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MANSFIELD — “May you live forever and I never die.”
For years, that’s been Ida Mae Thompson’s favorite blessing to offer during a toast.
And while no one can live forever, Thompson’s spirit of youthfulness has kept her going longer than most. She celebrated her 101st birthday Monday.
Thompson’s relatives believe she’s one of Mansfield’s oldest African American residents. She recently served as the parade marshal for the city’s Juneteenth parade.
Thompson survived three cases of COVID-19, but her health isn’t what it used to be. Despite her plans to never get old, she doesn’t get out nearly as much anymore and struggles with dementia.
Nevertheless, she still retains a sense of humor. When asked how old she’d be turning a few days before her birthday, she groaned a little.
“Oh, I don’t want to say,” she replied.
Thompson was born in New Orleans in 1922, where her family members had been enslaved just six decades years before. She grew up in Willard, where her father worked as a laborer for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Her mother was a homemaker, keeping an impeccable house while raising Ida and her seven younger siblings.
According to her family members, Thompson and her ex-husband were the first Black residents of Willard to build their own house. Their hard work and resilience laid the foundation for their family members to continue breaking barriers for generations.
Her daughter, Helen Marie, was Willard’s first Black cheerleader. Another daughter, Shirley, adopted her youngest child as a single mother in the 1970s.
Thompson’s granddaughter Andrea became the first in the family to go to college, earning a communications degree from Mount Vernon Nazarene University and a teaching certificate from Ashland University.
Thompson sat in on classes with her, soaking up the college experience she never got to pursue. According to Andrea, her grandmother attended school only until the ninth or 10th grade. She worked various jobs in the years that followed, from catering to factory work.
“She was always busy trying to make a living,” Shirley said. “She did a little bit of everything.”
Much of Thompson’s time was spent keeping house and providing childcare for Willard’s wealthy families. Andrea often accompanied her grandmother while her own mother worked.
“When you watch movies like ‘The Help,’ that’s what my grandmother did,” Andrea said. “She did day work. She took care of the doctors and the lawyers and their houses and children. She cooked. She worked hard.
“I just remember her taking care of other people’s children,” she added. “They loved her. We still get calls today (to ask how she’s doing).”
“Tough love” may be the best way to describe Thompson’s method for raising children. Family members say she was a blend of both.
“She was a stern woman. She made us study hard,” Shirley recalled. “She taught us how to clean house, how to wash, iron, cook — even the boys.
“She didn’t believe in anybody just sitting around. Everybody had to be doing something.”
When one of her sons struggled in school, Thompson drove him from Willard to Bowling Green for special tutoring. He eventually got back on track and graduated high school.
“Whatever deficit he had, he conquered it,” Andrea said. “She made sure that her kids were able to function in this society.”
Thompson didn’t stop at keeping her own children in line. Years later, she became a regular fixture at Andrea’s bar, The Barbershop Lounge.
Thompson would sit perched in the corner on an old-school barbershop seat. Eventually, a plaque that read “The Diva’s Chair” was installed above it.
“When you walked into the bar, she was the first person you saw,” Andrea said. “She kept (the patrons) in order.”
When Thompson was in the bar, people knew better than to get into fights or walk in with their pants sagging.
“If they came in there looking scroungy or their hat was turned backwards, she said, ‘Hey, turn that hat around. You don’t come in here looking like a hobo,'” Shirley recalled.
“She would rule the roost in there. She didn’t get tired. The bar closed at 2:30 a.m. and then we’d clean up and she’s still sitting there.”
A no-nonsense attitude wasn’t the only reason relatives nicknamed Thompson the diva of the family. She also had a top-notch sense of style and a knack for finding a good deal.
“She would get a $150 purse for $50,” Shirley said. “That’s how she shopped. She knew good materials from bad materials. She knew how to shop for the sales on good things.”
For Shirley and Andrea, she was the definition of class.
“As far as I’m concerned, she was the queen, like Queen Elizabeth,” Andrea said. “She would always have the sharpest clothes. Everything had to be in order.”
Her great-granddaughter Bree used a more modern word — bougie. No one in the family denies she loved fashion, manicures and getting her nails done.
Thompson also enjoyed gambling on occasion. She loved scratch-off lottery tickets and once won $1,200 at a casino in Indiana.
In the 1990s, she won $32,000 on Cash Explosion, a game show sponsored by the Ohio Lottery.
Shirley credits her mother’s longevity to her good genes and strong faith.
“The only thing that I can say is God,” she said.
That faith is another thing she’s passed down her family line. Andrea said the biggest lesson she’s learned from Thompson is to put God first.
“’Make your own way, even though things may not be fair,'” Andrea said, listing off other bits of wisdom she’s picked up over the years.
“Do not quit a job until you get another one. Make sure you can do many things to survive in this world.”