CENTENARY, S.C. — One of South Carolina’s oldest people, Centenary resident Helen Abernathy White, has died at 112 years old.
White, born Sept. 21, 1906, in Fort Lawn, moved to Centenary in 1928. It was where she met, and later married, Harry White Sr. She served her community as a teacher, mentor, leader and friend.
“She has been a blessing to know and a joy to be around,” Anne Cox of Marion County said. Cox is a lifelong friend of White’s. “She shared with all of us the wisdom and fun of her years.”
In recent years White was honored for her longevity by local and state officials and at the time of her death was listed online as one of the oldest American citizens.
She was recognized also as the oldest alumnae of Fora MacDonald College, and officials in the town of Red Springs, N.C., where the school is based, feted her as well.
“She told us stories of her youth, including one about climbing light poles to pull the cord to turn on the power for the lights in Fort Lawn,” Cox said. “We all still smile when we remember her doing the Charleston and dancing at her 100th birthday celebration.”
After earning her degree in home economics, White taught English and math, as well as home economics in Centenary, and coached the girls’ basketball team, even though she had never played the sport.
She then worked as an assistant home demonstration agent in Florence County and home demonstration agent for Saluda County. It was during her stay in Saluda that she and Harry married in 1933. After living and working in South and North Carolina, the couple retired to Marion County, and her husband’s family home.
Throughout the years she kept herself and others fully informed on all sides of political issues, family members said. This past September, she was again treated to a birthday celebration.
“Ms. Helen has been a larger-than-life member of the Marion County community and served several generations with her gifts and talents,” Elizabeth Gray said. “Her joy of living, wisdom, and friendship will be missed by us all. Visiting with her each September during her birthday parties was always a delight …our thoughts and prayers are with her son and daughter and the family.”
Often asked to what she attributed her length of life and amazing good health, White would almost always say, "Buttermilk." The remark became a family joke, Jerri said.
Helen would then explain that her mother was in prime health in the spring and summer before her birth, that the family raised their own food without additives and other harmful ingredients, and she maintained good health practices all her life.
Her paternal grandmother lived to be 97 years old, and a maternal great-grandfather and several aunts lived into their nineties. Her youngest sister was 98 years of age at the time of her death in the summer of 2015.
Helen was a “middle" child of eight children. Her father was engaged in a mercantile business, farming, and selling horses, mules, and buggies; He read and practiced law, and was active in local politics. He served as Fort Lawn’s mayor for 20 years.
Helen was, and remained as much as possible, family members said, “something of a “free spirit,” with a strong will and forward-looking ideas.”
As a college student, in about 1927, she took her first airplane ride in an open-cockpit single engine plane, her daughter said.
At the time of the Jerri’s birth, Helen recounted once, there was a well-developed social system in Clemson, where they lived at the time, with the expectation that everyone would learn to play bridge.
The evening, couples bridge clubs were formal, with women wearing evening gowns and men wearing tuxedos.
In Raleigh, N.C., in the 1960s and ’70s, Helen taught home economics, first briefly at the Needham Broughton High School, and then for 16 years at the Governor Morehead School (School for the Blind).
“This position further challenged her creativity. Imagine teaching blind and partially-sighted children to cook, sew, clean, care for children, and generally maintain a household,” her daughter said.
During her early retirement years, upon the couple’s return to Centenary, Jerri said, her mother spent much of her time caring for her husband, who was in declining health. After his death in 1984, she traveled with relatives and friends in the states and beyond, including a trip to her ancestral homeland, Scotland.
She was a member of the Pee Dee Genealogical Society, served in church offices, was honorary president of the Women of the Church, was a Friends of the Marion County Museum, and served the community in many organizations over the years.