Grace Bilbrey and Otis Ledbetter

School Days at Henard


Grace (Copeland) Bilbrey, who celebrated her 104th birthday on Valentine’s Day, was recently visited by Mercer Coleman, a relative, and Otis Ledbetter, a former schoolmate who was good friends with her brother.


On February 14, 2003, Grace (Copeland) Bilbrey reached her 104th birthday. She is the oldest person I know, and if it were only possible to “fast backward” to the day she arrived in this world, and then to slowly come forward to today’s date, can you imagine what that journey would include? I have known Grace most of my life, and she is a dear and treasured friend. I did a story about her previously in my column, and a lot of my best memories of our friendship were included in that.

Grace is the daughter of Elsworth Maywood Copeland and Sarah Loretta (Keisling) Copeland. There were nine children in her family.

I stopped by to visit with her in the nursing home a couple of days before her 104th birthday, and even on that day, her lap was full of cards she had already begun to receive to wish her a happy birthday. Another year when she celebrated a birthday, the entire door of her room, both front and back, was completely covered with cards she had gotten in the mail. Everybody who knows Grace loves her.

Grace had some other visitors the same day I visited. Carol (Ledbetter) Coleman and her granddaughter, Mercer Coleman, who happens to share the same birthday as Grace, stopped by to visit and brought along Otis Ledbetter, who is also a resident at the nursing home.  Mercer brought Grace a beautiful bouquet in honor of their shared birthday. Upon Grace’s learning that she and Mercer’s birthday was on the same day, her words to Mercer were “But I’m just a little bit older than you are.” Mercer was 9 on February 14. She has family ties to both Grace and Otis. She is the great-granddaughter of Ardene (Keisling) Coleman. Ardene and Grace were first cousins. Mercer is also the great-granddaughter of Archie Ledbetter. Archie and Otis were first cousins.

Otis is one of four children of Billy Ledbetter and Lou Eads Ledbetter. He and Grace were schoolmates at Henard School, which was located where Overton County Fairgrounds are now. They shared memories of being in school together, although Grace thought Otis was a lot younger than she was at the time. Otis will be 99 in October. He would sometimes come home with Grace’s brother, Lucian, to spend the night. They recalled some of the teachers they had at Henard. The ones they could remember included Forest Stockton, Will Ray, and the teacher who taught Scripture was Curley Livingston. Other classes they remembered having included spelling, arithmetic, and singing. I’m sure Grace excelled in the singing classes because that’s something she has always loved to do.

Otis says the first time he saw Grace, she was sitting out in the yard of the school under the shade trees, but Grace remembered it differently. She said she believed the first time she saw Otis was as they were coming across the foot log on the way to school. Something they both remembered playing was a game called “cat ball”. From their description, it sounded similar to baseball but yet it was different, too. Maybe someone who knows about this game can call me with a better description. One of the favorite places to play at recess during the school days at Henard was on the tree roots of a very large tree that grew in the school yard.

I enjoyed my visit that day, and as I sat there in the room with two people who each have so many memories and knowledge of the world as it was in years gone by, I couldn’t help but think about Mercer and how things might be for her in years to come. What will her memories be like? We can only wonder about that. I might add, though, that Mercer was a very polite and well-mannered young lady who was very much at ease in the present of Grace and Otis. She sat and quietly listened as the two of them talked about their school days, and she seemed genuinely interested in what they had to say. And when it came time for her to leave to go to gymnastics class, without hesitation and without being asked, she gave both Grace and Otis a big hug.

I’ve always thought it was very fitting that Grace should have been born on Valentine’s Day, because if there was ever a sweetheart, it’s Grace. And after observing Mercer that day, and with her birthday also being on Valentine’s Day, I wouldn’t hesitate at all to include her in that category, too.

Grace and Otis both contain a wealth of information about life during the days they were growing up, and I’m happy to have had an opportunity to look back with them, if only for a short while, on just a very small part of their lives that included the days they attended Henard School. They are both remarkable people whose lives have touched many others along the way.

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