By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
CARTHAGE, Mo. —
They call her grandma. None of them, however, are related to her. Velma McBride is their Sunday school teacher. To them, as Pastor John Davidson tells it, she is like a magnet.
"She keeps getting older, keeps talking about retiring, and I tell her, ÔNot as long as I'm here,'" said Davidson, who leads the congregation at First Baptist Church in Carthage. "We get this idea that when we get older, younger people won't relate to us or vice versa, and with her it's not true."
McBride will turn 89 this summer, but her youthful enthusiasm and active lifestyle contradict her age.
She volunteers for the Lost Photos of Joplin Project, which has collected, archived and returned displaced tornado photos to their owners. She sings in the worship choir and senior adult choir "Sharps & Flats." She quilts a quilt every year to raise money for an orphanage and has been an active volunteer in a monthly program at Fairview Elementary School.
"I guess I'm the typical jack-of-all-trades, master of none," she said, laughing.
Familiar with famine
Teaching Sunday school has been at the top of McBride's repertoire for 25 to 30 years -- so long, she said, that she now teaches children of children she once had.
"She is so active with the kids, whether it's first and second grade or the teenagers, that I don't care what age they are, they love her," Davidson said.
"This is the last end of people who grew up in the Depression era. She experienced that and knows what it is to not have anything; she knows what tough times are. I think that's why she has a real affinity to kids who have a tough home life. She walks in Sunday night as the kids are getting ready, and she's just like a magnet."
Those tough times began east of Sarcoxie, where McBride was born and attended country schools.
"You know, I did the thing everyone jokes about. I walked a mile to school, into the wind, uphill both ways, that kind of thing," she said. "I took my lunch in a pail, and we had a coal stove. We raised our own cane, made sorghum out of it and gave it to the superintendent to pay for our schoolbooks."
Like many other farm families, McBride's family saved eggs to trade in town for sugar and flour, and made clothing out of feed sacks.
"We sold milk, too," she said. "A truck came out to the farm to get it. We didn't have a car until I was in fifth grade."
Velma is the oldest of 10 siblings, whom she helped raise. But she says she wasn't really doing anything out of the ordinary at the time.
"Everyone had to work hard back then," she said. "We went to strawberry patches and picked all day. I bought my first coat -- it was red, gray and black plaid -- picking strawberries."
She has vivid memories of World War II.
"A neighbor we knew came home on furlough, and my dad let me go to a movie with him in Sarcoxie. When he went back to camp, he wrote me a letter and requested a photo," she said. "I went in town to Sprague Photo Studio and had one taken."
"He went overseas and stepped on a land mine," she said. "They had a memorial service in our high-school auditorium."
After graduating from Sarcoxie High School in 1943, she married William McBride and they moved to Carthage. She and her husband, who died in 1980, had three children, eight grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and several step-grandchildren.
Attributing her good health and active lifestyle to clean living -- "I never smoked or drank and always try to have a positive attitude," she said -- she spends as much time outdoors as she can.
A longtime seamstress, she still does alterations from her home and still hangs her laundry on a clothesline.
She also bears the title of being the oldest living person in her family: Her mother died at age 103 eight years ago. She keeps in touch with three remaining brothers, who live in Joplin, Carl Junction and California, and two sisters, both of whom live in Lamar.
"She might have a little arthritis. Her knees get to her, but she keeps perking along," Davidson said. "Age doesn't matter."
McBride attributes it to her frequent and longtime interactions with "her children" at the church.
"I love them," she said. "They keep me young."