'Don't sit on your fanny' if you want to live to 100,
Viola Street is honored for her 100th birthday. Brad Vest / The Commercial Appeal
Viola Street has been 100 years old for a week now.
She’s still not ready to take a break.
“My parents used to fuss at me for doing too much,” she said Wednesday at the cafe at the Memphis Botanic Garden. “There’s a lot to do.”
Viola, who has outlived her parents, three siblings, two husbands and just about everyone else on the planet, was being feted at the cafe by a dozen friends.
Like her, all of them are retired from Grahamwood School. All remain in awe of her energy and her, well, spirit.
“I’m retired and I don’t give a damn,” she said, repeating a bumper sticker she had on her car after she retired 25 years ago.
Viola was Grahamwood’s cafeteria manager for 31 years. She was East High’s cafeteria manager for 15 years before that.
That means she has spent more than half of her life doing other things.
She raised two sons and a daughter, who have given her five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
“My dad died when I was 16,” said Bobby Tribble, her middle child. “Our mom taught us how to take care of ourselves and how to work hard.”
Viola taught Sunday school for 39 years. She’s been a member of Highland Heights United Methodist Church since she was 7. The church celebrated its 100th birthday four years ago.
“She faithfully attends, and she always makes sure visitors sign the attendance book,” said the Rev. Rich Cook. “She worked with the men’s food pantry until she was 95.”
That’s when her granddaughter, Angela Eubanks, had to take her cars keys from her.
“She loves to go,” Eubanks said. “One summer she put 10,000 miles on her Suburban, driving us around out West.”
Viola has been to seven other countries and the Caribbean.
“I’ve been all over the world umpteen times. I mean all over the world,” she said. “But Alaska was my favorite. I hope to go back there one more time. People there will talk to you.”
Viola would talk to everyone who came into her cafeteria. She was more than the lunch lady. She was everyone’s mom.
“She’d see those first-graders on their first day of school, their chins trembling, wanting to go home,” said Sherry Moore, a retired Grahamwood teacher.
“She’d come around the counter and give them a hug and say, ‘What would you like to eat, honey? Would you like me to make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?'”
What everyone — students, teachers and administrators — wanted her to make were cinnamon rolls.
“She’d make them for the teachers in the morning,” said Jane Cummiskey, a retired librarian. “On those days you didn’t want to come to school, you’d smell those rolls baking and you were so glad to be there.”
Viola was born in Parkin, Ark., and moved to Memphis with her parents in 1924. They lived in a tiny two-bedroom bungalow on Tutwiler near Highland.
“She’ll tell you about how Tutwiler and others streets around there were not paved then, and how many folks had chickens and cows,” said Ann Harms, a retired teacher.
“When the viaduct was built on Summer Avenue, she was named Miss Summer Avenue Viaduct. They even put her name on a plaque on the viaduct.”
The plaque is gone. Viola is still here.
Wednesday afternoon, her friends treated her to lunch and crowned her Queen Cinnamon Roll.
“I feel pretty good,” she said. “My eyes are shot. My knees aren’t good. I fell down on them last year and cracked something. That’s why I have to use this walker. But I’m still moving.”
Viola lives in a retirement home now, but she doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon. When she can, she still gets up at 4 a.m. to help some of her bedridden neighbors.
“She is never in her room,” said Diane Bonner, a retired teacher whose mother grew up with Viola. “She still loves to do for others.”
She still loves to eat fried food. She also still enjoys a glass of Chardonnay every evening. But her advice for living a long life has nothing to do with her diet.
“Stay busy. Help others,” she said. “Don’t sit on your fanny and think about what you can do or want to do. Get up and go do it.”
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