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Miss Mabel’s Miracle: Knox County woman turns 105

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Mabel Freas

Mabel Freas, 105, sits in her Apple Valley home on June 13, 2019.

HOWARD – As time progresses, the wires connecting present and past begin to fray.

Today, the remnants of life pre-World War I are largely artifactual. Books, letters, photographs. They’re in museums and basements, where the sun can’t find them.

Except in Knox County, in a little tan house overlooking Apple Valley Lake. There’s a live wire here.

“Grandma, come on! Your interview!”

Here she comes. One of Knox County’s – and Ohio’s – last living connections to the century prior. She shuffles into the dining room just after 9 a.m. on this cool, June morning; bright white shoes strapped around her tiny feet, pink water cup in-hand. No walker needed.

“Good morning,” she says.

Firm handshake. Kerosine smile. This is history talking.

Mabel Freas turned 105 years old on May 24. She was born two months before the start of World War I; 13 years before television; 15 years before the start of the Great Depression.

She remembers little about that time. Every now and then, vivid details will seep through the cracks. But it’s been a century, after all.

“People don’t believe it, of course,” her granddaughter-in-law, Anita Hooper, says.

Mabel smiles.

How did she get here? How does someone – anyone – live to be 105 years old? What’s her secret?

Mabel Freas 105th birthday

Mabel Freas, center, celebrates her 105th birthday with family and friends.

Maybe it has something to do with the small town of Branchland, West Virginia, where she was raised; something to do with her favorite phrase, consisting of three little words; something to do with the ability to turn heartbreak into hope.

“Good lord’s taken care of me,” Mabel says, her voice cracking.

Maybe a little bit of that, too.

***

Mabel Prichard was born on May 24, 1914, in Branchland, West Virginia. Branchland is an unincorporated village tucked deep into the mountains on the southwest side of the state. Coal mining town. Pass-through point. An hour from anywhere.

It was here where Mabel found her spunk.

Mabel was the oldest of 11 children. Her father was a coal miner and her mother tended to the family farm, which included two milk cows, a garden and a field of corn. When they came of age, each child was expected to hoe one acre a day.

It was the kind of town where people leaned on each other. After Mabel walked a mile through the hills to grade school each day, she and her classmates would each hand their teacher a vegetable. Mabel still remembers how her teacher would return at lunchtime with soup – the smell of potatoes, onions and carrots wafting through the air – for everyone to eat.

To the Prichards, family was everything. After a long day’s work, they always came together for supper. Mabel’s mother, her long hair tucked neatly into a bun, served heavenly meals. A century later, Mabel can still taste her homemade biscuits.

“She always had plenty for us to eat,” Mabel recalled.

As the Great Depression sent America’s industrial economy spiraling, the Prichards barely noticed. They were entirely self-sufficient, Mabel said. They ate from their own land.

Mabel graduated from sixth grade before coming home to work full-time. She eventually left the farm for a lifetime of work in various jobs – grocery store cashier, wedding cake caterer, car brake manufacturer and home care provider – until the age of 90, when she was no longer able to drive.

It’s unclear how long her siblings stayed in school, but many went into the coal mining business after they were old enough to work. Many died young; aside from Mabel, only the two youngest siblings remain. Cheryl, 77, still lives on the property. Tom, 84, lives across the street.

Two years ago, Anita and her husband, Robert (Mabel’s grandson), took Mabel back down to Branchland for a family reunion. Mabel remembers very little from her childhood, but once they got close to “the home place,” she remembered where she was. Even with her eyesight declining, something felt familiar about the tight, winding hills.

These were the hills that made Mabel Freas who she is today. Growing up with 10 siblings, she learned to scrap for what she had. She learned how to work hard. She learned how to become self-dependent.

Danny Vanscoy, Mabel’s pastor for three decades at Hilliard Church of Christ, believes there’s a direct parallel between her upbringing and the way she’s aged. At 105, she doesn’t use a walker – “that’s for old people,” she says – and she rarely asks for help. She rarely needs it.

“She wanted to do it herself. She had a giant ‘want-to.’ And I think that is what’s kept her going,” Vanscoy said. “Her attitude of life is so tremendous and I don’t think she really wanted other people to baby her. That might have been part of the fact that she was a member of such a large family. Mom and dad only got two arms, you know?”

***

Mabel’s natural independence is countered by another key survival trait: her ability to maintain friendships through the years.

According to a 2017 study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, friendships become increasingly important as people grow older. Those with long-term friendships are more likely to be happy and healthy later in life, the study found.

This is certainly the case with Mabel.

Mabel remains close with a group of friends she met at Hilliard Church of Christ decades ago. Every February, they meet in Florida for a month-long vacation. They share memories, soak up the sun and eat breaded shrimp, one of Mabel’s favorite foods.

It’s the highlight of her year.

“We go out and eat all the time,” Mabel said. “We just go shoppin’, we go lookin’, go to the beach and different places.”

At 105, Mabel’s calendar is still full with get-togethers. She attends Round Lake Christian Camp twice a year for senior citizen retreats. And even though she can no longer drive, her friends will often come and visit her in Apple Valley. On her birthday this year, her friends took her to the Mansfield Bible Museum, which Hooper said she “thoroughly enjoyed.”

There’s a reason why so many call Mabel their friend, however; why she received 108 birthday cards this year, and over 50 people showed up to her party.

It has to do with the three words she tells everyone she sees at Central Christian Church on Sundays:

“I love you.”

The three words we don’t hear enough, pastor Andy Beatty says, are the ones Mabel makes sure to say every day.

“When I think of what really makes Mabel special and causes her to stick out, it has less to do with her age and more about the way that she loves,” Beatty said. “Mabel is one of a kind. I am a better father, husband, football coach, and minister for having known her. She has shown the profound impact that love can have on people.”

Vanscoy experienced this love in 1978, when he first met Mabel at Hilliard Church of Christ.

Danny and his wife, Carmen, had just moved to Hilliard from West Virginia, where he’d spent the past nine years preaching. He was set to become Hilliard Church of Christ’s next minister. New state, new town, new church. New family, too – Danny and Carmen had a two-year-old son at the time, and they’d have another two years later.

What did Mabel do? She let them in.

Mabel invited the Vanscoys over for dinner and games every Monday night. She and her second husband, Harold “Shorty” Freas, had attended Hilliard Church of Christ for several years at that point. "They did not have a big, fancy home,” Danny Vanscoy recalled, but they expanded the kitchen so everyone would have room to eat.

“She became almost like a grandparent to my kids,” Vanscoy said. “It never had to do with money, it never had to do with gifts. It always had to do with just being a friend.”

Mabel and Shorty

Mabel and Harold "Shorty" Freas

Mabel’s involvement in local churches has allowed her to share her love through service.

When she lived in Hilliard, she would open her home to visiting speakers and church guests. She volunteered to cook at seemingly every church dinner, Vanscoy said. “There was no hesitation. She eagerly signed up.”

At the age of 100, Mabel found herself volunteering once again at Central Christian Church. She would ride in the church vans every Wednesday to pick up kids for the midweek youth program. She would hug them all – no matter how stinky, shy or troubled – and tell them she loved them.

This was standard practice for Mabel, but Beatty said it likely changed the kids’ lives.

“Mabel is one of the most amazing people that I have ever had the opportunity to be around. That's not an exaggeration either,” said Beatty, who has known Mabel for 10 years. “It seems like as she gets older, she just keeps getting more loving.”

***

There is a grave reality to turning 105. Beneath the smiles and the congratulations lay pain.

Mabel Freas married twice, each time for approximately 25 years. She had to bury both of her husbands.

She had 10 siblings, all raised under the same West Virginia roof. Two remain; she’s had to bury eight.

She had one son, Robert Hooper, whom she loved more than anyone in the world. When he began suffering from dementia, Mabel moved in to care for him. He passed away on January 25 at the age of 83.

Mabel Freas had to bury her only child.

Mabel and son

Mabel and her son, Robert L. Hooper.

How does one cope with this volume of loss? Not to mention the countless friends Mabel has had to say goodbye to over the past half decade.

“She feels like she knows more people in heaven than she does on Earth,” Beatty said.

At some point, she made peace with reality.

“She has accepted the fact that people live and people die,” Vanscoy said. “It hurt her, but she accepted it.”

Somehow, during Mabel’s darkest hours, she learned how to channel that pain into positivity. Her ability to do so is rare; many become worn down by the continual heartbreak that comes with outliving loved ones.

“She hasn’t always had a good life. I mean, she’s had a tough life,” Vanscoy said. “But her attitude about life never changed.”

Mabel’s resiliency has inspired those around her. When her son moved into Country Court Nursing Center several years ago, at the end of a long battle with dementia, Mabel brought smiles to the building.

“Miss Mabel would walk in the door and she always had a beautiful smile, she always looked nice,” recalled Heather Thomas, activities director at Country Court Nursing Center. “She always gave great hugs and kissed you on the cheek and told you that she loved you. She knew all of our names; she knows all of our names.”

As Robert’s cognitive status declined, Mabel sat by his side every day. She brought him cologne and nice clothes, and she made him homemade birthday cakes. She patted his leg and spoke softly to him. She wheeled him out to the window so he could enjoy the sun.

“In his final days she did not want to leave his side,” Thomas said. “And that’s hard on anybody that’s younger – it’s exhausting sitting with someone while they’re transitioning into passing – but she did it and she did it gracefully.”

Thomas and the staff at Country Court were amazed by Mabel’s positivity. Those closest to Mabel know it comes from her faith.

“She really believes in heaven,” Vanscoy said. “She really believes that God’s people go to heaven.”

Through all the change Mabel has experienced – all the loss – her spirituality has remained. It provided a routine she could rely on.

When life came crashing down, she had her Bible, which she read every day until her eyes failed her. She had her church community, which she visited on a near-nightly basis.

“She never missed a service,” Vanscoy said.

Mabel and friends

Mabel and a friend from church.

There were, and still are, rough days. Sometimes Mabel would grow quiet, Vanscoy said, “and you could see her pondering things in her mind.” But it wouldn’t be long before she’d pick her head up and begin helping someone else.

“She never gave up. She wanted another day to live and another day to help somebody else,” Vanscoy said. “When she would go through these hard times, it wasn’t about, ‘Woe is me.’ It was about the other person that’s having the hard time.”

Mabel looks forward to the day when she will reunite with her friends and loved ones. She’ll give them each a big hug and tell them she loves them. She’ll tell them about everything that’s happened since they passed. They’ll ask her what took so long.

What a reunion that will be.

***

It’s hard to tell if Mabel Freas is the oldest person in Knox County. But based off local and state research, it appears likely.

Knox Pages spoke with representatives from five Mount Vernon nursing homes, and none had seen or heard of anyone reaching the 105-year-old mark. Hospice of North Central Ohio and District 5 of the Area Agency on Aging reached the same verdict.

It’s possible that there may be another Knox County resident out there, just like Mabel, who does not need assistance and therefore would be unknown to these agencies. It’s also possible that older residents in certain areas of the county would seek out-of-county help.

However, census data implies Mabel is one of the oldest residents in not only Knox County, but also the state.

According to U.S. census population estimates, there were 72,000 centenarians living in America in 2018. That represented just .02 percent of the country’s population.

If national statistics mirrored state and local figures, that means there were approximately 12 centenarians in Knox County in 2018, and 2,320 in Ohio. That doesn’t account for the likelihood that even fewer residents would have made it to 105.

When Teresa Cook heard of Mabel’s age, she was shocked.

Cook is the VP of marketing and development for District 5 of the Area Agency on Aging, which offers services from cradle to grave, but has a particularly strong foothold in the local edlerly community. Cook’s district encompasses nine counties in central Ohio, including Knox, and she said she’d never seen a client reach the 105-year-old mark.

Her office has worked with centenarians, however, and she said there are some common traits that many share.

Centenarians are active, she said, both physically and mentally. Instead of feeling home-bound, isolated or lonely, most centenarians are able to remain involved in their community. They have friends, aside from their caretakers, who they can talk to about everything from the weather to life’s deepest questions.

Additionally, Cook said most centenarians are passionate about volunteerism later on in life. They often have a relentlessly positive attitude; no matter what gets thrown their way, they bounce right back.

“I know we’ve all experienced a person that sees the glass half full, that positive, ‘Yes, this is a bump in the road but I’m going to move forward’ – I see that a lot in our ones that are aging in that 90-100 range,” Cook said. “They just have, I don’t know if you want to call it grit or determination, that ‘I’m going to keep going.’”

Mabel certainly fits the bill.

She has all the intangibles and habits Cook mentioned. Plus, genetics are on her side. Mabel’s mother lived to be 95 and her father, a coal miner, lived to be 97.

Mabel has also managed to maintain remarkable health over her 105 years. To her family’s knowledge, she’s only had to stay overnight at the hospital once – not even when she gave birth to her son. Mabel still remembers that night, as if it irritates her to this day.

“They gave me all kinds of tests, they kept me overnight, they examined me from head to toe. Kept me all day the next day to run tests,” she recalled. “They didn’t find a thing.”

Mabel Freas

Mabel Freas on her 104th birthday.

Mabel doesn’t have any secrets when it comes to her near-perfect health. She drinks chocolate milk and eats donuts. She grew up on homegrown meals, but when Vanscoy and his wife would visit her in Mount Vernon, they’d take her to her favorite Chinese restaurant in town. She’s been active, but not overly so. She wakes up at 6:30 and goes to bed at 10.

All in all, she’s kept things pretty simple.

“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I never did,” Mabel said. “Just lived a good life.”

***

On this particular Thursday in June, Mabel sits at the kitchen table with her hands clasped.

Aside from “loving,” the second-most-used adjective to describe Mabel among her friends is “ornery.” Exhibit A:

“They’re so mean to me,” Mabel says, smiling wryly.

She’s talking about the Hoopers – Robert (the third) and Anita – who have taken her in since she moved to Knox County permanently five years ago.

Anita, sitting mere inches from Mabel, shoots her a loving glare.

“I know, it’s awful.”

The two break into laughter. This is life for Mabel now. She has a hard time hearing and a harder time reading, but she still manages to enjoy just about everything.

She still attends church every Sunday, sitting four rows back. She likes to play 500-card Rummy “and she’s pretty darn good at it, too,” Anita said. She watches the hummingbirds flutter by on the Hoopers’ front porch; “There were two there last night,” she interjects. She goes out to eat and goes on trips, and she still doesn’t need a walker.

At 105, she still does what she wants.

When the Hoopers moved to Apple Valley five years ago, they did it with Mabel in mind. They bought a house with only two steps to get in and out. Mabel’s room is on the first floor, right near the front door, and only a few shuffles from the living room, bathroom and kitchen.

“We’ve just tried to make her as comfortable as possible,” Anita said. “She spoils us, but she says we spoil her, so I guess it’s an even match.”

Robert, Mabel’s grandson, remembers the day he moved Mabel and her son out of their previous living arrangement in Florida, so that they could come to Apple Valley for more convenient care. Mabel’s friends in the community questioned whether their friend would be cared for appropriately – because those are the kind of friends Mabel has.

“Are you OK with this?” one of Mabel’s friends asked her as they pulled out of the trailer park.

“You don’t know my grandson,” she reassured them.

To Robert and Anita, taking care of Mabel has been less of a responsibility and more of a privilege.

“This is our honor,” said Robert, who recently retired as Kenyon College’s longtime campus safety director. “She’ll never want for anything on my watch... Family takes care of family.”

Statistically speaking, Mabel is a national treasure. She’s part of the .02 percent, like an artifact at the Smithsonian warranting the utmost protection.

Soon, however, there may be more like Mabel – or at least more to keep the same pace.

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, the world’s centenarian population is expected to grow eightfold by 2050. United Nations data indicates that the world’s centenarian population quadrupled from 1990 to 2015, and the 80-plus population increased at a similar clip.

While America is aging less quickly than many other developed countries, as the U.S. News & World Report calculated America’s centenarian population increased 65 percent from 1980-2010, it’s safe to say the country’s population is still growing older. As baby boomers reach their golden years, the country’s population will age quickly.

This all means one thing: over the coming decades, there will be more to reach the 100-year mark. Maybe more to reach 105.

But will any live life like Mabel Freas?

She rode a motorcycle on her 100th birthday. She traveled to Florida, by herself, at 104. And at 105, she stood on her own power as a church full of her closest friends sang her ‘Happy Birthday.’

All of this follows a century of hard work, persistent faith and unconditional love.

“She just keeps plugging along,” Anita says, glancing over at Mabel. It’s unclear if Mabel can hear her, but she smiles anyway. She knows.

“The good lord is keeping her here for a reason.”


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