109-year-old still believes in smiles

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 By Juanita Bratcher

The invitation to Ethel B. Darden’s 109th Birthday Party appropriately stated that she was “feelin’ fine at 109.” When I went to interview her, her yearly Birthday celebration had already taken place some three months earlier.

She was neatly dressed – thanks to her caregiver Betty Miller – and wearing eye-catching jewelry – a white pearl necklace and earrings. She was in a jovial mood, her eyes bright and ever alert. Before the interview started, she asked questions of me. And if the answers weren’t clear enough for her, she had no problem asking the questions again.

“What did you bring for me?” she asked, smiling. “Did someone send me something by you?” Those questions didn’t surprise me at all; Darden is subject of a lot of attention from friends, sorority, and alumni of Howalton Day


Darden has probably had more birthday celebrations than the average person. Her friends make certain of that. Some 200 people attended her 108th Birthday Party. And some of the same familiar faces that come by yearly were there to celebrate her 109th birthday celebration with her on February 22, 2009, 2 to 4 p.m., at Montgomery Place, 5550 S. Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, an assisted living facility where she resides. She has an excellent attitude about life. But don’t tell her she’s “cute.” Monkeys are cute, she says.

She still gets a kick out of singing one of her favorite songs, “When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” However, if you’re in her presence, she wants you to sing along with her. So when I was asked to sing along, I chimed in, without hesitation. It was a fun moment for both of us and those who were looking on.

Darden is not the oldest living person in the world; but she is the oldest living AKA (Alpha Kappa Alpha) member in the country, and the only living founder of the Graduate Chapter of AKA in Dallas, Texas. She has a lifetime membership in the sorority and keeps her membership in Texas even after years of residing in Chicago. Further, she is the oldest living graduate of Wiley College in Marshall, Texas.

Darden received her Bachelor’s Degree in 1921. She did graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, Roosevelt College, Hampton University and the Art Institute. She was the assistant principal at Howalton Day School (founded by her sister), and a longtime member of United Church of Hyde Park which she loves being part of, and enjoys going to church, she noted.

When she spoke of her church in a biographical sketch, Darden said “Through the inspirational sermons, music, and the warm fellowship of our congregation, I have seen the beauty and felt the joy of living. This stage in my life has given me a new outlook on life…”

She is a centenarian and several months away from being a super centenarian (those that are110 and more). She has many memories…good memories, and not many people get the opportunity to “live as long as you,” I pointed out to her. She attributes her key to longevity to being “a very careful person and of having many years of prosperity that led to living a good life.”

She is a resident of Hyde Park. President Barack Obama also hails from Hyde Park. According to her caregiver, Darden voted for President Obama in the Primary and General Elections.

Her favorite foods are Chicken wings, wine and cheese, chocolate/vanilla ice cream, chocolate candy and peaches, especially Georgia peaches, she emphasized. “And when she eats her food, she enjoys it; but she wants you to eat with her,” said Miller. “If she has a piece of chicken, she will offer you a piece of chicken. She’ll say, ‘Girl, I want you to eat something. Do you have a plate over there?’ She is a sharing person, a wonderful sharing person. And she loves her students.”

During the interview, most of Darden’s conversation focused on family history. She noted that she came from a family of educators and preachers. “My marriage name is Darden,” she said. “His first name was Lloyd,” referring to her husband. When I got married, I became Ethel Darden. I taught school. We (she and her twin sister Esther) were known as the Boswell twins.”

Darden said her contributions to society and community were made primarily through her career – in the field of education.

When she talked about her tenure as Assistant Principal at Howalton School, she emphasized that “Having family connections with the project, she felt a great responsibility for its growth and success…”

“This tenure (at Howalton) was the highlight of my career, as I have lived long enough to see and hear of the beautiful results of our labor through the successes of alumni and the length of the school’s existence…”

Her caregiver engaged her in a numbers game to show that she was still alert in adding numbers. “What’s 10 and 10? What’s a 100 and 100? What’s 1400 and 1400?” Asked Miller. She answered all correctly.

Josie Childs, Darden’s friend, said Miller is good to Darden, “and Darden thinks of her as her little girl.”

I shared some research with Darden. I told her that through research, I found a person that had lived to be 130 and several had lived to be 127 years old. “You’re a baby to them,” I said to her. She smiled, and responded, ‘Yeah.’

What was one of the most frustrating things that happened in her life? She was asked. “When my hat was getting away from me,” she said. “The wind was blowing strong and my hat was getting away.” And, it took some doing to retrieve it, she said.

Childs said Darden’s family is “interesting African-American history.” Her parents – Charles Roby and Mary Ella Boswell – met at Talladega College and subsequently got married in the college chapel there.

The Boswells were the parents of five children – all girls – Esther, Ethel (twins); Doris, Alberta and Bessie. They were all born in Dallas, Texas. “Darden outlived her family,” Childs said. “None of the five girls had kids, so she has no nieces or nephews.

“She is a lifetime member of AKA’s Dallas Chapter, and kept her membership there even after coming to Chicago to live,” said Childs. “And she still knows the (AKA) song.”

Childs’ husband was the Dardens’ accountant. “I met her through my husband. I knew her but not that well.”

Darden’s husband, before his death, asked Childs’ husband to look out for his wife and look at her affairs. “Her husband took good care of her. One of the things I regret about the timing of my husband’s death in December 1999 was that he wanted to celebrate her 100th birthday with her. But he died on December 6th after we returned from our trip to the Holy Land on November 30. That was our last trip together.

“She is such a delightful person and is still a southern belle,” Childs said of Darden. “She gave all the money paid to her at Howalton School back to the school to help.”


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