by Constance Garcia-Barrio
A half dozen of the more than 100 centenarians honored at Mayor Kenney’s May 29 luncheon in the ballroom at Sugar House Casino hailed from Northwest Philadelphia. Their memories provide a measure of both lives fully lived and, in some cases, how Germantown and Mt. Airy have progressed over the decades.
For example, Elizabeth May Thomas De Lagarde, 101, went to Germantown High School in the early 1930s.
“It was a good school, but we [black students] couldn’t attend the prom,” De Lagarde said. “White and colored students got along, but there was no social mixing.”
De Lagarde studied at Howard University from 1936 to 1940 and majored in sociology. Later, she married, had three sons “and, finally, a girl,” she said, and then smiled and glanced at her daughter, who’d brought her to the luncheon.
De Lagarde’s husband was the director of the first public housing project in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, while she became assistant principal at the Charlotte Amalie High School, a public school in the St. Thomas-St. John School District.
A widow now, De Lagarde returned to the U.S. at age 90 because her children live here.
“I’m happy,” said De Lagarde, who lives at Wesley Enhanced Living at Stapeley. “Whatever I do, I enjoy myself.”
Fellow Stapeley resident Goldye (pronounced Goldie) Johnson didn’t make it to the party, but at 107, she’s the oldest person not only in the Northwest but in all Philadelphia, according to records of the Social Security Administration.
Born in 1912 when women lived an average of 51.8 years, Johnson, a librarian, earned a master’s degree from Lincoln University. She likes to listen to music and recite poetry and passages from the Bible.
Russell Harvey, a lifelong Germantown resident, has become Philadelphia’s oldest man at 103. He recalls when horse-and-wagon traffic filled the Northwest’s streets and when the Colonial, a movie house built in 1913 on the 5500 block of Germantown Avenue, drew children by the dozens with its Saturday afternoon feature.
“I would go even though we [black people] had to sit in the balcony,” he said. “Sometimes, the movies ended with cliffhangers, and you kept coming back to find out what happened.”
A widower, Harvey was married for 72 years.
“My wife and I didn’t have much, but we worked together,” he said. “Vivian [Mrs. Harvey] was the first African American to work for Bell Telephone. She earned $19 a week, and I made 42 cents an hour on a construction job.”
Harvey, who has two children – Connie, 81, and Albert, 85 – boiled down the secret of a good marriage to few words: “You have to pull together.”
A World War II veteran, Harvey once had a job that exposed him to a wide variety of people.
“I was a barkeep,” he said. “I served drinks, but I didn’t drink myself except occasionally with friends.”
On the other hand, what one imbibes can promote longevity, he believes. He credits “spigot water” [tap water] with helping him reach such an advanced age.
Harvey still drives and mows his own lawn. He likes to eat at the Reading Terminal Market, go to South Philly, buy Italian bread and eat it well-buttered.
During the celebration, Valdreace Hutcherson, 103, spry and stylish, jiggled to tunes like “Baby Face,” a hit in 1926. Her life grew more venturesome over time.
“I worked as a secretary in the school system until I married in 1953,” she said.
After her children were grown, she changed careers.
“I had a store at 22nd and Indiana, where I sold hosiery and other items,” she said. “I did that until the second time I was held up.”
While Hutcherson spoke, she tried to catch the eye of one of the musicians on stage who had flirted with her at a previous centenarian celebration.
“Last year, I sang along with all the songs , and he came down and talked with me – let me see if he’ll come down again,” she said, never missing a beat of the music.
Hutcherson enjoys life in the Northwest or wherever she might be, one suspects.
“I had a house on Lincoln Drive until I got too old to live alone,” she said. “Now I live on Upsal Street, cook my own meals and have fun.”
She offered her opinion about how to have a good life: “You have to be yourself.”
Constance Garcia-Barrio, a longtime Mt. Airy resident and retired professor of romance languages at West Chester University, is a freelance contributor to the Local and other Philadelphia area publications.