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VIDEO PODCAST: Gretchen Fuller turns 105

Friends and family of Gretchen Fuller – known to many in Hamilton as Betty Hicks from her days as a home economics teacher at Notre Dame Academy – gathered at Westover today to celebrate her 105th birthday.

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In the featured image at the top of the post, Mrs. Fuller’s stepdaughter Sue Samoviski plays a video of family members in Florida who could not attend the celebration singing “Happy Birthday.”

Here is a photo of Westover School 5-year-olds singing and giving flowers to a lady 100 years older than them:

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A picture of her as a young woman:

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Here’s the story I wrote for the Hamilton Journal-News when Gretchen turned 100, published September 4, 2010:

Hamilton centenarian celebrates a life lived without fear

Gretchen Fuller — aka Betty Hicks — turns 100 years on Sept. 11

When Gretchen Fuller was 5 years old, she almost died.

She had a fever, and her parents took her to the doctor, who told them to give her a dose of castor oil and sent them home.

“He didn’t even look in my throat,” Fuller said.

Had he looked, he might have made a better diagnosis. She had diphtheria, and by the time they finally figured it out, her throat was nearly swollen shut and “I was in such serious condition they almost let me die,” she said.

But the doctor then arranged to have the antitoxin brought into Barboursville, W.Va., where she spent her early years, on train and by horseback.

“They gave me three times as much as a normal dose and they thought it was going to kill me,” she said.

“They said I didn’t move for 24 hours. They wanted to give me some more of the antitoxin, but the family said no, afraid that it would kill me.”

That was 95 years ago.

In the meantime, she has buried three husbands, traveled around the world and back again, taught sewing and home economics for 16 years, Sunday school for 35 years and has played countless games of bridge, which she still does at least twice a week. She exercises on machines three times a week and takes an exercise class, and is still flexible enough to kick a leg in the air and touch her hands. She has no conditions that require her to take prescription medicine and attributes her flexibility, if not her longevity, to making five almonds and a dried apricot part of her daily diet.

She learned how to drive at 14 and she just had her license renewed so that she can keep up her active life, driving herself to breakfasts with friends and to Partners in Prime for bridge in her 2000 Ford Taurus with 16,000 miles on it.

On Sept. 11, Gretchen Fuller — who said she is known by many people around Hamilton as Betty Hicks — will celebrate her 100th birthday with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Westover Fireside Dining Room, 855 Stahlheber Road.

She triumphed over many of life’s challenges

Gretchen Fuller comes from a family of long-lived women.

Her grandmother lived well into her 90s and her mother died 17 days before her 100th birthday.

She was born Elizabeth Gretchen Nunn on Sept. 11, 1910 in Barboursville, W.Va., a small town of about 2,500 at the time, 10 miles from Huntington.

“It was a wide place in the road,” she said.

Her father, who worked as a plumber, hardware store owner and realtor, moved the family to Huntington not long after her bout with diphtheria, and that’s where she was educated.

“We lived in the same block as the elementary school, so I spent a lot of time on that playground,” she said. “That’s a good reason why I’m so flexible today.”

She also lived 10 blocks from the public library, where she was well-known and permitted to carry home as many books as her tiny little body would allow, mostly mysteries like the Nancy Drew stories.

“After I had that sick spell I was always skinny as a rail,” she said. “I only weighed 84 pounds when I graduated from high school in 1929.”

She learned to sew when she was a small child because she wasn’t happy with the clothes her mother made for her. “It was just like she took a pillow case and cut holes for my neck and arms,” she said. “It didn’t do a thing for me.

“When I complained, she said, ‘Why, you could do it yourself and I won’t say a word.’

“So in the seventh grade I made a skirt and a blouse and by the eighth grade I was making my own clothes. I made practically everything I owned.”

So she went to Marshall College in West Virginia to get her teaching certificate.

It was there she met her first husband, William Russell Hicks, who went by Russell and had been saving his money for medical school.

But when the banks closed at the start of the Great Depression, he lost most of the $1,600 he saved, and “never got to go to medical school,” Fuller said. “He got a job he wasn’t proud of but he took it because they’d take most anything, with a Philadelphia company that sold liquor to the state of West Virginia.”

Then he got involved with construction safety and they were married in 1937.

“In 1943, he got a job that he couldn’t even tell me where he was going,” she said. It was in rural Tennessee at the Oak Ridge laboratories for the Manhattan Project.

After that, they went to Odessa, Texas, for while, where they lived for 16 months in a modular type of home known as a “Dallas apartment,” 16 feet square. “It was painted three times a year because the wind would blow it right off,” she said. “I know Texas is a big place and there’s bound to be some nice places somewhere, but I said if I’d never see Texas again, it would be soon enough.”

After that, in May 1950, Russell Hicks got a job as the safety director for the city of Hamilton, and they made a home here.

“There were a lot of incidents and a lot of deaths and accidents, then he got them to wearing safety shoes and safety glasses,” she said.

He had a mind for math, she said, and when she was teaching home economics at the Notre Dame Academy, the former girls’ Catholic school in Hamilton, she would read off a list of grades and he would immediately give her an average.

“We were married 38 and a half years,” she said. “On Nov. 1, 1975, I found him on the basement floor.

“Russell was a good PR man and we got along beautifully.”

In 1996, she fell in love with local salesman Bern Fuller, whom she had known from the bridge circles. He was 80, she 86.

His daughter Sue Samoviski said, “One day, he called me up and said there’s someone I’d like you to meet, and they came over to our house and sat on the couch spooning like a couple of teenagers.”

He became her third husband, married 11 years. They traveled a lot, beginning with a driving trip, 23 days across south Canada and back across the northern United States.

Her lifetime of travel has included trips to Australia and New Zealand, Hawaii twice, Alaska twice and Europe twice. She has cruised through the Panama Canal and around the Mediterranean Sea.

It was coming back from one of her trips with Bern Fuller that she decided to change her name.

“I always wanted to be called by my middle name, but Mother wouldn’t let me,” but Bern was quite willing to call her Gretchen.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned from Gretchen is that life is a book with many chapters,” Samoviski said. “You don’t have to forget about the previous chapter as you go through it, you just turn the page.”

“God doesn’t make mistakes,” Fuller added. “We just have to wonder what the next chapter is and don’t be afraid.”

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