Thursday, February 11, 1999

Miz Ballew's 102 years of amazing grace

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The table is set with bright yellow plates. The guest of honor walks down the hall with great dignity, leaning — but not too hard — on a cane. Her face is smooth, her hair jet black, except for a little patch at her right temple. She is due for a touch-up from her favorite hairdresser, Chawn the Ponytail Queen.

        Miz Margueriet Ballew is 102 years old on this day. And I have come for her health and beauty tips.

        An herbalist, Miz Ballew sometimes fills the air around her room at the Lincoln Center Nursing Home in Walnut Hills with the bracing aroma of spearmint. She makes hair conditioners and eye ointment. She collects vitamins. And ideas.

        “Calcium,” she tells me. “Take lots of calcium. Use vitamin E on your face. Drink lots of water.”

        OK. What else?

Recipe for a good life
        “You have to keep busy.” Well, that doesn't sound like much fun. I'd rather she prescribe something easier, say, a miracle drug.

        She doesn't take any drugs. None? “Nope,” says Mitzi Turner, activity director at the home. “She exercises, walks. And she stays active.”

        It's the habit of a lifetime.

        Born in Richmond, Ky., Miz Ballew — not ms. or missus — lost her mother when she was 5. “I stayed with different people,” she says. “And I tried to make myself useful.”

        She scrubbed floors, washed and ironed, pleated fancy curtains and made elaborate linens. Married young, she had two sons. “But I left my husband because he wanted to keep me pregnant all the time.” She moved to Cincinnati and kept working, supporting her boys. “I had nobody to depend on but me.”

        She sewed parachutes during World War II, operated the elevator at the old Gibson Hotel, sat behind a milling machine and lathe. She has catered and cleaned other people's houses. She has volunteered for the Red Cross and for politicians.

        “I stuffed envelopes for Bob Taft.”

        The governor?

        “Junie? No, for his daddy.”

        A lifetime of keeping busy.

No cardboard saint
        “It's good for your circulation,” she says firmly. “I've been reading that it's good for your sight and your hearing.

        “I used to be a good dancer. The two-step. Jitterbug. I used to love to go to the senior center on Wednesdays. More men.” She looks at me carefully, so that I will get her meaning. I do.

        While we're talking, a niece calls from Palm Beach to wish her a happy birthday. One son, who drove a bus in Cleveland, died years ago. She keeps in touch with her other son, who lives in California and has great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren scattered all over the country.

        She gets up from her chair, unassisted, and makes for the telephone. Her crepe-soled shoes creak a little, but not her bones. She wears a navy pantsuit with a knit shirt, two necklaces and an enamel and gold elephant pin. Pride.

        She's no cardboard, little-old-lady saint. She sometimes leads the volunteers and employees on a merry chase to please her. She loves the spotlight, and, as one woman puts it, “She'll talk real smart to you.” Sass. I like that.

        “This must be hard for her sometimes,” says Julia Montier-Ball, Lincoln Crawford's community relations director. “She is used to being in control, living on her own. She came first as a volunteer. Now she lives here.”

        Surely genetics is part of the mystery of Miz Ballew, who turned 102 on Monday with incredible verve. But there is something else, more than the herbs, the small meals of fruits and vegetables, the dandelion wine and vitamins.

        “Think good thoughts, she says. “When somebody does something bad to you, don't get mad. Do something real nice for them. It will make you feel better.

        Laura Pulfer can be e-mailed at or call 768-8393.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at