Stella Butler's laugh is like a chime, wonderfully light and musical. She folds her hands and sits quietly in the Good Samaritan Retirement Village, sharing 102 years of a life spent mostly in red-earthed Oklahoma. Warm and seasoned, her face belongs in a Norman Rockwell painting.
"My mother was the star of my life," says Mrs. Butler, remembering how a tenacious mother demanded that a reluctant father somehow provide a piano for his six children in their house in rural Milburn.
Not far from the Red River that separates Texas and Oklahoma, Milburn had a population of 1,500 in the early 1900s.
"Mother wanted us to be educated, to have the advantages she didn't have," says Butler, wearing a bright, flowered dress and seated in a wheel chair.
Somehow her father provided a piano, which was remarkable in that part of territorial Oklahoma, then the home of Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian tribes. Not until late in 1907 did Oklahoma gain statehood.
Young Oklahoma girls in the new century had mostly traditional hopes such as marriage, children, perhaps becoming the wife of a rancher or cotton farmer. Or for some, a teacher at a salary of $325 a year.
But Butler, who read and carried books with her wherever she went, wanted college first.
"I was at the top of my class in school," she says, "always wanting to learn."
Her father operated a livery service while her mother cooked for men traveling in and out of a boisterous new state. But money was not plentiful in a house with six children.
"In high school, I started working on Saturdays at a hardware store," Butler says, "then at a confectionery [soda fountain]. When Mr. Nicholson added a dry goods section, he put me in charge while I was still in high school." Today, like so many rural towns over the past 50 years, Milburn's population has dropped to 600 or 700.
Butler scrimped and saved enough money for a year of college at Oklahoma University. "I knew it was going to be one year," she says, regretting today that she couldn't continue through to graduation. "If I had found a way, I would have gone on. But I took every class I could, including public speaking, music, and expression in one year."
Just before World War I, she met her husband, handsome Fred Butler, who appeared one summer night at her gate with another girl while Butler was playing the piano inside. He was 17, she was a little older.
"He had seen me pass by a store and asked who I was," she says. "We all went to a party that night. I was with another boy, the son of the school superintendent, but Fred monopolized me. My date fussed at me all the way home. Land, how silly we were then," she says, the chimes ringing.
Fred and Stella married after he returned from the war, a rangy lad barely 19. "We had a small wedding in a living room," she says. She quit her job as a bookkeeper at a Buick dealership, and went on to give birth to two boys. Somehow the family survived the Depression years. "To make ends meet, it seemed like I counted sugar grains," she says with a laugh.
But Mr. Butler, as resourceful as they come, always had a job. "We had a wonderful life," she says, "and my two sons couldn't be better boys." Mr. Butler eventually owned a Ford dealership.
Butler plunged into church work and civic affairs. She also became a well-known public speaker in that part of Oklahoma, at a time when readings and memorized presentations were popular.
In 1920, there were only 2,000 radios in homes across America, and "talking" motion pictures wouldn't gain wide popularity until late in the decade. Rural communities were isolated - people hungered for news, entertainment, and events from other worlds.
"I spoke to every Rotary Club and Kiwanis around, and all the churches," says Butler. She was also invited to give public presentations - sometimes called "literaries" back then - at Christmas and other holidays.
Now, after a busy, full life, with her husband gone, and two sons looking after her, she is content to scoot around the halls of the retirement home with her walker, or sit with her hands folded, always upbeat and happy. Passing by a nurse in the hall, Butler offers a cheery hello.
"There goes Stella," says the nurse, "happy as always."
Last year, Butler took a ride in a hot air balloon. "Oh, it was so much fun," she bubbles. "I could see forever."
Later, seated in her room, her voice still rings when she says, "I don't dread death. When I meet God, He's going to say, 'C'mon on in!' I have lived a Christian life just as much as I knew how, and was always involved in civic organizations. And now, I'm just going to sit with my hands folded, and not feel bad about it. My life has been happy."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society