CONWAY Marie Rodgers’ independent streak was evident when she was a child, and the Conway woman hasn’t grown out of it as she turns 98.
“She likes to be in control,” said one of Rodgers’ caregivers, Goldia Wilkins of Springhill.
“No, I don’t!” Rodgers said. “I don’t like to be controlled.”
When it was explained, a little more loudly, what was said, Rodgers laughed and agreed.
The retired English teacher will celebrate her 98th birthday Friday.
“You’re not supposed to start an interview with a disclaimer, but I’m not going to revolutionize the education system,” she said.
She grew up in Conway, the daughter of Lydia Ellen Bowen Castleberry
Reynolds and Carl “C.C.” Reynolds. Rodgers had one sibling, a brother, Walter.
“I was shy and a bit of a tomboy when I was little,” she said.
“My brother let me play with his friends if I could keep up,” she said. “We’d run and jump off roofs of sheds.”
One of her favorite things to do was climb a big sycamore tree.
“My grandmother would say to my mother, ‘Lydie, come look at this child,’ and I’d be hanging upside down” in my dress, my bloomers and stockings showing, Rodgers said, laughing at the memory.
“Even when I was young, I was largely let alone and turned loose like a colt in the field,” she said.
“I was very independent. I’d wait till supper to make an announcement to the family of what I was going to do.”
Rodgers said although her family was moral, they weren’t churchgoers.
One night, before she was school-age, she announced she was going to join the church the next morning.
They lived with her grandmother at the time.
“My grandmother came alert. She said, ‘Well, sister, what church are you going to join?’ I said the United Methodist Episcopal Church South. Every night, from my bed, I could look at the lighted cross. That’s the last thing I could see at night.”
She was a precocious, smart child — Rodgers graduated as valedictorian of her Conway High School class of 1932.
It was the middle of the Great Depression.
“My father said, ‘Marie, I’m not going to be able to send you to college.’”
He was an electrician and owned Reynolds Electric on Front Street, which also sold chandeliers and “and the whole shebang,” she said. He lost it all in the Depression.
“I think that influenced my life more than anything else, what was happening in the world,” she said.
She started teaching a week after high school, when she was 17.
It was a one-room school in Conway called Red Hill, and she had 15 students.
“They circulated a petition in the community to let me teach there,” she said.
She made $60 a month, “which was a high salary” then.
“I was the janitor, the water boy, whatever,” she said.
“I learned how to be a teacher in that little one-room school. I didn’t know anything about human development.”
Rodgers said she asked one big boy what they did at recess, because there was no playground equipment.
“He said, ‘Well, Miss Reynolds, last year we tied Miss Henry to the tree and played baseball all day.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t think we’re going to do that this year. I swing a pretty good bat.’”
School was a whole different ballgame back then.
Another time, she said, the students started picking up their lunch pails to leave, and she asked what they were doing.
“They said ‘Granny so-and-so died,” and their mothers told them to go see her, Rodgers recalled.
Granny was the oldest woman in the community.
“I thought, ‘What do I do?’ I said, ‘Let’s just all go say goodbye to Granny.’”
She followed the students to the home, which was clean and had starched curtains. They stood in a semicircle and looked at Granny, paid their respects, and the students went back to school that afternoon.
Rodgers taught for two semesters and earned the money she needed for college to get her degree.
“Everybody in the community was just wonderful to me,” she said.
To raise money for college, Rodgers worked while in high school for Dr. Hugh C. Brooke, her family’s physician, whose office was above her father’s business. He had been in the military and “was tough as a boot,” she said.
Her job was to set appointments for him and “go get him out of the domino hall” when he was needed.
One day the doctor bought a new Ford car, and he asked her to take his daughter to dance lessons. Rodgers didn’t tell him that she’d never driven. She almost stripped the gears, and he heard it.
“When I got back, he was red hot,” she said.
Despite his fiery nature, “he was awfully good to me,” she said.
She went to what was then Arkansas State Teachers College, now the University of Central Arkansas. The first day there, tryouts for cheerleader were held.
“Not only did I win it; I was cheerleading captain for four years,” she said.
She also was president of Alpha Chi, an honor society, and society editor of The Echo, the student newspaper, and she went to all the dances to write about them.
“I went from being shy to I was really Miss Collegiate,” she said.
In the summers, she worked at the Conway Theater, where her father ran the projector.
Rodgers graduated from ASTC in 1936 and was voted Most Dependable Student.
Her next teaching job was for Shawnee Consolidated in Mississippi County. Rodgers said she and five other teachers lived together in what was called a “teacherage.”
“They’re raising Cain about teachers being armed now. … It’s not just a modern thing,” she said of violence.
“We had our troubles. A guy pulled a switchblade knife on me.”
She said the student was an eighth-grader.
“He was a beautiful child. He had the bluest eyes I ever saw.”
Rodgers said she went to the superintendent and told him about the incident.
“I said, ‘That young boy right there is going to shoot somebody before he’s 20,’” she said.
The superintendent, who was also a coach, said he’d “take it out on him” on the football field, but she insisted it was more serious.
Rodgers later heard the young man had shot a plantation owner.
She was a high school principal and a teacher at Shawnee and 30 years old before she married “the love of [her] life,” Norman Eugene Rodgers.
“He was my principal at Shawnee, and we were not supposed to date,” she said. “It was forbidden.”
He had a new car, and he asked her to go to Osceloa to see a movie.
“We didn’t really date; we weren’t supposed to,” she said.
They got married the same day he asked her, and just a week or so later, he was sent to the Pacific in World War II as the head of a field hospital, she said.
She didn’t see him for three years.
They lived in West Virginia for a time, where she and her husband taught at Potomac State College, and they moved to Panama during the Korean War.
“The tropics were just horrible,” she said.
The couple both earned master’s degrees at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and Rodgers has college hours above a master’s.
She had one baby, a daughter, who was stillborn, and suffered with postpartum depression for about a year.
“I’ve been knocked flat a time or two, and I’ve lived to be 98 years old. I did nothing to do this. I just kept going.”
Her husband died of a heart attack when he was 56 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. They were married 23 years.
She moved back “home” to Conway after that, in about 1966. She taught at the University of Central Arkansas and retired in 1980.
“I’ve been greatly blessed by living so long,” she said.
Rodgers is independent, although she has round-the-clock caretakers because she’s had a few falls.
One of her favorite relatives is Melinda Reynolds of Greenbrier, who is married to Rodgers’ nephew, Rick.
“She’s been my right-hand girl,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers also has a companion, Zoie, a little black schipperke, a dog breed that is said to be “stubborn, mischievous and headstrong.”
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.