102-year-old Vera Coykendall: 'So happy to be here'
by Sherrie Norris
"I'm just so happy to be here," Coykendall said.
She came to the High Country seven years ago from Florida to be near her daughter, Beth Jones.A current resident of Forest Ridge in West Jefferson, Coykendall lived at Appalachian Brian Estates and Deerfield Ridge in Boone prior to a fall last October that resulted in a fractured hip.
Her condition fluctuated following the break to the point of requiring hospice care; her condition improved and she had surgery to repair the fracture. "Her anesthesiologist was fascinated that her medical condition really only required Tylenol and a vitamin, on a normal day, with vital signs better than a 40-year-old," Jones said.
A native of Rochester, N.Y., Coykendall said she has had "an interesting life," and one that has been lived to its fullest. She said she never dreamed of making it to 100 -- or going beyond, but it's not surprising that she inherited the genes of her grandmother, who lived to age 103.
Coykendall was 16 when her father died from having his tonsils removed in a barbershop. As the oldest child of five at the time, she helped her mother raise her siblings.
Prior to her birth, her parents had lost three children at one time whose deaths were attributed to eating soup made from wild mushrooms found in the woods. Her brother, Austin, became her parents' fourth child to die when he was killed at 22 in an auto accident.
Coykendall captured the independent spirit of her mother and said determination was her secret to longevity.
Coykendall and her husband, a career military engineer who was awarded a full medical discharge after contracting tuberculosis, parented two children: Beth, and Joel, who makes his home in Jacksonville, Fla.
She was a busy wife and mother who volunteered in various church, community and civic affairs. During the 1950s, she established a club for the wives of retired military officers in Ft. Lauderdale.
She was a longtime Girl Scout leader, but never thought it appropriate to have her daughter in her own troop.
And, she loved to play bridge, "lots of bridge," she said.
"Back in the day," she said, "married women didn't work or at least we didn't get paid for what we did."
Coykendall has had a lifelong affection for animals; her daughter remembers stories of how she dressed up their animals for parades, including the family's donkey, with a peach basket tied on his head.
"She was always able to find joy in the smallest of life's events," Jones said.
Coykendall remembers having lived through several wars, and the Great Depression, and said she has had her share of good times and bad.
In particular, she recalls the flags flying to signify the end of World War I. She remembers, as a volunteer for the Red Cross, during World War II, driving dignitaries from place to place, "and nearly scaring them to death."
According to her daughter, "She always says another depression would help people become more appreciative, capable and respectful."
One of her most vivid memories was made while attending the premiere of "Gone With The Wind" with other Army wives in the 1930s at Fort Jackson, S.C. "I got scared and left the theater as people around me shouted, 'Damn the Yankees.'"
Her admiration for the South has since improved. "I love living here in these beautiful mountains-- and the people are so good to me," she said.
Coykendall has long been known for her straightforward thinking, an outgoing personality and a keen sense of humor.
She easily relates stories from her vast collection of life's experiences. Among the most recent that still "stings," she said, is being encouraged to relinquish her driving privileges at 95.
"She has told me that she 'may go get another license and buy one of the villas at Forest Ridge," Jones said.
Coykendall has known her share of "important people" through the years, and remembers well George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company. "He sponsored dispensaries in all the schools and provided dental fillings and cleanings to students for 5 and 10 cents," she said.
Having had good dental care instilled in her at an early age, she has "good teeth" -- and only two fillings. She is the favorite patient of Boone dentist, Todd Moore, who she tells every six months during her checkups that shaving his beard would make him look younger.
She hates onions "because of those smelly poultices my mother and grandmother put on my chest when I was a child." Otherwise, her daughter said, her motto could easily be, "Everything in moderation."
Coykendall became a widow in 1970. "My mother had good friends -- mostly men," Jones said. "She has always been observant, and sensitive, to those who found themselves alone," Prior to her husband's death, she had not worked out of the home, but helped with his business transactions. "Her own 'big deal,' her daughter described, "was buying and selling real estate along the Florida coast."
Coykendall admitted that her greatest pride is in her children, and especially her four "successful" grandchildren -- a teacher, accountant, doctor and lawyer -- who heeded her advice about education always being "the ticket."
She also has nine amazing great-grandchildren, she said, adding that she loves to surround herself with younger people who enjoy life.
Two years past the century mark, she's still going strong and loving every minute.