Three sisters do their part for Georgia’s longevity tradition

Springfield Baptist Church in Sparta recently played host to a celebration for three local sisters — Tennie S. Henderson, 103, Lillie S. Lewis, 100, and Julia S. Williams, 98 — who have continued the state’s recent history of very old residents.

Two Georgia supercentenarians (people who have lived to or passed the age of 110) made headlines in recent years. Besse Cooper, a Monroe resident who spent most of her life in the small town of Between, was the world’s oldest person at the time of her death in 2012 at age 116. Dr. Leila Denmark, a legendary pediatrician and researcher, died in Athens that same year at age 114.

More recently, the Mangham siblings of Pike County have earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the five oldest siblings in the world.

The sisters honored in Sparta, known as the Skrine sisters for the surname they had before their marriages, have joined this longevity list.

The United States had more than 71,000 centenarians in 2015, but that represented only 0.022 percent of the population.

Hancock County

Sheila Davis, the daughter of Lewis, carried out some research trying to confirm the family’s thinking that they were the oldest sisters in the state. She called senior citizen agencies in Georgia trying to find an older set of sisters, and she was not able to track down any.

The sisters were born and raised in the Springfield community of Hancock County, which is where all three returned to live out their retirement years. Henderson and Lewis now share a residence, and Davis helps to care for them. Williams lives with her daughter.

Healthy living

The three sisters were all accomplished seamstresses from their youth. While Lewis and Williams went to school at Savannah State and majored in home economics, Henderson traveled farther, moving to New York, where she initially used her sewing skills working in the garment district. Later, she and her husband opened a dry cleaning business, and they worked side by side for 45 years until retirement.

While their oldest sister was working in New York, Lewis and Williams both became teachers. After finishing their education, they came back to Sparta to begin their careers. Both taught in elementary schools. Williams is retired from the Greene County school system and Lewis is retired from the Hancock school system.

“She also coached basketball for about 37 years,” said Davis of her mother. “She was my basketball coach.”

The sisters were also active in their local church, leading Vacation Bible School and singing in the choir “until they got of age,” said Davis, “and could no longer do all that kind of stuff.”

All three sisters had husbands and children, and all three are now widows. (Women far outnumber men in the ranks of the very old.) Henderson’s 82-year-old daughter still lives in New York. Lewis and Williams both married fellow teachers and had four and three children, respectively.

The sisters lead less active lives now than they once did, mainly getting their recreation by watching TV. But though they’ve slowed down, Davis says, “they get around pretty good.” Williams uses a cane, Lewis a wheelchair and Henderson a walker.

“My mother loves doing the word search puzzles,” said Davis. “She still does that sometimes, not as much as she used to, but she still does do it sometimes.”

The sisters believe there are a few reasons why they have lived so long.

“The oldest one [Henderson] always says that she had a good husband,” said Davis, “and she doesn’t have hardly any wrinkles, and she says it’s because she didn’t have a husband who worried her to death.”

“The other ones, they always say that they had a good upbringing,” said Davis. “They raised everything they ate.” Their father was a successful farmer, and all the sisters’ food when they were growing up had been grown by the family.

The healthy way of eating that began in their youth is something the sisters believe played a role in their longevity.

“And they never smoked,” said Davis. “And they never drank!”

Naomi Thomas is a recent graduate of UGA’s master’s degree program in Journalism. She received her undergraduate degree in Media, Communication and Cultures from Leeds Metropolitan University and has an interest in health workforce stories. Her twitter handle is @nrthomas123.