Kate Broyles, who will celebrate her 102nd birthday Tuesday, greets visitors with a quip. Bring up a mutual acquaintance half her age and she says with a smile, “Oh, yes, we grew up together.” Her memory isn’t slipping — she knows how old her friend is — it’s her sly sense of humor at work.
Though her hearing isn’t as good as she would like it to be, Mrs. Broyles still relates memories of her life with clarity. The frame of reference is personal; world events are no longer important to her. Asked about Pearl Harbor, she remembers that it happened but doesn’t remember her reaction to it. Born in 1909, she grew up in a time when church and community were the center of life, and world events were far removed unless a loved one was involved.
Mrs. Broyle’s community was Mount Carmel on what is now Tenn. Highway 107. She was one of nine children, one of whom died very young. There were six surviving girls and two boys in her family. She grew up without electricity and came to know the value of hard work. Providing for a family of 10 was a group effort. They lived on a farm, so the girls were expected to work along with the boys.
“I worked hard on that farm,” she said. “Daddy raised tobacco. When he didn’t sell tobacco, he sold produce and country hams. Mother was a housewife. She made all our own dresses, and she put ribbons in our hair.”
Life was a particularly delicate balance during her childhood, and it tilted hard toward sorrow when she was about 13.
“Daddy was working on Taylor Bridge,” Mrs. Broyles said. “They had a sled and horses to pull it, and my daddy was driving the team. The horses gave it a jerk and he broke his back.”
Her father was confined to his bed in a full plaster body cast for years until he died.
When it came time to go to high school, the years of farm work and climbing trees — she was a self-professed tomboy — paid off. Mrs. Broyles’ athletic skills were widely admired. She was recruited to play basketball for Jonesborough High School, given a scholarship and the school found a place for her to stay in Jonesborough. When graduation neared, the school superintendent approached her and told her if she would get a teaching certificate, he would give her a job.
“I would love to have you teach if you would like it,” he told her, and Mrs. Broyles replied, “I love children, and I would like it.”
She began a teaching career that spanned 45 years. She taught at Philadelphia, South Central, Liberty, Piney Mount and Enon, then for 32 years until retirement, at Lamar School. Both Piney Mount and Enon were one-teacher schools, with Mrs. Broyles handling grades one through six.
Describing one of those early schools she said, “We had a big pot-bellied stove and a big washtub (full of water) we would put on it. The students would bring their lunches in jars and we would put the jars in the water so they would have warm lunches at dinner.”
Mrs. Broyles saw her first car in 1922 in Greeneville, but it wasn’t until 1950 that she actually owned one.
“I paid $600 — that’s what I drew (a month) for teaching, and it took that much to pay for my car,” she said. “I went to Greeneville and got a Ford.”
In 1952, Kate Broyles married Guy Broyles. They met when he showed up one day at the back door of her school in Philadelphia.
She told him, “If the superintendent finds you there, I will lose my job.” Undeterred, Guy told her, “I followed you from revivals all over this county to talk to you but you out-walked me.”
The couple married and moved to their home in Johnson City, where Mrs. Broyles still lives. She taught school, and he operated the Arcade Shoe Shop. Though she got her teaching certificate in the 1920s, Mrs. Broyles went back to school and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from East Tennessee State College (now East Tennessee State University) in 1960. Guy Broyles died following a stroke in 1965.
Mrs. Broyles carried on, taking care of the house herself. She mowed the lawn by car headlights at night, a friend said. When she was in her 70s, her nephew caught her working up on the roof and told her to “come down from there,” but Mrs. Broyles didn’t say whether she climbed down before she finished what she was doing. With centenarians and beyond, the inevitable question pops up: To what do you attribute your long life?
“I never smoked. I never had a beer,” Mrs. Broyles said. “I was raised in the church. (She was a charter member of Fairhaven United Methodist.) I always sang in the choir, always taught a Sunday School class.”
She also sang in a gospel group, Broyles Family Gospel, for 20 years. “I started out as soprano, and alto is what I ended up with,” she said.
Mrs. Broyles drank a small bit of wine once for medicinal purposes and didn’t care for it at all. She does like biscuits and gravy and eats them every day. She also eats an egg and tomatoes daily and lots of fruit and vegetables. Mrs. Broyles believes in a big breakfast.
“You have to eat to keep living,” she said.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Broyles had to spend her 100th birthday in the hospital. A nurse stopped by to gauge her alertness and began by asking her when she was born.
“October eleventh ’09,” she replied.
The nurse said, “I didn’t ask what today’s date is, I asked you when you were born.”
“October eleventh ’09,” she said. “I’m 100 today.”
The nurse laughed and realized there was no need to go on with the test. Mrs. Broyles’ keen mind and sense of humor clearly were, and are, no worse for the wear of a century.