I first met Halie Forstner back when she drove to the beauty shop each week, grabbed a Wendy’s junior cheeseburger after church on Sunday, exercised each morning, lived alone, walked without any assistance, and cleaned her own house.
She was 105 at the time.
She had found out that we had something in common. We both grew up on Sand Mountain. She was very proud of that, as am I.
When I heard that she had died, I was surprised. Imagine being surprised to hear that a 110-year-old person had passed away. But Miss Halie was different.
At the age of 103, she experienced extreme intestinal pain. The doctor told her very matter-of-factly, “I just want you to know that surgery is your only hope. But we don’t usually operate on people your age. Once we put you to sleep, you may never wake up.”
She didn’t bat an eye. “Well, what are we waiting for?”
The next day, that same doctor looked her right in the eye as she awakened from surgery. “I didn’t think you would still be here,“ he said. “Well, where did you think I was going?” was her response.
That was only one episode. At 107, she broke her hip and spent months in a rehab facility. At 109, she had to have her remaining teeth pulled, severely curbing her appetite. I was told by her friends more than once, “I think this is it, David. I don’t think she will live much longer.” She would always bounce back. She loved life, and she was tough as nails.
That’s why I was surprised when she didn’t bounce back from a recent fall. She was largely unresponsive the last few days of her life, and now she has left us for a brighter home.
I had called her every other Thursday since her 110th birthday in March, just to check in. She was always happy to talk, in her impeccable, ladylike way. She never used slang, her grammar and diction were flawless, and her memory was sharp. I last spoke to her on July 2nd, and she sounded fine. She was on my calendar to call on Thursday July 16th, but it was too late.
Most of her fame in recent years was connected to her longevity, but she was much more than that. She packed a lot of living into her 110 years, and that is worth celebrating.
She loved telling and writing stories dating back to her childhood, when the presidents were William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Her parents were well educated, and they made sure their only child was a voracious reader and a well prepared speaker.
Newspaper clippings from the late 1920s confirm that Halie Gass was a star at Chattanooga High School. She was in all of the academic clubs, she appeared in school plays, and she was the school reporter for the Chattanooga Times. She had hoped to attend college, but she could not afford tuition at the University of Chattanooga.
Her engagement to Charles Forstner made it to the society pages, and she was involved in various charities.
She was a working girl long before it became fashionable and commonplace. In fact, it was downright rare in the 1930s and 1940s, but there she was, on the job at the Chattanooga Medicine Company, the newly established Tennessee Valley Authority, and Loveman’s department store.
(She told me we actually first met in 1990 when the Freight Depot Warehouse Row stores opened in downtown Chattanooga. I was doing a live broadcast for Channel 3 at noon that day, and I was interviewing random customers about their new shopping options. She agreed to be interviewed on live television, and she remembered it vividly. Of course, I did not remember, because that event was just another blur in my career. I wish that had been recorded!)
In addition to her husband, the love of her life was Lookout Valley Presbyterian Church. She loved her pastor (Grady Davidson), the families in the church, and studying the Bible. She was an elder, and not the silent type. Her opinions were voiced frequently and firmly, and people knew where she stood.
Back in November 2020, we were talking about the recent presidential election. She had voted in each one dating back to the 1930s. (She often cited President Truman as her favorite.) I asked her if she had voted this time. “Absolutely not,” she said emphatically. When I expressed surprise, she said, “I couldn’t vote for either one of them!” She went on, “You told me to watch the news each day, so I did. And I didn’t like what I saw.” So perhaps I was at least partially responsible for a 109-year-old patriot sitting out a presidential election for the first time in 80-something years.
That reminds me of another Miss Halie memory. In 2018, I emceed a patriotic concert at Chattanooga’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium. It was around the 4th of July, and her pastor brought her, decked out in red, white and blue, starting with a bright red hat.
Part of the program included a video about the Auditorium’s history, and it’s founding to commemorate America’s soldiers of the World War (which we now call World War I). Miss Halie was one of the few folks still living who remembered the grand hall’s opening in 1924, when she was a teen. She was interviewed as part of the video, sharing her memories.
When the video concluded, and the lights came back on, I informed the audience that Miss Halie herself was seated down front. She stood and waved, to the thunderous applause of a thousand people. She reminded me of royalty, which she was.
Shortly after she turned 109, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga honored her with a surprise ceremony and certificate, naming her a Lifelong Learner in their Department of History. She was truly surprised and honored to be recognized by the college she had hoped to attend ninety years earlier.
It was just another honor from a community that enjoyed showing its love to a remarkable woman who displayed all the character traits you can think of: courtesy, kindness, honesty, courage, determination, perseverance, compassion, faith, resilience, tolerance, and responsibility.
Most of us will not get 110 years on this earth, and as our physical bodies break down, we may not want 110 years. As soon as Miss Halie finished her 110th birthday cake, she began talking about number 111.
She was absolutely looking forward to that. But even more, she was looking forward to her new home in heaven. Like everything else, she has reached her goal.
(David Carroll is a TV news anchor and radio host based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He is online at ChattanoogaRadioTV.com. You may contact him at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405, or at RadioTV2020@yahoo.com)