Two women, more than two centuries

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Two women, more than two centuries

October 03, 2017 - 21:16

  Centenarians Mary Piernas, left, and 
  Dorothy Jackson recently celebrated 
  birthdays with friends and family.
  by Sharon L. Filkins/H-F Chronicle)

Two extraordinary centenarian women, both residents at Sunrise Assisted Living in Flossmoor, celebrated their milestone birthdays in September with a huge party, including balloons, cake and live entertainment.  

Mary Piernas, formerly of Matteson, turned 100 on Sept. 4 and Dorothy Jackson, formerly of Chicago, celebrated her 102nd birthday on Sept. 30. Family members and friends were on hand to join in the festivities that marked the incredible life stories. 

Piernas was born in Vicksburg, Miss., one of five children. Her parents owned a grocery store.

“I was the only one of the kids my father trusted enough to work in the store with him,” she said laughing.

“My mother had taught school before she married my father and it was understood that my siblings and I would attend college. There was no discussion about it, it was just a given that we would be educated,” she said.

Piernas attended Spelman College, an historically black college in Atlanta, in the early 1930’s when enrollment was open only to women. She majored in English. 

In the late 1940’s, her family moved to Chicago. Piernas followed in her mother’s footsteps becoming an English teacher. She loved her job and taught junior high  students in South Holland District 151 for 26 years. At that time, the district's schools were segregated.

Her daughter, Gail Piernas-Davenport, one of the party guests, remembers her mother was a very strict disciplinarian with her students and her own children.

“She still corrects our grammar,” said Davenport, with a smile. Davenport said her mother was strict because she wanted her students to do well, and they came to love her.

Piernas and her husband, Leo, had three daughters. Davenport and her sibling, Patrice Powers, are Chicago residents. The third daughter is deceased. She has three grandsons and one granddaughter. Piernas was widowed at age 90 after 63 years of marriage. 

She attributes her longevity to being busy which has kept her healthy.

“I was always focused on my family and my work. We led a quiet life, just doing what we needed to do. But now, I can do what I want to do,” she said. 

Dorothy Jackson, 102, is an old hand at birthday celebrations. An only child, she was born in New Orleans but soon after her birth the family moved to Chicago where she spent the majority of her life. 

“My dad had wanted a boy, but instead he had me, so I grew up doing all the 'boy things' with him. We went to ball games and I saw the Yankees and Giants play in New York. We went to fights and I saw Joe Louis fight in Detroit."

In her 20’s she spent three years in Washington, D.C., where working as a printer/engraver. Passing a civil service exam to get the job was one of the highlights of her life. Her work included printing U.S. currency and the savings bonds produced at that time.

“I printed all the different denominations of money,” she said. 

When she married, she and her husband moved to California where he was stationed with the Army. When she was pregnant, Jackson returned to Chicago to be near her family. She had three daughters, two of whom are twins, and one son.

Daughter Joyce Ramey and her husband, Irving,  Flossmoor residents, attended the party at Sunrise. Her son Joseph also attended. Jackson has seven grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren. 

As her family grew, Jackson went to work for the Chicago Board of Education after passing a civil service exam.

“When I was hired I was only the fourth black person in the city to be hired by the Board of Education," she recalled. She served as the director of food services overseeing all high schools. She held that position for 20 years.

Always active, Jackson stayed involved with churches she attended through the years. At one time she hosted dinners with needy families through her church. ”I was the chairman of the effort and it was a big job, but I had good committee members and I loved what we were doing. That made it easy. “

Her activities also included line-dancing and square dancing, even after she turned 90.

“I have always been doing something,” she said.

She attributes her longevity to God.

“The Lord has spared me for whatever reason. It is all in His hands. I have had a good life, my health is good and I am blessed to still have an active mind,” she said.