A Really Big 108th Birthday Party

Ora KniesBy Ned Andrew Solomon

This article originally appeared in The Tennessee Register.

Ora Knies may be 108 years old, but it hasn’t slowed her down too much. “She goes 90 miles an hour on her walker,” said her 78-year-old son, Jack Knies, who attributes her longevity and verve to “good genes, number one, and number two, she stays pretty well occupied all the time.”

His mom lives in the Hickory Gardens Assisted Living community in Madison, which is where she recently hosted a celebration on her behalf with 25 family members and friends. As the guest of honor, Knies got to pick the cuisine – Captain D’s fried fish and French fries – and the music, an accordion player who played her favorite song, Tennessee Waltz. “We had a big party,” said Knies. “A lot of people.”

At 108, “a lot of people” have been touched by her life. She proudly proclaims that she has three living sons, Jack, Don and L.C., 11 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren. “We’re going on the sixth generation,” Knies laughed. “That’s a big crowd when they all get together. It’s a houseful!”

Born Ora Zimmerman in 1901 in Oklahoma, her family moved to Belvedere, Tennessee, near Winchester and Lynchburg, in 1905. She grew up with 10 brothers and sisters. Only her “baby brother”, 93-year-old Roy Zimmerman, survives with her, and lives at McKendree Manor in Hermitage.

The Zimmermans were a Protestant family, but Knies became a convert in 1927, when she married Lawrence Casper Knies. There was no Catholic Church originally in Old Hickory, and her son, Jack recalled dividing Sunday worships between The Cathedral, St. Mary’s and Holy Name.

She is one of the original members of St. Stephen Catholic Community, long before the church had an official home. According to the parish’s historical records, the E.I. Dupont Company established a town at Old Hickory in 1916 to house workers for their powder plant, and the area’s small Catholic population worshipped in the town’s Community Center.

In 1942, Bishop William L. Adrian of Nashville gave boundaries to the community, and the mission was named St. Stephen. The Dupont Company loaned the congregation the use of a house at 1710 Riverside Drive for services, and later donated land on 15th Street and Hadley Avenue for the increasing Catholic population. In 1953, a new church was built.

By 1975, there were 60 families attending Mass, more than half living in Hermitage, Mt. Juliet and Donelson. Because the church had no where to expand on the Hadley Avenue property, and the area around Mt. Juliet and Hermitage was rapidly growing, the present 16-acre site in Mt. Juliet was purchased.

Besides practicing her faith, Knies has kept track of current events, and has been witness to spectacular events like the first moon landing, and tremendous changes in fields like medicine and technology, during her extensive time on earth.

She has her political opinions too. Her favorite president is John F. Kennedy, and she’s had the opportunity to try a few of them on for size. She has lived through 20 presidential administrations, from William McKinley to Barack Obama. In fact, her 108th birthday was on Obama’s Inauguration Day.

Before she married, and after Lawrence Casper, Sr. passed away, she helped support herself and later her sons by working as a clerk. “It was really lonesome, but I just kept busy doing this and that,” remembered Knies. “When work would come up, I’d just go ahead and do it.”

She has fond memories of working at Sullivan’s Department Store, Steve’s Jewelry Store and a sewing and apparel shop. “At the very beginning I worked for a dollar a day at the five and ten cent store,” Knies said. “I wouldn’t mind working for it now!”

In lieu of a current employment offer, Knies has no trouble keeping busy. She regularly bowls and plays bingo at Hickory Gardens, and loves to sew, crochet and knit. In her words, that’s the secret to her sticking around so many years. “I just like to stay busy, and go out and have a little fun.”

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