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“The good Lord’s purpose”

As he reaches 100, former Franklin Farmers Co-op employee John Williams reflects on a century’s worth of life experiences
Story and photos by Chris Villines 9/29/2017

 

On Sept. 19, John Williams celebrated a milestone that only a small percentage of people get to — he turned 100 years old. The Huntland resident, who worked as a truck driver for Franklin Farmers Cooperative’s Decherd and Huntland stores from 1963-78, also lays claim to another rarity as he and wife Loretta, 92, have been married for 75 years.
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On a comfortable, sun-splashed afternoon, John Williams puts on a well-worn straw hat and heads outside to find a shady spot to sit in the backyard of his Huntland home.

“When I get tired of being in the house, I’ll come out here,” he says.

In this tranquil setting, an array of sounds fills the air — birds chirping, farm machinery humming in the distance, an occasional vehicle passing by. Resting his chin on a trusty wooden cane as he sits, the Franklin Farmers Cooperative retiree is pensive.

So many memories. So many joys and heartaches. When you’ve achieved the rare feat of living 100 years — 75 of which have been spent with wife Loretta, 92 — and still have a sharp mind to boot, your book of life experiences is voluminous indeed.

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately,” John says. “There were 10 of us children. I never did think I would outlive all my family, but I did. I’m the only one left.”

Longevity is in the Williams family genes.

“I had a sister who lived to be 102,” he says. “One of my brothers was 98 when he died, my oldest sister was 95, and my youngest sister who passed away in May was 92.”

On Sept. 19, 1917, John entered into the world as the eighth child of George Washington Williams and his wife, Price Stone Williams. His father was a sharecropper.

“I was born just across the state line in Madison County, Alabama,” John says. “We moved to Huntland when I was 12 years old, and I’ve been here ever since. We’ve been in this house since 1948.”

Like so many farm families of that era, work had to come first, education second. John says he started school with one good pair of overalls, which when he got home he immediately had to change out of for farm work.

“I was raised in a time when you put a patch on top of a patch when you got a hole in your clothes,” John says, chuckling as he points to a patch on the jeans he is wearing. “I was plowing with mules before I was 10 years old. It didn’t hurt me. I didn’t know any difference back then. Everybody else was in the same shape.”

With such a large family to feed and clothe, money made from crops had to stretch a long way.

“If you made half a bale of cotton an acre you were doing good,” John says. “On 16 acres, if we made eight bales the landlord got four and we got four. A 500-pound bale would bring about $26, which would be used to buy big-item groceries. Little items like coffee and sugar we’d buy by selling eggs and chickens. We’d have to live all winter on around $80 we’d make from the other bales.

“It wasn’t for the weak, I’ll tell you,” he says.

Even though the Williams family didn’t have much in the way of material goods, John says they gained their wealth by leaning on each other and their tight-knit community.

“There would be somebody in town who had a radio, and on Saturday night neighbors would gather and listen to the Grand Ole Opry,” says John. “Very few were able to own a radio back then. I still remember the first time I heard one was when I was about 7 years old. The man who owned the grocery store in Plevna [Alabama] had a battery-operated radio, and we went to listen to the Gene Tunney-Jack Dempsey boxing match. All I could hear was racket.”

That hearing challenge stemmed from John being deaf in one ear, a condition he was afflicted with after contracting mumps at the age of 2. When he was drafted into the military during World War II, John’s hearing loss, combined with a ruptured disk in his back, limited his ability to serve in the U.S. Army.

“They made up an 88th Division out of limited service men, and we went through basic training in Oklahoma,” explains John. “I was only in there a year before they started discharging all of us.”

He regrets not being able to join two of his brothers who served during World War II.

“My youngest brother was wounded in Okinawa,” John says. “Both he and an older brother went through the whole four years, working as airplane mechanics in South Asia. If I had been able, I would have gladly fought. We loved our country.”

John returned home from his military stint to Loretta, whom he had already married, and started both a family and his work career. The two welcomed a son, Johnny, and daughter, Linda. Both Linda, 73, who is widowed, and Johnny, 69, who suffers from an arthritic condition, now live with and help care for their parents.

“I still like to mow, so Johnny and I will split it up,” John says. “He’ll mow the front yard and I’ll do the back. We used to have a garden every year, but it just got too hard to keep it up.”

After working a variety of jobs, John found his niche as a truck driver when he was hired at Franklin Farmers Co-op in 1963.

“Jackie McCallie was the manager over both stores then, and he needed a truck driver,” says John. “It was hard work, but I didn’t mind it. I delivered many a ton of fertilizer and discovered that people put it in some of the craziest places you ever saw. I had a good run there and retired in 1978.”

Little did he know at the time that life still had a lot in store for him — some four decades worth and counting. And though he only ventures away from home these days for an occasional doctor’s appointment or to attend service at nearby Mountain Fork Primitive Baptist Church, John says he has no complaints. Every day he gets to enjoy past his 100th birthday is a blessing.

“It’s been the good Lord’s purpose that I’ve lived this long,” he says steadfastly. “We ain’t got nothing to do with how long we’re on this earth. It’s all in God’s hands. He rules and super rules.”

 
 
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