News Articles

‘Don’t give up, keep active,’ 99-year-old counsels peers

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (BP)–Her upswept hair is barely gray; her face is remarkably smooth. The only clues to Ernestine Wolfe’s age are her walker and hearing aid, but they don’t seem to slow her down. Her packed schedule would make folks 30 years her junior dizzy.

She is up by 7:30 each morning and still cleans her own condominium and cooks her own meals. She drove until she broke her hip last year. But her license is still valid, and she hopes to be behind the wheel again.

On Tuesdays Wolfe attends an early morning Bible study at her church of 14 years — Whitesburg Baptist in Huntsville. And on Thursdays she visits the homebound members of her church, all of whom are younger than she.

Noveline “Novie” Freedman is one of them. She suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive eye disorder that has robbed her of her peripheral vision and most of her central vision. “Ernestine’s visits have helped me an awful lot,” Freedman said. “When people can’t attend church anymore, the church tends to forget about them. But when Whitesburg started the homebound ministry, they made me feel like I was part of the church again.

“When Ernestine comes to visit she reminds me that we can serve the Lord regardless of our age or physical condition,” Freedman added.

“It brightens their day to see someone much older than them come in and encourage them,” Wolfe said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t give up, keep active.'”

In addition to visiting those unable to attend church on a regular basis, she keeps a well-worn, but updated, list of their names and birthdays near her phone.

“My job is to call each one of them on their birthday,” Wolfe said. “I say to them, ‘My wish for you is that you have as many birthdays as I have had.'” Wolfe’s energy and dedication amaze Anita Waldrup, director and founder of the Whitesburg homebound ministry. Wolfe was one of the first women to volunteer to be on a visitation team six years ago when Waldrup began the ministry. Now more than 40 volunteers visit more than 100 shut-ins each month.

“She is one of our precious ladies. She has a steadfast faith in God, and she is an encouragement to our homebound,” Waldrup said. “They are amazed by her active lifestyle.”

On Sundays, Wolfe still attends Sunday School although her hip injury prevents her from staying for worship.

When she isn’t at church or out visiting, Wolfe likes to spin stories of days gone by for her grandchildren. She tells them of growing up in the frontier town of Cheyenne, Wyo. She tells about her mother, a music teacher, who would read the Bible to her and her siblings every evening by the dim light of a gas lamp and of the day she became a Christian.

“I was 10 years old when my mother led me to the Lord,” Wolfe said. “I have been attending church ever since.”

She tells them matter-of-factly how she attended the University of Nebraska with just a handful of women. “My grandfather was a medical doctor and both my parents attended DePaul University,” Wolfe said. “They always expected us [her and her five siblings] to attend college.”

She’ll reminisce about her adventures as a newlywed in Alaska when it was still a territory and considered one of America’s last frontiers.

Ernestine and her husband, Ray, served in the U.S.-sponsored Indian Service in six different areas of Alaska during a 20-year period. Ray was a school principal and Wolfe taught the native children. Their only daughter, Joann, was born in the Indian village of Catachata on April 6, 1930 — the anniversary of the day Wolfe became a Christian.

Wolfe received a letter from one of her Alaskan students earlier this year. “This girl, who is a Tlinget Indian, wrote me to thank me for teaching her,” Wolfe said. “I suppose today she would be in her early 80s.”

The Wolfes moved to California shortly after their daughter was born. There Wolfe taught school for 18 more years until she retired in 1968.

Ray’s illness — he was diagnosed with severe dementia in 1982 — prompted them to move to Huntsville to be near their daughter, now Joann Long. Ray’s condition had become so advanced that Wolfe was no longer able to care for him on her own. They had been married 67 years when he died in 1990.

Wolfe chalks up her longevity to good genes, a good diet and a close walk with the Lord.

“I think there is a connection between longevity and a good attitude. And Wolfe has a great attitude,” said Terry Herald, Whitesburg’s senior associate pastor.
Pavlik is a writer for The Alabama Baptist.

    About the Author

  • Sarah E. Pavlik