I’d never met Mamie before, but it was as if I’d found a long-lost great aunt as we sat together looking through old photographs and she told me a bit about her life. She kept apologizing for talking “too much.” I asked her to please not stop. I wish I could have stayed for hours. Here’s some of what I learned.
Mamie was born in Speers Ferry in Scott County and the fifth of 11 siblings (10 of whom lived until adulthood). She graduated from Rye Cove High School when she was only 15 but couldn’t find work because she was deemed too young. Always a bookworm, she still loves to read (especially Christian fiction and mysteries). She works the crossword puzzle in the Times News every day, usually at breakfast. When still a girl, a sister would ask their mother to make Mamie join in housework by complaining “She’s just sitting over there with her nose in an old book!”
In December 1938, Mamie’s father died “in the middle of the Depression” and “I knew I had to go to work. Momma didn’t have anything coming in.” Her oldest brother was an invalid who needed constant care. In later years, Mamie was caring for the brother and their mother, both in hospital beds. But she’d chosen to be the caregiver long before. “When my father died, I was 19, and I made a vow to myself, and to God, and to Daddy, that I would never marry — I’d stay home and help mom raise my siblings. In addition to helping care for the older brother, Mamie aimed to help their mother finish raising six other siblings.
“I never had one regret I didn’t marry early,” Mamie said. “I never liked to do housework anyway, I wanted to be a career woman.”
In 1939, she got a job with the Charles Store in downtown Kingsport. To begin it was Saturdays only, but eventually it became full time. She was the “candy girl” there and rode the passenger train to and from Speers Ferry every work day. In July 1942, she was hired at JCPenney on Broad Street. She started on the floor as a salesperson, but it wasn’t long before she was transferred to the office. When Mamie retired on Aug. 1, 1982, her co-workers presented her with a “This is Your Life” book. It points out things were different back in 1942: the work week was 50 hours, including Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and no off days through the week. Mamie started work in the Ladies’ Cotton Shop, where dresses sold for 49 cents and 98 cents. The highest price dress in the store was $4.98 and a few coats carried an unheard of price of $14.99. Mamie was earning $50 a MONTH, with the opportunity of making a bonus of 2 cents on the dollar for all she sold over her monthly quota.
At some point Mamie switched from riding the train to taking the bus to and from Kingsport. Until the late 1970s, she lived within a mile of her birthplace at Speers Ferry.
In 1950, the “new” Penney’s opened on the corner of Center and Broad — moving the store from its prior location “next to the State Theatre.” A few years after the move, Mamie was made office manager and secretary to the store’s manager. Eventually, Mamie was put in full charge of personnel. At the time of her retirement, her title was “personnel supervisor.” She hired and trained a lot of employees over the years. And many of them have remembered her fondly, in person, and in correspondence (which she has kept).
“I am thankful to God that maybe I have helped a little in some people’s lives. I’ve had so many of them to tell me ‘You gave me my first job.’ “
But Mamie still seemed surprised to learn the party for her wouldn’t be in the employee lounge at Penney’s. Instead, she was told to report to the middle of the store.
“In the middle of the store?!” she said to me.
As for her 40 years with Penney’s?
“I loved it,” Mamie said. “Penney Company is a wonderful company.” If you want proof of how well Mamie liked working at Penney’s, consider this: in her 40 years there, she took a grand total of 7.5 sick days. “So you know how I’ve been blessed.”
Does she still shop there?
“It’s the first place I always shop,” she said. “For one thing, I get my retiree’s 25% discount.”
Marriage at 58
“People thought I’d lost my mind,” Mamie said of her 1978 marriage to Mack Riddle. “I was 58 and he was 64. I think we had a very good marriage. He never had anything bad to say about anybody.” Mack, best known as the longtime organizer and promoter of the Fourth of July Parade, died 20 years ago. He’d had a stroke five years earlier, and Mamie took care of him until his death. “I only regret I couldn’t do more.”
On turning 100
“When I was young, I thought 30 was old,” Mamie said. “When I didn’t die by the time I was 30, I thought 40 was old. It’s hard for me to really think I’ve lived to be 100. But I don’t feel like I’m 100. Some of the things I’ve liked about getting old is you can say what you want to and get away with it. And you can hug people, young or old, and get away with it.”
When people ask Mamie if she has a secret for living a long life, she tells them she never smoked, nor drank alcohol. “My biggest vice is my coffee, and I’m not giving it up. I drink coffee three times a day.” I love coffee, but Mamie taught me a new twist: she salts hers. “It takes the bitterness out.”
“I’ve had a good life. I have no complaints. I love people. I cannot think of one person who ever offended me or didn’t treat me nice. And it’s just what God intends me to do, if I’m going to be here a little longer or go quickly. It doesn’t matter to me.”
My interview was over, but before I left I got myself a Mamie hug.