Thursday, Jun 20, 2019

Yerke celebrates 103rd birthday

Harvard resident Bonita Yerke recently celebrated her 103rd birthday. COURTESY PHOTO

Harvard resident Bonita Yerke was born Nov. 25, 1911, when the price of stamps was 2 cents, Charlie Chaplin was starting to act, and William H. Taft was president of the United States.

Bonita’s son, Gordon, comes every year from Arizona for his mother’s birthday, as does her grandson, Kirk, who drives from Mississippi with his large, black German shepherd Charlie.

With Charlie snoozing at Bonita’s feet in the lobby of the Mercy Harvard Care Center, Gordon and Kirk helped their mother understand the interview questions, and then Bonita answered plainly and with thought. The men also helped her remember the very few things that had slipped her mind in 103 years.

She and her brother were born and raised in Chemung. Bonita lived in two towns in her lifetime, Chemung and Harvard.

Their father owned the general store that was located next to the present gas station in Chemung. “The general store sold the necessities of life, housed the post office and had one gas pump available,” said Gordon. In the year Bonita was born, Henry Ford set up his first car assembly line.

When asked about a memory from her childhood, Bonita smiled. “When I was able to cross the road and go to the [general] store,” she said. “One day my hand slipped into the candy case. Dad said ‘Go home!’

“I do remember the outcome when he got home,” she said with a quiet chuckle.

She went to school in Chemung. “They had first to third grades together and fourth to sixth grades together,” said Gordon. She also attended the Methodist Church in Chemung.

After graduating from Harvard School, she became a beautician and worked out of her home for many years.

Bonita remembers when her father bought his first car, a Ford, and when the family got their first television. In fact, theirs was the first TV in the area. Gordon recalled they had only three stations. “One showed roller derby, another wrestling and the other showed a circus,” he said.

When the invention of electricity was mentioned, Bonita’s face brightened. “We had been using kerosene lamps in our home, and when we got electricity we had one light bulb hanging from a cord in the kitchen and one hanging in the dining room,” she said. “It was too expensive to electrify the rest of the house.”

Modern inventions were brought up and Kirk said, “The first time she was introduced to FaceTime and saw our family on the phone screen waving and conversing with her, she kept reaching for the [people] on the screen.”

“Whenever I call Grandma, she converses and asks about the kids,” Kirk said.

Speaking of her childhood, Bonita said, “We had an average childhood, and my brother and I got along well. We were told not to do a lot of horse-play and to play quietly. Our neighbors were good.”

When asked what advice she had for the younger generation, without hesitation Bonita said, “Go to school and learn as much as possible. Read and talk to people. College is not always necessary.”

When the subject turned to pets the family had, she quickly said, “Dogs! Every kind of dog there was. The boys brought tramp dogs home a lot. We did own two police dogs, but we never had cats.”

Bonita drove until she was 95 years old. “No one forced her to stop; she just decided on her own that it was time to stop driving,” said Gordon.

When Gordon was asked what it meant to have a mother who was 103, he said, “It brings tears to our eyes. She has beaten the odds. Our family is blessed, especially to be my age and still have a parent.”

Kirk said, “I feel privileged. Not many can say they have a grandma who is 103, and she is so caring. My Uncle Charles, dad and I come every year on her birthday to see her.”

“I have lived here at the Care Center for five years,” Bonita said. “They are very good to me, and I have all the privileges of a patient, but I am a resident and not a patient.”