One day when Leona Auer was a little child, her grandfather sat her down and taught her a valuable lesson. Using the nature around their sprawling Tennessee farm as a classroom, he pointed to a line of ants working busily. Her grandfather showed Auer that whatever the ants encountered in their path — a stick, a rock or a puddle of water — the ants found a way to go around it. If they couldn’t get around it, they went over it. If they couldn’t do that, they went under it. No matter what happened, the ants kept calm and kept going.
Today Auer turns 102. The advice was given a lifetime ago. But through the death of her parents as a child, the death of an infant daughter, the loss of at least one husband and a life spent watching the tide of history rise and fall, the words of her grandfather kept her going.
Auer, a longtime resident of the Harbor, a teacher and an author, was born on Nov. 4, 1910, in rural Rhea County, Tenn. Appalachia, as the region is known, was practically a different world at the turn of the century, even by standards of the rest of the country at the time. Education was poor. Poverty was widespread. And the effect of poor or inaccessible medical care was compounded by poor sanitation. Common infectious diseases like typhoid fever and influenza were the leading natural causes of death. Now most people in the United States die of degenerative illnesses such as heart disease or cancer.
Tragedy struck early in Auer’s life. When she was just 17 months old, her mother contracted a bacterial infection while giving birth to a son. Known at the time by names such as Child Bed Fever or the Doctor’s Plague, the infection ravaged her body and 10 days later she was dead. Unemployed and likely devastated over his wife’s death, Auer’s father left Tennessee to find work. With no way to take care of two infant children, Auer’s father left her and her baby brother with their grandparents. Not even a year later, Auer’s brother Homer died as well.
In a book she wrote about her life, entitled, “A Whistling Girl and a Crowing Hen,” Auer said, “I can’t remember my mother, but I have a faint memory of searching the year for Homer. There never was a real picture of Homer, but they said he looked like me.”
As many children who grew up in difficult times, Auer sees her struggles through the eyes of a child. Most bad times are forgotten or seen through the filter of nostalgia. Sitting in a chair, surrounded by family and friends in an assisted living community, Auer lights up when she talks about the food she had to eat on the farm — biscuits and gravy for breakfast and corn bread and pinto beans, for dinner. All are staple fare in Southern homes and all are meant to be good, cheap and plentiful.
“I didn’t feel like I was poor,” she said. “I was a happy child, I had good food to eat.”
Love of reading
Auer discovered her love of reading and English in the eighth grade. She started reading serial books that were popular at the time, and said the first book she read was “Riders of the Purple Sage” by Zane Grey. Her passion for books continued to grow.
“At school, I read books instead of going out to play in recess,” she wrote in her first book. “All my life reading has continued to be one of my greatest joys and has helped me increase my vocabulary and add to my education.”
By all accounts, Auer was a good student, becoming the valedictorian of her class. Milligan College, a small private Christian college in eastern Tennessee, had a policy of offering scholarships to valedictorians, so she decided to go there. Milligan was only about three hours away from home, but it might as well have been a different world. After a brief struggle where she took an overload of courses, Auer dug in and was bound and determined to do well. She graduated cum laude.
Shortly after graduation, Auer met Richard, the love of her life. Four weeks after meeting him, the two were married. Sometime soon after, Auer gave birth to a daughter, Anna Marie. Times would have been carefree, but Richard couldn’t find work and they had to move in with relatives. That January, tragedy struck. Anna got sick. Before, she could almost stand by herself, now she was limp like a doll. Auer remembered taking her to see a doctor in Johnson City, “She just lay in my lap, already in a coma, I think.”
A doctor told Auer that her daughter probably had meningitis. After languishing in a hospital for two days with her mother by her side, she died.
“Her head drew back in convulsions, her eyes were red and she had large purple spots all over,” she remembered in her book.
Three months later the diagnosis was confirmed by test results. Not long after, Richard was diagnosed with tuberculosis meningitis. He went to a sanitarium, which helped for some time. Auer became pregnant, but then Richard’s health took a turn for the worse. She knew he was going to die.
“It was heartbreaking to see him dying a little more each day,” she said. He told her, “I’d rather be dead than to live and not be able to touch you or our baby.”
Soon, Wanda Ruth was born, and Auer took care of an infant girl, and a dying husband alone in a log cabin. One moment she would tend to Richard and the next she would change her clothes, wash herself and then nurse Ruth — each time terrified the baby would get infected. For two weeks, she went back and forth like this until Richard lay spent, having hemorrhages and coughing up large amounts of blood.
“He had another hemorrhage which was the very worst one. He had lost so much blood that his heart just stopped and he was gone,” she said.
Finally there is joy
After so many tragedies, joy finally came when Auer got a position teaching in Roan Mountain, Tenn. That position led to another position teaching in Arab, Ala., and eventually another one at Mars Hill College near Asheville, N.C. She remembered her time at Mars Hill as one of the best in her life. She taught business math, shorthand and typing.
“My year in Mars Hill College was one of my best school years. It seemed like I reached the top when I got that job,” she said.
Auer met and married another man, a soldier just back from World War II. They moved to Knoxville, Tenn. And Auer became a housewife. She eventually moved to Alabama and returned to Tennessee where she gave birth to Thirza and got a job at Knoxville Business College. Sadly Auer had to divorce her second husband for her own safety and the safety of her children, she said. He dealt with the memories of the war and other problems by drinking heavily every day. She said she is still grateful they were married, if for no other reason than she had one of her daughters from their marriage.
At 102, there are spots in Auer’s memory that have faded, and huge swaths of history that are now lost. But she came to Washington state through a man named Robert Strong. Much like Internet dating and chat rooms exist today, decades ago there were magazines with listings of pen pals to write. She wrote Strong often. In the 1950s, Auer went to the University of Georgia to get a Master’s of Education Degree in Counseling and Guidance. After she graduated, she moved to Florida for a teaching job. Soon, Strong came to visit her and four days later they were married.
After living in Arcadia, Fla., the still relatively new Strong family decided to move to Washington. Although Strong held a degree in mining, he worked as a carpenter, which enabled him to get a job anywhere. The Washington Department of Education sent Auer a letter informing her of a job opening in Aberdeen at Weatherwax High School. She applied and was accepted first as a teacher and then a counselor. Sticking to her roots, Auer set up a farm where the Strongs raised cows , and poultry. She also gave birth to her only son, her last child.
At school, Auer liked her role as a counselor. “I really enjoyed the association I had with the students … trying to help kids one on one.” The one glitch she has is that she had to teach sex education to girls.
“They would ask me all sorts of questions, and then laugh because my face would turn red,” she said laughing.
Single again in the 1970s, Auer attended a Christmas party in Aberdeen, where she met and later married Joseph Auer. They were married four years until he passed away from cancer. But, even though she would have two short marriages later, she retained the Auer last name. She has been single now for the last 30 or 35 years.
Auer worked in Aberdeen for 10 years, and would eventually leave, only to come back to be with her loved ones.
She lived with Ruth in Aberdeen for about 25 years, and that’s “probably one of the reasons she has lived so long,” said her daughter, Thirza Krohn, who retired last year as a librarian at the Aberdeen Library.
Krohn remembers the hard times her mother faced as a single mom for about five years. “She worked on a master’s degree during the summer and all the time, she took my sister and me with her. We traveled all over the United States. We got to see a lot of country.”
Her family has made a mark in the community in fields of public service. And she maintained a positive outlook throughout further travels, highs and lows.
When asked what the secret to living a long life, Auer said mischievously, “It’s not a secret. I have had many escapades. Some don’t bare repeating.” When asked what it feels like to be 102, she said, “I feel just like I did when I was 100.”
Thirza said her mother particularly enjoys meeting new people and hearing their stories and sharing hers. “She still does that today, although her hearing is not as good as it was and she has macular degeration and can’t see as well.”
Krohn asked her mother what she wanted for her birthday.
“I don’t need a thing. I have everything I could possibly want”
Will Morris, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3930 or at firstname.lastname@example.org