We were always pretty sure that Lance (our father) would live to be a hundred. But the after-effects of a stroke got the best of him, and he left this earth at almost 93. Aileen made it to within a month of her 101st birthday.And pretty much lucid to the end. But, yes, she was ready to go. Because, almost 18 months ago, a broken hip deprived her of her mobility and of her numerous activities. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, she died peacefully of natural causes at the Brookhaven Care center in Norman, on April 8, 2020.
She was born Gladys Aileen Wilmeth in Newcastle, OK, in 1919, graduated from high school there and went on to earn her degree in social work from OU. As luck would have it, she met her husband, Lance Brown, on her first job as a social worker in Beckham County. On her first day of work, she had not been given a key for her office, and Lance, who worked in the Farmers’ Home Administration (FHA) next door, came to her rescue. After they married, they spent a lot of time on the road with Lance’s trouble-shooting job. By the time they settled on the farm near Strong City, the Wilmeth family had gone the way of the « Grapes of Wrath » and settled in California. And Aileen’s fate was sealed ! She would remain in Oklahoma, and make the best of it. And she did.
Wherever they lived, Lance and Aileen were both very active in the First Baptist Church. But they became Baptists, so the story goes, as a compromise between Lance’s Methodist leanings and Aileen’s Church of Christ upbringing ! They were baptized as adults, with their children looking on, by Ted Cox in the Cheyenne First Baptist Church. Lance became a deacon, and Aileen often played the piano for church services. She participated in the Women’s Auxiliary activities, hosted quilting sessions with the other farm women around her, and even sold Avon products for a while to supplement the growing family’s income.
During the Eisenhower administration, Lance heard the call from the President pleading for more teachers, and he decided to « send Aileen back to school. Does that surprise anybody? She even spent a summer on campus at Southwestern State College in Weatherford – all five kids in tow – while Lance kept the farm going. What mother of five could even do that today ?!? She rented a small house, found a baby-sitter for the two youngest children, and put the three oldest into the public school’s summer classes. And studied, and studied, and studied. The following September, the superintendent in Cheyenne, Wayland Adams, needed a new grade school teacher, so without truly having obtained her official certification, Aileen started her teaching career. But the drouth (yet another !) eventually got the best of them, and Lance and Aileen decided they needed to leave the farm in order to earn a decent income. After 10 years of full-time farming, Lance took up his job with the FHA again, Aileen followed, and they soon settled in Ponca City where Aileen continued her career in elementary school education.
Lance had left his heart, though, in Western Oklahoma, on that windblown red-dirt farm homesteaded by his father, William Tyler « Billie » Brown, in the Cheyenne-Arapaho Land Run. So, after his retirement from the FHA, Lance and Aileen built a new home in Elk City where Lance was able to take care of the land he loved. Aileen found a new calling in teaching Adult Education classes for another 20 years. She often had students of other nationalities who did not yet know how to drive or how to write a check. She helped them by giving English classes, driving lessons and taking them to the bank to open their first accounts. And encouraged all of them to continue their education, regardless of their backgrounds, whether from another country or from rural Oklahoma. One of her students became a nursing aide, and by a happy coincidence was working in the Brookhaven Care Center when Aileen arrived there. And after all these years, Aileen soon remembered her old student and immediately asked, « now did you go on to get that degree ? »
After Lance’s death in 1999, Aileen remained in Elk City for several years, making and keeping friends from the adult center, her church, her neighborhood. Her going-away party in 2006 was a fabulous affair with more than 50 women whose lives had all been touched by Aileen. She moved to the independent living quarters of Epworth Villa in Oklahoma City, maintained her own appartment, did her own shopping, and kept driving until she was in her mid-nineties. She had become a very independent lady herself, and nobody had to take her car keys away from her. She decided on her own to sell her car, noting that if she had an accident, it would always be the « old lady’s fault. »
And then came the fall in her room at Epworth, the broken hip, and the move to Brookhaven Care Center in Norman where her daughter, Betty, could care for her. These past few years, she told us many times that when her time came, she was ready to go, that she had lived a good and long life, and did not fear death. And, then her time did finally come. Due to the raging coronavirus, there could be no question of a funeral service. Aileen didn’t want one anyway. She had said so often. She figured she had outlived almost everybody she knew ! So because of these perilous times, she pretty much got what she wanted. Betty, who has lovingly cared for Aileen over the past few years, was nonetheless able to organize the most moving one-person farewell ever. With that Oklahoma wind « sweeping down the plains » in the Strong City Cemetery, with only a minister and Richard Dugger from the funeral home present, Betty reminisced about our Mother, read the 23rd Psalm, a poem from Yeats, and and the three of them sang several hymns.
Betty asked all the family to join in singing « I’ll Fly Away » with her at 2 :30 p.m. sharp. All across the time zones from Arizona, to Colorado, from Oklahoma to North Carolina, and on to Paris, France, we connected in spirit and in song. In memory of our Mother.
Condolences and memores are most welcome on the following site : www.martin-duggerfuneralhome.com/obituaries