Ernestine Chappell of Mount Airy will celebrate her 100th birthday Friday, and believes exercise is one of the reasons she has reached the century mark.
“It’s meant a whole lot,” she said Tuesday during a party held at Reeves Community Center in preparation for that milestone being achieved later in the week.
“If I wasn’t doing that exercising all these years,” Ernestine added, “I wouldn’t be here today.”
Appropriately, Tuesday’s party was held in a workout room at the community center, where the centenarian-to-be regularly participated in Silver Sneakers exercise classes for persons 65 and older before being sidelined by an accident at her home.
“She was with us until she fell several months ago,” explained Fonda Mooney, family services supervisor for Mount Airy Parks and Recreation/Reeves Community Center. “And we still consider her one of our people.”
About 25 people attended the party, including classmates from the exercise group, relatives of Ernestine, RCC staff members and City Manager Barbara Jones. She read a special city government proclamation honoring Ernestine’s place in local history and her efforts to make the community a better place.
Instructor Denise Sawyers said that Ernestine has been in her classes for about eight years, which stress muscular strength and range of motion and includes working with weights. But Ernestine’s membership at the community center began many years before that, and she was taking classes four days a week before her injury.
Even now, when she must get around with the help of a walker, Ernestine still manages to exercise at the skilled nursing center of Northern Hospital of Surry County where she presently resides.
On Tuesday, she was glad to be back in her familiar workout room, and exchanged hugs with Sawyers during a tearful reunion.
“It’s been an inspiration to go to your classes,” Ernestine told her instructor.
However, many observers would agree that Ernestine Chappell was the true inspiration at Tuesday’s gathering, where she blew out candles that spelled out 100 on a cake and the group sang “Happy Birthday.”
The basis for that inspiration is an active lifestyle and record of community service that has provided an exemplary example for others, as the proclamation read by the city manager indicated.
Ernestine’s spirit and determination have certainly been evident during organized workouts, according to Sawyers, especially when younger participants were “grumbling and moaning” over their discomfort.
On those occasions, the instructor said she simply has pointed to the woman in her 90s and reminded them that “she’s doing this with a smile on her face.”
Ernestine has specialized in overhead lifting with squats, Sawyers added.
Combined with her many years of workouts, Ernestine’s physical feats have included riding the lengthy Virginia Creeper bike trail when she was 89 years old — which she did with her two brothers.
A good diet also has played a role in Ernestine Chappell’s long life, one that has emphasized fresh fruits and vegetables and honey while limiting the intake of meats and soft drinks.
“She worked up until she was 98,” said Kaye Puckett, one of three children of Ernestine, who also has six grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild who represents five generations of the family. She is the widow of Tom Chappell.
As was the case with many of her contemporaries, Ernestine was a mill worker during her career — employed by Renfro Corp. — and ran her own day-care operation for 40 years. After that, she worked at a day-care business launched by a sister until she was 98.
Ernestine also was still living independently and driving until her recent fall, and was an active volunteer at Northern Hospital for 21 years.
“I feel a year older,” she confided Tuesday when someone asked what it was like to be on the brink of her 100th birthday.
Part Of History
Yet Ernestine’s mind remains as razor-sharp as ever, and on Tuesday party-goers listened intently as the woman who has lived through 17 U.S. presidents and two world wars recalled a Mount Airy of yesteryear which was far different from that of today.
“There were dirt roads — and we walked everywhere we went,” Ernestine said of those physically demanding early times that seemingly laid the foundation for her robust lifestyle.
“There wasn’t any cars — we had the first car in Surry County,” she said of the automobile her family acquired around 1920 when she was about 6 years old. “It’s like a different world (today),” said Ernestine, who also recalls seeing the first talking movie shown in Mount Airy in the late 1920s.
She was the second of seven children born to Roy and Inez Towe Blackburn. Her older sister, Willie Sue Blackburn Shelton, died last September at age 101.
The city government proclamation honoring Ernestine which was read Tuesday by Jones refers to the woman’s importance to local history, her community service and the exemplary role she has played as an active member of society even in her advanced years.
“In her quiet way (Ernestine) has been a force for good,” the city manager said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.