When you saw her working in her yard or strolling down Logan Street, you sometimes had to remind yourself that in her century of living, Denzel had witnessed unimaginable change.
When she was born in a farmhouse on 216th Street, north of Noblesville the automobile was a new and unreliable invention sharing the road with horses, rural telephone and electrical service was sporadic or nonexistent, the recently invented airplane was a rare site and the typical American home still relied on an outhouse. During her lifetime there were two world wars, a great depression and 18 presidents. And during her life she witnessed the creation of radio, television, computers, nuclear weapons, men on the moon, Jazz, and Rock ‘n Roll.
Once you got to know her a little you realized that none of that time was spent sitting in a rocking chair. Her life was marked by a passion for activity.
And I never met a woman with blue eyes more beautiful than Denzel’s.
When Greta and I moved to Noblesville in the mid-‘80s, we became part of a group of young families restoring old houses. Problem was, while people like us were removing the aluminum siding and stripping the woodwork on our homes, we were often living next door to older people who had gladly put aluminum siding on their homes and painted the woodwork.
A lot of the people who made up Old Noblesville, didn’t know what to make of us.
But there were a handful of well-established older folks who gladly joined our group and Denzel was one of them. She didn’t care what her peers thought. She loved things that were beautiful, be it flowers, or music, or old houses.
I recall her telling me once how she went to the Wild Opera house with a hammer and crow bar the evening before it was demolished and tore out one of the fireplace mantels and brought it home to her house.
In 1928 as a senior at Noblesville High School, she was engaged to a West Point Cadet. But when she met big band leader, Red Hufford at the Indiana Roof Ballroom, the West Point man went by the wayside. She married Red and had a daughter named Adele.
Through the 1960s she worked at the Sears catalogue store on the courthouse square. She spent her two weeks vacation each year at the State Fair teaching crafts to schoolgirls.
When my wife, Greta left work to stay home with our children, Denzel taught her to cane the seats of antique chairs. Our daughter, Sally spent many hours playing at Denzel’s house during chair-caning sessions. Sally has a doll that Denzel gave her that was always known in our house as, “Denzel Dolly.”
Denzel’s life story speaks of an openhearted, hardworking soul with a lust for life. When she was over the age of ‘90 she jumped in a carnival bounce house, climbed on top of her refrigerator to wallpaper the kitchen ceiling, and gardened in high heels. Three years ago at Shakespeare in The Park she drank a beer with me. She played in 3 bridge clubs and walked downtown several times a day. She was active in Tri Kappa and Master Gardeners. She’s networked with so many gardeners over so many years; starts from plants in her garden are blooming in yards all over Old Town.
If Denzel wanted to do something, you had to just give up telling her she couldn’t. She wouldn’t listen anyway.
Four years ago, when she was a mere 95, on a very hot summer morning like those we had in the past week, I left my house for the office at 7:00 and saw Denzel tending her flowerbeds. At noon when I came home for lunch I passed her house and saw she was still at work. I parked in front of her house and reminded her to have a rest and some water. She shrugged, “I’m fine.”
Mid afternoon I passed again. She was still working. I parked again and told her it worried me to see her working so long in the heat. Well now she was just plane irritated with me stopping and babying her. “Don’t you have anything else to do?” she asked me. She waved me away and said, “I’m fine, now leave me alone.”
Her daughter, Adele once told me a story that speaks volumes about Denzel’s independent, even feminist spirit. One day Adele came home from school to find Denzel had used an ax to demolish the front porch of their house. Denzel told Adele she did it was because, “When I grew up on the farm, too often men sat on the porch and watched the women work.”
Longevity runs in her family. Her older sister, Gladys died just before her 100th birthday. Denzel told me her long life was due to a steady diet of peanuts and lots of catnaps.
One afternoon a few years ago I found Denzel sitting alone in Noble Coffee & Tea. She was staring out the window at 9th Street with a lost expression. We talked for an hour. She told me at one point, “I’m lonely. All my friends are gone.”
Reaching 99 is a rare gift, but also, sometimes, perhaps a burden few of us can imagine. You gotta be tough. Denzel was.
Having Denzel among us was an extraordinary luxury. She lived long, lived well, saw so much, and did it all with a gritty determination and grace.