Mrs. Katie Gaskins’s life dispels just about every stereotype you’ve ever heard about nonagenarians. She isn’t confined to a nursing home or even a walker. Instead she volunteers her time at area nursing homes. She isn’t left isolated as all of her friends have passed on. Rather, she regularly sees eight of her elementary school classmates who live in the area. And if you think a 90 year old can’t keep up with today’s politics, well then you’d be mistaken again.
As our modern society continues to extend longevity many fear that quality of life may not keep up with quality of life. Having reached 90 years on June 19th, Mrs. Katie remains sharp, energetic, and continues to contribute to the Berryville community. Much to the disappointment of younger residents, she does not have a secret to share guaranteeing that the rest of us age as gracefully as she has. But if the secret were to exist it would surely be connected to her dedication to family, friends and community cultivated through a lifetime of work and love.
Above all else, Mrs. Katie is a church woman. “I love to read. I’ve always read everything that I could,” she said recently from her Berryville home. “But I love the Bible, it’s the most important book that I’ve ever read.”
Mrs. Katie says that lots of people, even her medical doctor, ask her for her secret for long life. If she has the secret, Mrs. Katie says that it was given to her many years ago by a former pastor from her beloved Zion Baptist Church. “Pastor Rudolph White told me that the Book of Mark, chapter eleven, verses 21:24 were the key to a long life. I guess it worked!” she laughed.
While Mrs. Katie credits the Bible for guiding her, it’s clear that she tries hard to apply its message to her life every day.
“How have I reached ninety?” she asks. “”I’ll tell you. It’s been by treating people right.” Mrs. Katie says that she tries to love everyone. “You just have to believe in people’s goodness and have faith that God is leading them just like he leads you and me.”
Born Katie Moss on Josephine Street in Berryville, Virginia on June 19th, 1920, the youngest of four brothers and two sisters, Mrs. Katie has lived her nearly her entire life in either Berryville or Middleburg. After losing both of her parents by the age of thirteen she briefly lived with her sisters in Berryville before accepting a job caring for a family in New Jersey that would be her only time away from area.
“My oldest sister told me before I went away â€˜You’re going to meet a lot of people. Take some for your friends but treat all of them right.’”
By her own account, Mrs. Katie’s good will towards her new employer was returned in kind. “The lady that I worked for had two sons that I took care of. Sometimes I would play Chopsticks on her piano to entertain the children. I had always loved to sing but I really wanted to learn to play that piano.” Mrs. Katie recollected. “When the woman that I worked for saw that I had an interest in music she taught me to play the piano.”
Ms. Katie’s employer also taught her to knit. Both music and knitting continue to be an important source of joy in Mrs. Katie’s life today.
“She is a life long member of Zion Baptist Church where she sings in the choir” said long-time friend Dorothy Davis. “She has a beautiful alto voice and has provided flower arrangements for the sanctuary for many years.”
Mrs. Katie also attributes her love of music as the reason that she met her soon-to-be husband of 21 years in Upperville after her return to the area after leaving her New Jersey job.
“I was part of a choral group called the â€˜Valley Wonders” in the early 1950’s” Mrs. Katie explained. “We were invited to sing at a church in Middleburg by a man with five sons who was a member of that church. After we finished singing, the man who invited us stood up and asked who in the group was married and who wasn’t. When he got to me and I replied that I wasn’t married, the man turned to his son and jokingly said “Meet your wife’”.
In a case of fact being stranger than fiction, then Katie Moss and the man’s son, Dudley Gaskins were married three years later.
“It took me three years to decide because I wanted to make sure that he was the right man for me” Mrs. Katie said. “He sure was a nice guy!”
Katie and Dudley worked as a cooking & gardening team at several estates in Middleburg. The newly weds followed the advice of Dudley’s father by saving every penny that they could.
“He told us â€˜Living on an estate you don’t have any rent or food costs so save the money that you would have spent on those things’ and that’s just what we agreed with each other to do.” Mrs Katie said. “If you’re married you can’t each be pulling in separate directions.”
The couple soon saved enough money to buy a plot in Berryville and built a cozy rambler that Dudley landscaped with shrubbery and flowers. The couple’s Middleburg employer, Voice of America Director Henry Loomis, gave them a beautiful stone fireplace that Mrs. Katie had always wanted and that adorns the living room today.
Asked about the mortgage crisis that has forced so many people to default on high mortgages Ms. Katie replies “We didn’t try and build a lavish house, we built what we could afford. It’s decent and clean and everything that I wanted.”
After Dudley’s death in 1976, Mrs. Katie found herself with a only a single income and a mortgage that was not quite paid off. Never shy of hard work, she continued her day job doing domestic work and took a second job washing dishes in the evening at the Lighthouse Restaurant in Berryville.
“It was a lot of work but I knew that I wanted to keep my house” she said.
Mrs. Katie’s lifetime work ethic has changed little over the years but her efforts now go toward volunteering at her church and for the Red Cross. She loves to cook, making homemade jams and preserves, and still knits (but only in the winter because her wool yarn is too uncomfortable to work with in the heat.)
She also follows politics on both a local and national level.
“I’m glad that they finally got that school passed!” she said. “I’m glad about that.”
She’s also very supportive of President Obama and his efforts to get the country on the right financial track. “I’m so impressed with him and his policies. As a child of an African father and a white mother it just seems like he has come such a long way to be president. Now he’s trying to bring the economy back which is hard to do when there’s no money.”
Mrs. Katie says that even the Tea Party hasn’t been able to shake the president. “He took the job because he wants to help all Americans and that’s why I think he’s able to rise above a lot of the criticism. He is a great, great man.” Mrs. Katie added “And he’s got a good, smart wife who’s calm like he is. I just love them both!”
Several other nonagenarians recently attended a birthday celebration held in Mrs. Katie’s honor. Former Clarke County Training School classmates Rosetta Clay, Susie Patterson, Mary Basil and Agnes Burns sat together remembering school days long past on Josephine Street and enjoying the kind of memories that only life-long friends can share.
At the birthday party, a nephew related a childhood memory about his Aunt Katie and her secret of long life. She told him to model his diet after her example by eating his vegetables, especially squash. He reported she was still withholding the second secret of long life.
Is there any downside to life at 90? Mrs. Katie chose to deliver her answer to the 125 well-wishers who attended her birthday celebration in verse:
“Just a line to say I’m living,
That I’m not among the dead;
Though I’m getting more forgetful,
And more “mixed up” in the head.
For sometimes I can’t remember,
When I stand at the foot of the stair,
If I must go up for something,
Or I’ve just come down from there.
And before the frig, so often,
My poor mind is filled with doubt,
Have I just put food away or
Have I come to take some out.
And there’s times when it is dark out,
With my night cap on my head,
I don’t know if I’m retiring,
Or just getting out of bed.
So, if it’s my turn to write you,
There’s no need in getting sore.
I may think that I have written,
And don’t want to be a bore.
So remember – – I do love you,
And wish that you were here;
But now, it’s nearly mail time,
So I must say, “Goodbye, dear.”
There I stood beside the mailbox,
With a face so very red,
Instead of mailing you my letter,
I had opened it instead.
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