Birthday girl recalls a century

Gertrude Gibbs, now 101, enjoys the companionship of her daughter’s pup, pup Oscar Meyer. - Cynthia Woolbright
Gertrude Gibbs, now 101, enjoys the companionship of her daughter’s pup, pup Oscar Meyer.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

It was a Sunday.

Gertrude Gibbs remembers that, without a doubt. And although it’s been 101 years since that day, Gibbs is still sharp as a tack on the facts and she’ll gladly (though ever so sweetly) tell you so.

Gertrude Ellouise Kist was born the middle child of William Kist and Carrie Bell (Scott) at 10 a.m. June 5, 1904, in Louisville, Ky.

Her two older sisters — Edna Scoch and Myrtle Hilton — both lived long lives, while two younger brothers died to childhood illnesses when they were still toddlers.

Last week, Gibbs sat down in the Langley living room of her daughter, Barbara Read, to tell her story. It’s been one that’s she’s been telling a lot lately as her family has been celebrating the matriarch’s 101st year for what seems like months now.

Wednesday afternoon she proudly displayed the books of letters from family and friends she received for her 100th year.

As Gertrude tells it, the family’s first home was a rental at 2905 Bank St. in Louisville.

It was a small cottage lighted by oil lamps, with a wood stove for cooking and an outhouse down a brick walk at the end of the yard. She remembers a large elephant ear plant in the yard that she loved to “tumblesault” around.

Dad worked rails

Her father was an engineer with the Kentucky and Indiana Railroad for 40 years.

He loved flowers and gardens and was known to pick flowers when his train was moving slow so he’d have bouquets to bring back to his bride. He loved plants, roses and tomatoes especially,” she said. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom who for a while worked as an operator for the local telephone company.

“It was back when they were first invented,” Gibbs said.

The family lived in a neighborhood of the everyday working class, mostly rail workers.

“We weren’t poor, but we had everything we needed,” Gibbs said.

Gertrude came into the world as one small package. She was two months premature and delicate.

“I was lucky, there were no incubators at the time,” she said.

She was so thin that her mother had to carry her on a pillow.

“She was afraid I’d break,” Gibbs said.

The neighbors were worried, too. They told her mother, “You’ll never raise Gertrude,” Gibbs recalled.

Carrie Bell almost didn’t.

Gibbs remembers coming down with every childhood illness possible.

When she contracted chicken pox, she also had convulsions. And when she was vaccinated for small pox, her arm swelled with infection, and she also almost died from diphtheria.

Smallest of three

As the youngest of three surviving children, Gibbs says she’s always been a little spoiled.

Each year for Christmas, Gertrude would receive dolls and toy wash boards, paper dolls, tables, chairs and other play items.

Her father was of German descent and known to keep every inch of the house spotlessly clean — including the family outhouse which Gertrude would use as her playhouse.

“The boards of the floor would almost sparkle, they were so clean,” she said.

She would take all her dress-up clothes to the outhouse, where she would hold little parades with all her dolls in front of the outhouse’s brick walk.

Everyone in the Kist family had chores to do, Gertrude said.

Like her father, she had a love for gardening, and she had her own garden of lettuce, radishes and green onions that she tended.

She didn’t mind being asked to walk down to Gruber’s Grocery Store to pick up a loaf of bread or some lard, because Mrs. Gruber always gave her a piece of hard candy.

Gibbs attended grade school and junior high in Louisville. All of the Kist girls attended dance lessons and Gertrude and older sister Myrtle sang and danced in vaudeville amateur nights.

“We always had such fancy costumes,” she said.

The shy “Miss Gertrude” stepped away from the stage as a teenager, but her sister Myrtle continued in vaudeville and had a successful career.

Louisville was her home until she was in her early 20s when she met her husband, Leon Gibbs, an inventor and salesman whose career spanned work with the railroad, to selling linotype machines, to a stint with the Automatic Electric Co.

They married Aug. 19, 1931, and moved to the suburbs of Chicago, Ill., and then later, Birmingham, Ala.

Together, the Gibbs had five children: Paula Gibbs of New York, N.Y., Louis Gibbs of Gainsville, Ga., Barbara Read of Langley, and David Gibbs and Richard Gibbs, both deceased.

Gibbs has 12 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, three great-great-grandchildren, and there’s still more descendants on the way.

She is the mother of three surviving children and the adopted mother of five children who are actually friends of the family.

“It’s a roomful when we have reunions,” she said.

Last week, Gibbs and daughter Barbara Read hosted a birthday bash at the home they share in Langley. The house was decorated with balloons, streamers and other birthday fare. Over 25 neighbors and friends came to wish her well. Some brought guitars and the guest of honor sang songs from her youth.

“They searched out music that was popular from back then,” she said.

Fourth of July weekend she’ll travel to Atlanta, Ga., for another round of birthday celebrations. September she’ll fly to Hawaii on a birthday promise vacation with daughter Barbara.

“Mom’s always stayed active, had an optimistic outlook and a practical nature,” Read said. “She is the greatest mother.”

Even when Gibbs broke her hip at age 96, she was back walking again within four weeks.

“All you can do is keep going,” she said.

Lately, Gibbs enjoys starting each day by heading to Payless Foods where she walks down every one of the aisles.

She’s also designated pet-sitter for JoJo the cat and Oscar Meyer, the non-weiner dog, when Barbara is at work at Whidbey General Hospital.

Today, the young woman that was born so fragile, so small, is thankful of the large, strong family she has helped grow.

“I’m most proud of my children and their lives,” she said.

As far as a secret to her longevity and 101 years of success, she doesn’t have one.

“You just have to live one day at a time,” she said.

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