Unlike most women, Ghema Darnell, Dottie Lee Turner, and Mary Dobbs have lived to see 19 U.S. president, five wars, gasoline priced at six cents a gallon, and a man walk on the moon.
These three women, residents of the Jackson Square Skilled Nursing and Living Center, 5130 W. Jackson, have all lived to be more than 100 years old.
Ghema Darnell, will celebrate her 102nd birthday on Oct. 16 whereas Dottie Turner is still celebrating her 101st birthday (Aug. 7). Mary Dobbs, the youngest of the three, will be 101 later this fall.
Curious as to the annals of history stored in the three women’s minds, and in search of the secret to living longer and aging well, I sat down at Jackson Square to have a conversation with them. The ladies were all dressed up, their beautifully aged faces illuminated by beaming smiles and wise eyes.
I first spoke with Ghema, her daughters Dorothy Hillman and Geneva Searcy, and her granddaughter, Torria Denise Muhammad. Ghema did not have much to say; she mainly sat and smiled while her family gave vivid details of her life.
“She was born in Sulligent, Ala., in 1908,” Geneva said, “and moved here about 10 years ago to be closer to us.”
She lived most of her life in Jasper, Ala., with her husband, Shelby, of 45 years. Shelby died in 1980. Together they raised seven children. Ghema’s family describes her as loving to read, a pastime she developed while working in a local library. “
“She still likes to read newspapers, especially the Chicago Tribune’s horoscope section,” Geneva said. “She also likes history, fashion magazines and action movies.”
In her earlier years, Ghema was an excellent seamstress, a skill she passed on to her daughters.
“My mother would draft her own patterns from newspaper,” Dorothy said. “She would see something in the store and say, ‘Don’t buy that, I can make that.’ And sure enough, she would go home and cut her pattern and make it,” Geneva added.
As a Jackson Square resident, Ghema doesn’t get to exercise her true love of scratch cooking. Her specialty is fried pies made from fresh apples and peaches.
“Now her favorite anytime food is Popeye’s Fried Chicken,” Geneva said. “Every time I come to visit, I have to bring her some
An avid sports fan, she loves everything about Tiger Woods and roots heartily for the Atlanta Braves.
Ghema has a wonderful sense of humor, but she is short on patience. Midway through the interview she kept saying, ‘I am tired of this.’ We were able to convince her to allow a few more minutes before going to lunch.
In her younger days, Ghema was known as a fancy dresser who only 10 years ago traded her 3-inch high heels for sensible shoes and a wheelchair, which she uses to navigate the halls of Jackson Square. Rising early each day, she puts high demands on the staff.
When asked about the secret to living long and living well, the answer was eating well and being in God’s favor. Ghema, a devout Methodist, served as an usher at her church for many years.
She has witnessed many great historical events, including the election of America’s first black president. Though she did not get to vote for Barack Obama, his election made her very proud. In response to his election, she said, “That’s a good thing. I thought we would never see that.” She regularly follows his presidency in the news and often asks her children, “What is he doing now?”
Dottie Lee Turner
Unlike Miss Ghema, Dottie Lee Turner did get to vote for Barack Obama. An active, alert and talkative woman, Dottie said, “I thought I would never see the election of a black president in my lifetime. Those white folks don’t want no black man running things. I was surprised and happy.”
Miss Dottie, a retired Chicago Public School teacher’s aide, only recently moved into Jackson Square. Just last year she lived alone in a South Side senior building, enjoying the freedom of traveling, doing her own hair and shopping at Walgreens, her favorite thing to do.
Her favorite restaurant is Red Lobster, where she could often be seen dressed up and enjoying a delicious seafood meal. “I would not be seen dressed unproperly,” Dottie said. “I love clothes and shoes.”
This 101-year-old likes to keep her hair done, wear nice clothes and “Sunday go to meeting hats,” and talk fluently about her life, which was full of excitement, including travels to Niagara Falls and “anywhere I could go,” she said.
“You know there were a lot of places black people couldn’t go back then,” she added.
She was born an only child in El Dorado, Ark. Shortly after graduating high school in 1935, she followed her two best friends to Chicago.
“We were inseparable. We did everything together. We would go out and party and enjoy a good scotch,” she said with a sly smile and twinkling eyes.
When asked about her favorite birthday, she recalls last year when her niece, Mary Collier, took her up to the Sears Tower.
“I had been planning to go for years,” Dottie said, “but I kept putting it off. Then she put her foot down and we went. It was so exciting.”
Dottie was married to Lu Turner who died in 2005. They did not have any children. Not sure just when she actually met her husband, she remembers him coming into a hot dog restaurant where she worked.
“One day he came in and said, ‘Serve me the same thing you served me the last time I was in here,'” she recalled. “I did not remember ever seeing him, let alone what I served him, so I gave him a hot dog and that was fine.”
A lifelong Southsider, Dottie was a faithful, 50-year member at Tabernacle Baptist Church. She moved to Jackson Square to be closer to her niece, her only living relative.
When asked about her secret to living long and well, Dottie laughed and said, “I never thought about living this long. I guess the secret to living long is learning how to mind your own business. Minding your own business will keep you safe,” she added.
The youngest and least vocal of the three ladies, Mary Dobbs mainly sat quietly during our conversation. Her family was not present to assist with the interview
Mary, who worked as a domestic most of her life, has been a resident at Jackson Square since 1998. She enjoys visitors and dressing up. Between questions, she would smile sweetly and ask, “Do you like me? Do you think I’m pretty?” With no other choice than to be truthful, I had to answer, “Yes, Miss Mary, I like you very much, and I think you are beautiful.”
These three women total more than 300 years of African-American and women’s history. As divergent as their paths have been, they have also lived somewhat parallel lives. Each saw most of the last century, survived into this century, endured racism, and has unique stories and gifts to share.