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Mary Smelker turns 99 on 9/9

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

Lots of important things happened in 1914. Henry Ford introduced the 8-hour work day and the assembly line. The US invaded Mexico but stayed neutral regarding the growing war in Europe. Babe Ruth played his first professional baseball game, and the air conditioner was invented.

Jack Johnson won the heavyweight boxing title. The US Army air service came into being, and Harry Fox introduced the foxtrot in New York City.

The first seaworthy ship made its way through the Panama Canal, and Cleveland installed the first traffic light. The Boston Braves earned the first sweep in World Series history, overcoming the Philadelphia As.

Ernest Shackleton and the crew of Endurance got stuck in Antarctica, Greyhound became the first US bus line, someone figured out how to call the West Coast from the East Coast, and Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa took over Mexico.

And while it probably didn't make the world news, over in the little east Texas town of Independence, Mary Booker was born. Mary came into the world on Sept. 9, 1914, and has been enjoying her life ever since.

"Daddy worked for the railroad, the SA&AP (San Antonio & Aransas Pass) railroad," said Mary, who lives today with daughter, Nancy, and son-in-law, Jim Bernarduci, in the Bandera River Ranch area. "We lived for a time in Yoakum, then Brownsville, and then back to Yoakum, before ending up in Houston," she said of her childhood.

Mary started school in Brownsville, where she and her brother walked down a narrow dirt road to a 4-room schoolhouse. "He squeezed my hand tight," she recalls, "because I was afraid Pancho Villa was gonna get me! He was going to protect me! And of course, he was only two years older than me!"

The little schoolhouse educated first, second and third grades with about six children in a class. "It was a chance to make friends outside of the family," Mary said. "We learned the basics - reading, writing and arithmetic." The fourth room of the school housed the principal's office, the bookroom and a small auditorium for school programs.

"We played outside every morning until the bell was rung, then we lined up, saluted the flag and sang 'America' and marched in, every morning, rain or shine."

Because of labor problems, the family moved around a lot, returning to Yoakum and then Houston where "we had to get used to city life."

It was in Houston that Mary first met and fell in love with the man who would be her husband for 53 years and where she graduated from Jefferson Senior High School in 1933.

"I married a boy I'd met in junior high school," she said, the memory bringing a smile to her face. "Momma gave me permission to stay after school to watch a football game with my friends. We were running up and down the line having a good time. Then the boys got down for the play and one of the players looked over at me and winked!

"Well, I went home and told Momma I couldn't go any more, the boys are winking at me!"

Mary and John Smelker remained friendly throughout their school years and married in 1936, three years after Mary graduated. They had two children, James and Nancy.

John passed away in 1988, and Mary admits that the hardest thing in her life was "making it alone after he left. But I had my home and scads of friends, lots of grandchildren. That helped. And we were kind of the oldest couple in our subdivision, (in Spring, Texas) so we had sort of become the grandparents to all the kids there."

Since 2004, she has lived in the Bandera area with her daughter. "We used to vacation here, in the Hill Country, and enjoyed it."

Mary has seen a lot of changes during her long and wonderful life, both good and bad. She is especially amazed by the developments in radio and TV, and flight. "We've seen a man on the moon!" She is dismayed about wars and the damage they do. "We experienced so much during World War II, and it seems like war has just turned the world over."

One thing Mary has really enjoyed through the years is sewing. "My mother taught me to sew, I'd pedal while she sewed, and then she let me do all the simple things, like make pillowcases and hem napkins."

Mary ended up as a costumer, making plenty of fancy outfits for her dancing daughter and lots of other people's kids. "Nancy was very petite, too, so I sewed a lot of her clothes. You couldn't send an 11-year-old out in size six clothes!"

The standard question for nonagenarians runs "to what do you attribute your long life?" Mary credits her upbringing.

"We were a close family and my parents always worked hard, setting an example for us." When the children quarreled, the parents always had a Bible admonition ready, especially, "Be ye kind to one another."

She added, "They taught us to live right, to be honest no matter what, and to treat others as we would like to be treated."

Another key to a happy, successful life - "chose your friends carefully, because 'if you sleep with dogs, you'll wake up with fleas!'"

Going to church was a family practice, and Mary, who started off all dressed up in a surrey attending church in Yoakum, now looks forward to watching Joel Osteen and John Hagee on TV on Sunday mornings.

Her health is generally good, but she admits to getting a little grumpy when she doesn't feel well. Her long-time caregiver, Dorothy Zambrano, keeps her moving and ready for her appointments. Every Friday, Mary faithfully heads out to the beauty shop to get her hair and nails done.

Mary said she has no special plans for her nine-filled birthday, but I suspect the family has something in mind.

The best gift of the day, in my opinion, will be the opportunity to spend time with this vivacious, lovely spirited woman. Happy birthday, Mary!

Pictured: Mary Smelker has witnessed a lot of changes in her 99 years.