She's 106 years old, but Reba Williams still loves cozying up with a book. Yesterday, she was in bed reading Zane Grey's "The Lone Star Ranger," a story of an outlaw who redeems himself.
She's 106 years old, but Reba Williams still loves cozying up with a book. Yesterday, she was in bed reading Zane Grey's The Lone Star Ranger, a story of an outlaw who redeems himself.
But almost 90 years ago, her refusal to read an assigned book in high school cost her a diploma.
That will change soon. Thanks to help from a retired teacher, the school board in Mount Vernon, where Reba grew up, voted last month to approve her diploma.
The former teacher, Rita Dailey, went to the school board to ask for a diploma for Williams after reading a story about her in the local newspaper. Dailey didn't know Williams, but she thought the woman deserved a diploma.
The Mount Vernon City Schools are still working out how to get the diploma to Williams, who's now bedridden. Superintendent Steve Short said he would like to have a small ceremony at the house Williams shares with her daughter.
But he wants to be respectful of the woman who waited so long to graduate.
"We would like to do this properly and with some dignity for her," Short said.
Is Reba happy she is getting her diploma from Mount Vernon so many years later?
"Oh sure," she said. "I enjoyed school."
But, according to Williams family lore, she was also stubborn.
Reba now lives with her daughter, Lavata Williams, 79, at the Northland Senior Village condominiums on Karl Road on the North Side.
Lavata remembers her grandmother, Reba's mother, telling stories about the year Reba refused to graduate.
A teacher assigned a book to Reba's class and asked the students to write a report after they finished reading. But Reba had already read the book and she did not like it.
"She wasn't going to reread it," Lavata Williams said. Neither Reba nor Lavata remember the book title.
The school told Reba if she didn't write the report, she couldn't graduate. Reba still refused. The school offered again: If Reba would write the report over the summer, she could still get her diploma. But Reba said no.
Reba's mother was disappointed, said Lavata Williams, a retired Columbus elementary-school teacher.
Education had been drilled into the family. Reba's grandfather was born a slave on a plantation in what is now West Virginia. Lavata Williams said the sister of the plantation's owner taught Reba's grandfather how to read and write.
After she refused to write the report, Reba found work as a housekeeper and spent most of her life cleaning and cooking for others. She eventually found a job at Malabar Farm, the Mansfield-area home of Louis Bromfield, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and conservationist.
Reba started at Malabar Farm as a "second girl," serving dinner and making beds. She later became a cook.
A neighbor of the Williamses', Velma Queen, said Reba once told her about one of Malabar Farm's biggest events: the wedding of movie stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in 1945.
Reba, who had worked serving others her whole life, was at the festivities.
"That day, she didn't have to cook," Queen said. "She was a guest."