Helen Fetzer celebrates 100th birthday

John Thompson • Updated Jan 1, 2019 at 5:21 PM

ELIZABETHTON — More than 100 people dropped in on Helen Fetzer on Sunday afternoon at her residence at Sycamore Springs Senior Living Community to wish her a happy 100th birthday.

Fetzer received lots of hugs and thanks from family, friends, and people of the community who remember her lifetime of giving and inspiring.

“My mom has been a pioneer,” said her son, Robert, who drove from his home in Roanoke, Va., to be with his mother on her special day.

But she was a pioneer in more than one field. She was a poor mountain girl who grew up to serve as one of the first members of the Women’s Army Corps in World War II. She graduated from college and became an elementary school teacher, regional supervisor of a federal grant program serving nine counties and supervisor of instruction with the Carter County School System. She also excelled at the more traditional roles of mother and wife, seeing that all four of her children were college graduates and most went on to higher degrees. She was also a strong supporter of her politically active husband, John Fetzer, and advised him on educational matters when he became a member of the Carter County Board of Education.

While Fetzer’s centennial celebration was held Sunday, she was actually born after the new year. She said there is some dispute as to whether it was Jan. 1 or Jan. 2. She was born to Obes and Winnie Mae Shoopman of Campbell County. They were so poor that Winnie Mae’s father gave them an outbuilding he had recently built. That served as their home, and that was where Helen was born. Dr. Queener delivered her, and reported on the official birth record that she was born on Jan. 1, but some family members insisted she was born after midnight, making her birthdate Jan. 2.

Even though her family was very poor when Fetzer was growing up, she saw opportunity, leading her to graduate high school at the age of 16. But the reality of a poor girl’s place during the Great Depression was soon felt. She said her father certainly understood, and found way to help her. Fetzer said he had been awarded a $100 bonus for his World War I service in the Army. She said he gave her half his bonus so she could attend Carson-Newman College.

Many great things in her life would come out of her decision to attend the college. First of all, it was the start of her long and distinguished career in education. It would also be the place where she would meet her lifelong companion, her husband of 66 years, John, from Polk County. It would have been impossible for the two to not meet. Helen’s roommate at the tiny college was John’s sister, Blanche Fetzer Rogers.

But Fetzer did not follow the old path of marrying a man she met in college. She remained single and took her first job as an educator. “My first job was at the one-room school of Stoney Point in the Knox County system,” Fetzer said. “I was the only teacher, the principal and the custodian.” It was a challenging job for someone just a few years older than her eighth-graders. But she was destined to soon have some far more challenging jobs.

With the United States becoming involved in World War II, the need for women to take on new roles led to some women being placed in undreamed of responsibilities, and Fetzer was quick to take advantage of the opportunity. She enlisted in a brand new branch of the Army, the Women’s Army Corps and was soon on her way to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in 1943. After basic training, she began advanced training in military intelligence. She was then sent to a recently erected building near Washington called the Pentagon and eventually reached the rank of staff sergeant.

John also enlisted. He joined the Army Air Forces and eventually became a pilot and flew B-24 bombers over Europe, After VE Day, he returned to the United States. Unlike their time at Carson-Newman, John and Helen did not waste any time at this moment in their lives and they married at Calvary Baptist Church Washington on July 18, 1945. With the defeat of Japan a couple of weeks later, both were soon separated from the Army. John had worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority before the war, and so the couple headed back to their native state. He was soon assigned to work as an ironworker foreman on the construction of Watauga Dam, leading to the family putting down roots on the East Side of Elizabethton.

In 1948, he was selected by the Nashville Bridge Company to be the main ironworker foreman on the new Butler Bridge over the new Watauga Lake. He would continue to take ironworker jobs around East Tennessee for the the next two decades. In 1959, he began working as an agent for the ironworker’s union and continued that work for several years.

While John was seeing success in his career, Helen returned to school and laid the foundation for her long career in education. She completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Tennessee and was awarded her master’s in education from East Tennessee State College in 1953.

Fetzer was hired by the Johnson City School System and taught at Stratton and Keystone elementary schools. She still recalls one of her saddest experiences. She taught twin girls at Keystone and when she asked them how their Christmas had been, they told her it had been terrible. She said they had asked for bicycles, but instead of getting two, they only got one, and it was broken. She never forgot their sadness, nor her desire to do her best for less fortunate children. She would set up a program in the Carter County School System to provide assistance to such students. The program sill exists.

Fetzer also headed a regional program in the 1970s funded by a federal grant that provided direction for young teachers. That was where Anne Kitchens, a teacher in a master’s degree program, got to know her.

“She is so smart,” Kitchens said. “She had such a good memory and could really help you find what you needed.”

Fetzer spent many of her 34 years in education in Carter County schools, serving at Unaka Elementary, Hunter and Gap Creek. She then was appointed supervisor of instruction for Carter County by Superintendent Earl Sams.

John would also make a contribution to the Carter County School System during his long service in local politics. He served 16 years on the Elizabethton City County, from 1965 until 1981. He served six years on the Carter County Board of Education. John would die in 2012 at the age of 95.

In addition to their public work, the Fetzers were also successful as parents. They had four children: Dr. John Fetzer Jr., a physician who practiced in Jefferson City; Dr. Daniel Fetzer, a software engineer in Oak Ridge; daughter Marie Bryant, who resides with her husband in Polk County; and Robert, founder and president of Building Specialists Inc., of Roanoke, Va.

Robert speculated Sunday on the long and productive lives of his parents. His thoughts centered on their humble roots in the remotest and poorest sections of East Tennessee. “They always had a garden,” Robert said. “That garden provided all kids of fresh vegetables in season and they canned and preserved for the rest of the year. They kept that garden going for over 60 years.”

They gave back a lot more to their East Tennessee home, a place Helen continues to celebrate on her 100th birthday.

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