Veatrice Henson is a member of an elite club. At 106, Henson’s age makes her a rarity.
Only .02 percent of Jackson County’s approximately 674,000 residents will live to join the unofficial club of centenarians, says Jeff Pinkerton, a senior researcher at Mid-America Regional Council, who analyzed 2010 census data.
But, those who know Henson realize the Grain Valley woman's longevity is far from her only defining characteristic.
She’s also compassionate and a good hugger, something she freely offered to clients seeking assistance at Grain Valley Assistance Council, the Community Services League provider, where until recently she volunteered each week. Her role was helping clients complete a form to receive a monthly box of food from Harvester’s food pantry.
Henson said she also benefitted from her volunteerism. “You meet all kinds of people,” she said. “I guess I just enjoy people. I felt like it was part of my duty to help others in need.”
CSL Director Donna Compton said she first worked with Henson during the 1980s when both were volunteers. Compton said Henson kept busy even during slow times at CSL, when she crocheted quilts for new great-great grandchildren and pot holders, doilies and placemats for fellow CSL staff. “She was just fascinating,” Compton said. “I just loved to hear her talk.” CSL recognized Henson’s volunteer efforts during a senior citizen luncheon in May, where they announced her retirement. A photo of Henson, in honor of her retirement, received the most Facebook “likes” of any picture CSL ever had posted, Compton said.
Henson said giving up her CSL position has been hard. Helen Roller, Henson’s daughter, lives with her mother and is her caretaker. She said it was getting increasingly difficult to get her mother ready for the eight-hour shift every Wednesday. “I try to fill my time with something else,” Henson said, offering that she now has more time to crochet baby blankets for her great-great grandchildren. When asked how many great-great grandchildren, Henson and her daughter counted 15 with two on the way. Henson also spends a lot of time reading. Her favorite book? The Bible.
Henson’s long life began in 1911, three years before the start of World War I and one of her first memories is of soldiers marching through her hometown of Springfield, Missouri, during a military parade. She was 5 or 6 at the time.
Like most Americans, Henson’s family relied on horse and buggy for travel and didn’t own a car until the 1920s.
In winter, the family used wood-burning stoves to heat their home. Henson remembers using the stove to bake her own birthday cake at age 10 because her mother had given birth to Henson’s brother only two days before. “Momma was directing me from bed,” she remembered. Henson’s formal education ended with the eighth grade, a common practice at the time.
Henson remembers having one soft-bodied, china head doll and has no memories of other toys. “We kind of made our own fun,” she said. “There wasn’t much to do.” She and her siblings used to “play house” in the yard by lining up rocks on the ground to form room boundaries.
She remembers helping her dad and only brother bale hay by riding the family’s old work horse, which refused to pull a shaft that worked the baler. She picked strawberries for a neighbor each year, earning 3 cents a quart, but doesn’t remember ever spending the money. “It probably went to help put food on the table,” Roller said.
“We didn’t know we were (poor), Henson said, adding, “everybody else was in the same shape.” Meal staples were beans, cornbread and biscuits but the family also usually had meat since her dad was a butcher. “We ate what we had and was thankful for it,” she said. She remembers doing daily chores, such as washing dishes by hand and making beds. At Christmas, she and her siblings received socks, underwear and an orange or apple, which was a special treat since they were out-of-season. She never remembers eating candy as a child.
Her mother made underwear and outerwear from flour sacks since that was the only available material. Henson doesn’t remember visiting a general store during her childhood. “Whatever we had, Dad brought from a general store somewhere,” she said.
She met her future husband, Chester Henson, who lived 5 miles away, when she was 13 and he was 16. The two first met when Veatrice went to retrieve mail from the family mailbox and Chester was walking nearby with his brother. Family lore holds that Chester told his brother, “There’s the gal I’m gonna marry,’” Roller said. The couple married in 1928 when Veatrice was 17 and Chester was 20. Helen was born a year later.
During World War II, Henson worked doing laundry for soldiers at O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield, which treated wounded enlisted men and served as a camp for German prisoners, Roller said. Chester worked as the hospital ground’s landscaper. They were married 69 and a half years until Chester died in 1997 at age 89, she said.
Henson offered advice for a happy, long marriage. “Respect,” she said. “I held my own with him. I had my say and he had his and 10 minutes later, you forgot what it was you were fighting about.” Roller remembered the special bond between her parents. “Where one went, the other did,” she said. “They were still sweethearts. They still held hands.” Roller said her parents served as a role model for the family’s younger generations, which she credits with helping the family avoid divorce. “Even the grandchildren talk about patterning their married lives after Grandma and Grandpa,” she said.
The couple didn’t let the Great Depression prevent them, in 1935, from joining 17 other people in financing construction of the tiny town’s first church, High Street Baptist. “We didn’t have anything to go on,” Henson said, adding that they took out a second mortgage on their home to help finance construction. “We just lived off faith,” she said. The old building was in disrepair when members decided it was time for a new building, and, in 1978, the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a reception in the new building.
When asked for a key to her longevity, Henson credited “clean living.” But, Roller said she believes genetics plays a large role. Henson’s mother lived to be 102 and family reunions are awash with relatives who are in their 90s, most of whom walk without assistance. Henson said while she’s happy to have lived so long, she has never set goals for living to a certain age. “Whenever the good Lord is ready to take me, that’s it,” she said. “I don’t worry about tomorrow – it’ll come.”