Meet Your Neighbors: Unicoi woman has spent many of her 102 years helping others

Sue Guinn Legg • Jan 23, 2012 at 8:49 AM

At age 102, Opal Leedy of Unicoi still enjoys helping others.

At the Christian Care Center in Johnson City where she’s lived for the past three years, the spry centenarian often visits room to room, checking on the welfare her neighbors.

She’d do more if she could, but for her own safety, she’s no longer allowed to render aid. So she alerts the staff whenever she finds one in need.

She takes life as it comes, prays a lot and trusts the Lord to take her when he’s ready. The most important thing, she said, is to be ready. In the meantime, she is using the health, agility, sound mind and caring nature she’s blessed with to do what good she can.

“I like work and I like helping,” she said. Both practices have taken her far.

Born in 1909, Opal grew up in a small community near Fall Branch that was fondly known as Possum Trot, the seventh of 10 children born to Dutton and Alice Hood.

Her dad built houses and he and Opal’s brothers farmed and raised tobacco on 100 acres she still refers to as “grandmother’s farm.” Hutton built the Possum Trot School and he built the Baptist church at Possum Trot they attended. When the church burned, services were moved to a school. They renamed the building Mill Creek Baptist Church and social life in the little community revolved around its services. It was there Opal met Dave Leedy, an older boy from a neighboring farm who would be her husband.

As a child, Opal and her family traveled by hack, by buggy and by wagon. She remembers trips to the store on foot and on horseback, often with a basket of eggs or a live chicken tucked under her arm to trade for goods not raised on their farm.

The first car to come that Opal recalls in Possum Trot was driven by the mailman. Dave’s first car was a T-Model Ford, and the day he tried to teach her to drive was the last day she ever drove an automobile. The road was narrow and the rock she ran over was big. Dave’s car was damaged and Opal never drove again because, she said, “I knew Dave didn’t want me driving his car.”

In ninth grade, Opal left school to stay with an aunt who needed someone to help her during her husband’s illness. “I stayed long enough to get homesick,” she said. But she enjoyed her time with her aunt, and it proved to be the first of many pleasurable trips she would make to be with someone who needed her.

She married Dave in 1925, just two days short of her 16th birthday. Dave went to work for the state highway department and for the next several years he and Opal moved from community to community, following his job from one road building project through the mountains to the next.

They lived all over Washington, Unicoi and Carter counties, in Flag Pond and Hampton and, for a time during the Depression, at the Fishery community by the CCC camp in Erwin. Dave dumped the first load of gravel at Sams Gap. He worked in the construction of Watauga Lake. He helped build the highways from Erwin to Asheville, N.C., Fall Branch to Kingsport, Hampton to Mountain City, and Jonesborough to Greeneville.

Opal kept house, tended their large gardens, canned everything, and began raising their children.

She remembers a large spring at the corner of their yard at Fishery where they carried their water. “On wash days, we filled our tubs at night, got up, built a fire and washed all morning. But I was younger then,” she said.

In the mid-1930s, Opal and Dave settled permanently in Unicoi. Their house sat on a hill overlooking Clarence’s Drive-In. They had three children of their own and a nephew who lived with them for most of his childhood. Opal also kept many of the neighbors’ children while they worked and used the drive-in to everyone’s advantage.

“I kept ’em by the yard full,” she said. “I kept good kids too; (because) those kids would do anything to get to go Clarence’s.”

The Depression lingered and the family raised two large gardens. In a good season, Opal would put away as many as 200 quarts of beans. And of all the technologies she’s seen come to pass, she appreciates the pressure canner as one of the most helpful. “It took hard work to get us through,” she said.

While she was still a young woman, tuberculosis touched many lives in the Appalachians, including Opal’s. A good friend of hers became ill and because they were often together, a doctor believed Opal had also been infected and sent her to a TB hospital in Knoxville. Doctors at the hospital found otherwise and promptly sent her home. But the doctor here insisted and sent her right back.

Opal, who had no say in the matter, went along as instructed. TB was deadly and highly infectious, and public health rules were rigidly enforced. Feeling fine, Opal spent her time at the hospital helping care for others until she was finally pronounced healthy.

In 1937, she and Dave joined Unicoi Free Will Baptist where today she’s distinguished as the oldest living member. She was active in the church and took on any job that was needed. She cleaned, taught Sunday School, helped with meals and special functions and served on church boards and committees, including a stint as church treasurer.

For many years she worked with the United Fund in distributing commodities in Unicoi. “Those commodities were food and we made sure it went to people who needed it,” she said.

When her children moved away and began raising their own families, Opal would leave Dave at home at the drop of a hat and travel across the country to be with them for the arrival of her grandchildren, or to help during any illness.

She traveled back and forth to Norfolk, Va., by train. She flew to Oregon and to California. She dipped her feet in both the Atlantic and Pacific. And in California she made day trips along the coast in a convertible with her daughter Robbie and her family.

At home in Unicoi, with no children left for her to look after, Opal and a friend took a job picking strawberries at Scott’s farm. They walked to work in the morning, picked berries until dinner, then picked all afternoon and walked home. They were paid by the quart and Opal still winces when she recalls the soreness that came with picking strawberries.

“I never thought I’d live any place else,” she said. But when the last of her children moved from Unicoi to Johnson City, she said “I would have been alone and so I moved to Johnson City too.”

Her family and friends from church often visit her at the care center and she goes to her daughter’s home for holidays and special occasions. Her great-grandchildren are now in college, and she keeps tabs on all their milestones. Her 94-year-old brother also lives nearby, still drives and still makes road trips out of state with his wife, most recently to Rochester, N.Y., to visit friends at Christmas.

Of all the generations she’s lived through, Opal says the present one would be her favorite if not for her failing eyesight that has left her unable to enjoy another of her lifelong passions, daily reading and study of the Holy Bible. “That really hurts. I always loved to read. I can’t now but I did, every day. I’d hurry to get my work done so I would have time to read.”

She attends Sunday and Wednesday church services at the care center. She likes the center and the people there. “It’s a good place,” she said. “They call it Christian and they believe it.”

When asked how she’s managed to live so long and so well, Opal smiled, thrust her fist with determination and earnestly confided, “Keep digging. I just keep digging.”

“Just trust the Lord a day at a time, and do the best you can.”

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