Kathleen Hooper celebrated the 101st birthday of her remarkable life on March 17. The middle child born to Elbert and Mamie Capes, she has outlived 10 siblings, married twice, reveled in motherhood, nurtured grandchildren, held great-grandchildren, attended an Atlanta premiere for “Gone with the Wind” and witnessed 19 United States presidencies.
by Kari Apted
Kathleen Capes Hooper turned 101 years old on March 17—or so the story goes. She might actually be a whole year older. Born at home to Elbert and Mamie Capes on the family’s sprawling Newton County dairy farm, there was no official documentation of her arrival. As was customary at the time, the attending midwife simply wrote the date in the family’s Bible. Hooper’s older sister insisted she was 5 years old when Kathleen was born and that the midwife recorded the wrong year. If so, that would make Hooper 102.
Regardless of her numerical age, Hooper has lived through an entire century of history. Woodrow Wilson was President and World War I was still a fresh memory when she was born in 1920. The average income was just over $2,000 per year. It cost two cents to mail a letter, and gasoline was 33 cents per gallon. However, the cost of gas did not matter so much, because at the time, no one in the little Oak Hill community even owned a gas-powered vehicle.
Hooper has outlived 10 siblings—five brothers and four sisters—with her last remaining sister Sara having died on Mother’s Day at the age of 94. Hooper was a middle child, and as was often the case in that era, she had two additional siblings that died before she knew them. One died from pneumonia as an infant, and an older brother died of appendicitis at age 18 before Hooper was born. Kathleen and her siblings caught the bus each day to Livingston School, which housed all grades, from elementary through high school, in one building. Before and after school, each Capes child had to milk three cows and do a variety of other chores on the farm. Some of the children ended up leaving school to work, but Hooper decided she wanted to graduate.
“My daddy wouldn’t let any of us girls date,” Hooper said. “He said that [we] could start after high school. Well, none of my older sisters would defy daddy and date anyway. Then my prom came around and he wasn’t going to let me go, but I said I was going to go anyhow—and I did.”
When it was time to buy her senior ring, her father agreed to pay the $12 for it, but only after he made her pick a huge basket of turnip greens. Since they always had a big garden, Hooper never remembers a time that food felt scarce. However, that was not true for many people in the 1930s.
“There was this one time my friend came to visit,” Hooper said. “She was nibbling on a biscuit my mother made like she was trying to make it last. She finally told me that she hadn’t had any food in two days and was nibbling so we wouldn’t know how hungry she was.”
Although Hooper has mostly happy memories of growing up on the dairy farm located on Oak Hill Road, it was hard work being a farmer’s daughter.
“I once dumped a boyfriend when I found out his family owned a dairy in Wisconsin,” she said with a laugh. “I’d had enough of that.”
“Do you know, I’ve never even had a headache? Every afternoon I get weary, and I think, ‘Maybe I’ll go get me a Tylenol,’ but then I forget to go get it.”Kathleen Hooper
Hooper recalls basketball being her favorite subject in school, and she frequently got in trouble for talking too much. She found French to be her most difficult subject. “I never could get that stuff,” she said, “but the teacher passed me anyway—probably to get rid of me.” Hooper’s skills on the basketball court earned her a spot on the county’s first girls’ basketball team and drew the attention of Porterdale’s mayor. “On the day I graduated, he said he’d hire me to come work at the mill for 25 cents an hour so I could play on the company’s basketball team,” she said. “That’s how I started working at Bibb Manufacturing Company.” Hooper performed payroll and secretarial work at the mill, which employed 3,000 people at the time. She remembers buying $1 bonds to build the Porterdale Gym and had the honor of playing in the first basketball game held there.
One of her most vivid memories happened on Dec. 15, 1939. Her soon-to-be husband, Bill Hooper, had a relative in California who sent them tickets to attend the premiere of “Gone with the Wind” at Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta. “Clark Gable, Margaret Mitchell and Vivien Leigh were there,” Kathleen said. “It was the first time I ever saw a woman smoking a cigarette on a stick like they did in the movies.” She also chuckled as she remembered Bill’s old Ford breaking down on the way home at 3 a.m. I-20 was still a dirt road at the time, and Bill owned the only car in the Oak Hill community. High school sweethearts, Bill and Kathleen married in 1940. Later, she would learn how to drive in her very own pink Mercury.
During World War II, Kathleen recalls the mill manufacturing rope, tires and other materials for the Army. Her brother Hulon fought in Europe and came home with frostbitten toes. After the war, the Hoopers built a brick house on the family’s land. Kathleen still lives there to this day. She became a mother at the age of 37, later in life than most women at the time.
“My son Lawson didn’t walk until he was 14 months old because I never put him down,” she said with a smile. “I was so happy to finally have him. I spoiled him rotten.”
Kathleen has since been blessed with her daughter-in-law Joanne, two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. After 40 years of marriage, Bill died from kidney failure. Hooper remarried several years later and spent some time living in Lake Tahoe, California, with her second husband, Al Grimes. After 10 years together, they decided to part ways, and Hooper returned to her Newton County home. They remained friends until Grimes’ death.
“Al called me every Sunday from the retirement home,” she said. “He always said that divorcing me was the biggest mistake of his life.”
Hooper’s independent spirit and welcoming personality make her seem many years younger than the calendar says. Until the coronavirus pandemic hit, Hooper went somewhere every single day. She has traveled extensively and spent untold hours doing ceramics and socializing at the Newton County Senior Center at Turner Lake Park. Hooper is the oldest member in attendance at Bethany Presbyterian Church on Sundays, and until her mid-80s, she volunteered every week at the First Presbyterian Church’s food bank. When macular degeneration rendered her unable to drive, she still found ways to get out of the house most days.
“I’d call a friend and say, ‘I’m lonely,’ and they’d come pick me up.” she said. “My pick-up line at the senior center was always, ‘Do you drive?’”
Hooper enjoys shopping and eating at her favorite restaurants, Wendy’s and Cracker Barrel. She cannot go anywhere in Covington without seeing people she knows. She also loves growing flowers and planted new blooms this spring. Amazingly, Hooper does not take any medication for chronic health conditions.
“Do you know, I’ve never even had a headache?” she said. “Every afternoon I get weary, and I think, ‘Maybe I’ll go get me a Tylenol,’ but then I forget to go get it.”
Hooper sees staying active and having a good time as her main keys to longevity. Her parents and most of her siblings lived into their 80s and 90s, so she credits the role genetics played in gifting her with a long life. That, and maintaining a good sense of humor.
“Just have fun doing what you like to do,” she said, “and stay positive.”