Sally Elizabeth Hurt was born on Oct. 27, 1901, in rural Alabama. She has always remembered her childhood as a happy one, going barefoot in the summer, picking flowers and making mud pies. Later she graduated from the Tuskegee Institute, worked for decades as a public health nurse, and helped the elderly prepare tax returns until she was nearly 100 years old herself.
Amazingly, the story of Sally's life is still being written. On Wednesday afternoon at the James L. West Alzheimer Center in Fort Worth, her relatives joined staff members and other residents in a lobby decorated with balloons. Sally sat in her wheelchair, frail and drowsy but very much alive. Several times in the past decade, Sally has begun to fail, only to perk right back up.
"Did you know it's your birthday today?" said Kay Sharp, the West Center's director of resident services, as she bent over Sally's chair. "You're 109 years old."
Sally herself didn't seem that impressed, but she was probably the only one at her party who wasn't. There was a big birthday cake that an aide helped Sally eat. Her family gathered around, paging through a photo album that contained a note from President George W. Bush on the occasion of her 100th birthday and photographs going back a century.
Her parents were George and Pleasant Hurt, who lived on an Alabama plantation. Sally, the youngest, followed two older siblings into the woods to pick berries and nuts and carried their books home from school until she was old enough to go herself. By then her father had taught her to read, write and do arithmetic using a slate and chalk.
In 1919, her parents sent Sally to the Tuskegee Institute, where she finished high school and three years of nurse's training. She administered typhoid inoculations after a flood in Arkansas, before returning to Alabama to work as a public health nurse among the rural poor.
"In many of the back rural areas, some of the people had never seen a nurse before," she wrote in the 1940s. "Mid-wives were still being used in large numbers. My objectives were ... to see that all school children were vaccinated against smallpox, typhoid and diphtheria, and to organize home hygiene classes. ... Many of the parents would object to having their children inoculated. But we were able to sell the people the idea that health work was to prevent disease rather than to cure one."
Her work earned her a scholarship to study at Columbia University. In 1936, she began a decades-long career as a public health nurse in Washington, D.C. Though she never married, relatives recall a profound love of children, which inspired her to establish clinics for unwed mothers, supervise school nurses, organize clubs for foster children, and teach Sunday school at her church.
"She always encouraged others to do better, to strive to improve themselves," longtime friend Cassie Cundiff wrote when Sally turned 100. "When she retired, she did private duty in homes and hospitals. There was no limit to her achievements."
Her humanitarian efforts continued late into her 90s, when she suffered major burns in a home accident. Until then, she continued to help seniors prepare their tax returns. The injuries led to her move to Fort Worth to be close to several relatives and then to the West Center about a decade ago.
"We are very proud of her, and if she had not had that accident, I think she would be more alert now," said Sally's great niece, Ruby Blaylock. "She just loved to care for people, and she took care of herself. She ate well and just had a different lifestyle."
At her birthday party, West Center receptionist Kenesha Graham described life in 1901, when William McKinley was president. That year, oil was discovered in Texas. There were 8,000 cars in the nation, and the speed limit was 10 mph, Graham said. Canned beer had yet to be invented.
"Every once in a while, she'll say, 'I'm going to heaven today,' and I'll think, well, maybe she will," said Sharp, the West Center supervisor. "It's time to get a list of people for her to say hello to once she gets there. But she hasn't yet."
Sally's physician, Dr. Kendra Belfi, also attended her party. There are some things, like Sally's long life, that can't be medically explained.
"She's just an amazing little lady," Belfi said.
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544