State of Arizona and centenarian turn 100 together

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 14, 2012 9:08 AM
State of Arizona and centenarian turn 100 together

By Jennifer Griffith

SAFFORD, Arizona (Reuters) - The state of Arizona and spirited senior Lavona Jones Evans both have a reason to celebrate on Tuesday -- and it is not Valentine's Day.

The Safford homemaker, baker and quilt-maker turns 100 on February 14, the same day Arizona celebrates its centennial as a state.

Arizona was the last of the so-called "Lower 48" states to be admitted to the union in 1912, about a month after New Mexico joined on January 6 that year. Alaska and Hawaii joined 47 years later.

"I've had a happy life, but sad too," she said.

She was born at home -- in a house built from bricks that her father made -- on the day President William Howard Taft made the former frontier territory the United States' 48th state.

Her father noted the historical and personal significance of Valentine's Day in 1912, by crafting the name Lavona.

"He reversed the first three letters of Valentine's Day, and then added the last three letters of Arizona," said Evans, believed to be the only surviving person born in Arizona on the day the state was founded.

"I'm just glad he reversed those first three because I wouldn't like to be called Valona all my life," she said.

During its time as a frontier territory, the U.S. military battled Apache bands in what is now Arizona as settlers built an economy based on mining, farming and ranching.

As Evans came of age in the Great Depression, resilience and self-reliance became qualities that stayed with her.

Three times widowed, she spent most of her adult life in Tucson, raising three sons and two daughters.

Her first husband passed away suddenly of appendicitis while she was in the hospital giving birth to their second child, leaving her with "a 2-year-old, a 2-day-old and 10 dollars," she said.

She scrambled and found a job working as a housekeeper for a family who was just starting up a dairy, which later became one of the largest family-owned and operated dairies in the United States: Shamrock Farms.

While working and raising children in the 1940s, she learned to quilt.

During a rare trip out of the state to the South Pacific as a missionary for the Mormon Church, she taught the art to the Queen of Tonga. Together they crafted a quilt as a wedding gift for the marriage of Britain's Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

She still lives on her own, tends her own yard, paints portraits and landscapes, and takes meals to "the elderly." When asked how she stays so young she replies, "I don't!"

Each week she bakes 10 loaves of whole wheat bread, which she kneads by hand. She gives most of it away to neighbors and to her many grandchildren who live nearby.

As both she and the state neared their centenary in recent days, she has been feted with a party for 250 family and friends in Safford, and at a special lunch thrown by Shamrock Farms.

On Tuesday she will not play a part in the state's centenary celebrations in Phoenix -- where Native American tribes will sing in the dawn at a special ceremony -- but will visit schools in the towns of Safford and Thatcher, about 120 miles northeast of Tucson.

"I'm thankful I'm up and going and can live by myself and do for myself. I'm really happy my daughters are a block or two away. Just knowing that they're close does a lot for me," she says.

"My mother loves Arizona," said LaVana Parke, her daughter who is 78 and lives a block away. "She's been in this state all her life. It's very special to her. You love the place you live. You love the people. It's part of your heart."

When asked what the great touchstones of her life are, Evans doesn't mention the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the moon landing or even the birthday she shared with Arizona. It's much more personal.

"Going to Tonga. And losing three husbands."

(Editing By Tim Gaynor)