She is one day shy of her 100th birthday.

“Party day!” she exclaimed when reminded of the big celebration coming.

Miss Erna is blind but she rarely seems to miss things around her. She engages her visitor with a quick wit and strong recollections about her life, even though some of those memories drift a little off-course.

“My husband was a movie star,” she said so emphatically that a long-time family friend had to be consulted for a bit of fact-checking. Alas, Miss Erna’s husband never had a brush with Hollywood.

“I’m kind of old, you’ll probably have to help me (with memories),” she said with a smile.

Born and raised near West 49th Street and South Marshfield Avenue in Chicago, Miss Erna was a congregation member at St. Martini Evangelical Lutheran church, where she was baptized and where she attended school.

“We were Chicago people, good people” she said of her family that included her parents, her sisters Hattie, Elma and Elvina as well as a brother, George. Her mother, Minnie, lived to be almost 100.

She roots for the Chicago White Sox and says she attended a lot of games when she was growing up. But now? “Forget it, you can’t afford it,” she laughed.

Miss Erna loves to sing and is partial to performing the old hymn “Amazing Grace.”

As a young woman, Miss Erna and her best friend, Elda Mangrove got jobs at one of Chicago’s many candy-making companies of the era. Erna ate so much chocolate she got sick and quit after only one week, said Shelby Kampert, Elda Mangrove’s daughter.

“They were like the Bobsey Twins,” recalled Kampert, saying the two best friends dressed identically, from clothing to jewelry. “They’d even call each other to find out what the other was going to wear.”

Miss Erna eventually became a factory worker at the Argo Corn Starch plant. She married a man named Edward and they had two daughters: Marlo and the late Merna, as well as four grandchildren. Miss Erna lived in Alsip for more than 50 years after leaving the old Chicago neighborhood.

“I never thought I’d live to be 100,” she says. “You get so busy, you don’t even think about the years. You don’t have time to be worried about anything.”

During a break in conversation, Miss Erna is given a cup of coffee by staff as time for the visit draws near a close.

“Tea in the morning and coffee in the afternoon,” she said cheerfully. “And in the evening, we dance!”

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