It would seem unlikely that a pair of 100-year-old schoolmates would be at the same school reunion in a tiny southern Highland County community, but that’s exactly what happened recently in Sinking Spring.
Both Venita (Shanks) Bennett, a 1935 Sinking Spring High School graduate, and Viola (Rhoads) Riley, a 1936 Sinking Spring graduate, made it to the former school’s gymnasium for the reunion last month. Bennett turned 100 on Dec. 6, 2017, and Riley turned 100 on Aug. 9, 2017.
It had been a long time since they laid eyes on each other, but both said they remembered the other from their long ago school years.
“Yes, I knew her, and I knew her husband. She had a wonderful husband,” Bennett said of Riley.
Riley grew up on a farm on Tanyard Lane about two miles outside of Sinking Spring. She said that until the school finally purchased a bus, she had to walk back and forth to school most days. She said she married at a young age, but never had children.
“They were hard to take of her and I didn’t want to have any,” Riley said.
But her great-nephew, Gary Rhoads, said that’s now quite the whole story. He said that during World War II, when her husband, Henry, was in the U.S. Army, Riley worked in Dayton running a drill press. He said her father was bedfast for a long time and that for many years Riley took care of her father and mother, plus helped care for a brother who had developmental issues.
“That was pretty much her adult life,” Rhoads said.
He said that Riley and her husband lived on farm, that her husband was in the military and then helped operate Fort Hill for a number of years. They eventually sold the farm and moved to Hillsboro.
“She was just a good country woman and good women around the community,” said Nina Couser, who helped organize the reunion.
Riley said she’s not sure what allowed her to live to be more than 100, but that she never smoked or drank, and kept busy raising a garden and tending to animals.
“I ate a lot of vegetables and did a lot of exercising – walking,” Riley said.
Bennett cited many of the same reasons for living a long life.
“I don’t really know. I think I lived a clean life. I never drank or smoked,” she said. “I wasn’t a fanatic about it, but I tried to live healthy, and we usually had a garden. I don’t know – I just took care of myself evidently.”
Bennett was born on her grandfather’s farm in Pike County. But shortly thereafter her parents moved to Sinking Spring and they both started businesses there. Her father set up a barbershop, but passed away when he was just 42. Her mother operated Shank’s Restaurant on the corner where the only stoplight in town is. She raised two daughters and a son in a home that was along one side and above the restaurant.
Sinking Spring was a lovely little town at one time, Bennett said, but there wasn’t much opportunity for work there. So she moved to Dayton and worked in the Elder-Beerman credit department for a number of years. She got married and lived with her husband in Dayton for 40-some years.
“Mother kept the restaurant for a number of years and wasn’t doing too well, my husband loved the woods and hunting, so we retired and came down this way and bought a home in Peebles,” Bennett said.
When she was in school, Bennett said, the old gym where the June 9 Sinking Spring Reunion was held had not yet been built. She said the boys on the basketball team practiced in a long building in the center of town, and that the building got crowded when there was a game.
“They played in that old wooden building, and anyone that came to watch, you had to stand around the room. And if they ran into you, that was just too bad,” she said. “It was hard to come up with the 15 cents to get into the game every week.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.