McNeal takes her 100th birthday in full stride

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Photo courtesy of Peters Photography
Mary Pauline McNeal will celebrate her 100th birthday on July 9. An open house is planned for July 15.

She travels all over the country on her own. She changes out her own window screens. She plays bingo at least four times a week.

For Mary Pauline Cunningham McNeal, age doesn’t govern her actions. Ability does.

“I don’t feel like I’m 100 years old. Really, I don’t even think about it,” said the lifelong Madison County resident.

McNeal will officially become a centenarian on July 9. Her family invites well-wishers to celebrate with her at an open house from 2 to 5 p.m. July 15 at the Madison County Senior Center, 280 W. High St., London. Reservations may be made with Patricia “Lynn” Church at 614-792-8721 or Mary Freeman Murphy at 937-342-1598. In lieu of gifts, donations may be made to Gram’s Special Building Fund at St. Paul AME Church in London.

Some very notable folks have already acknowledged McNeal’s milestone, including President George W. and First Lady Laura Bush, who sent a signed card to her home in London. McNeal, a staunch Republican who never fails to exercise her right to vote, was thrilled.

U.S. Senator George V. Voinovich, U.S. Representative Deborah Pryce, Gov. Ted Strickland, State Representative Chris Widener and others have sent proclamations. Pryce also sent McNeal an American flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol and a copy of a speech she read that now is part of the Congressional Record. The speech stated, in part:

“Mrs. Mary Pauline McNeal continues to impress her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great grandchildren with her active lifestyle that includes cooking, yard maintenance, and bingo four to six times a week. As a member of the St. Paul AME Church, she seldom misses Sunday services and par-ticipates in the annual chicken and noodle dinner. Mrs. McNeal is also well-known for her delicious lemon pies and her famous chicken pie casseroles.”

All of the accolades will be framed and on display at the Senior Center during McNeal’s birthday open house. After the festivities, McNeal plans to give the flag to her church.

Growing up on the Farm

McNeal was born on July 9, 1907, on Hume-Lever Road to Carse and Dora Belle (Tyree) Cunningham. She was the second youngest of six children.

Her early years were spent in Fairfield Township, where her father farmed 450 acres for Addison Hume. He later purchased 167 acres and built a farm house that still stands at Route 665 and West Jefferson Kiousville Road.

“I mostly was a tomboy until I was 13,” McNeal said. “I had a saddled riding horse at age 5 named Florence. I could ride her to the neighbors to play, then let her loose if I knew I had a (car) ride home. She always found her way home.”

At 7, McNeal was filling water troughs, toting milk buckets to the barn, and herding in the cows. She also learned to drive a Model T Ford that year, a skill that allowed her to drive back to what is now Madison Lake to feed the fattening hogs that hung out at the woods. At 9, sitting on cushions to see over the steering wheel, McNeal was driving her mother to town.

Working Woman

When it came time to earn her own living, McNeal did housework, had a job at a Chinese laundry in downtown London, and during World War II worked as a custodian at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

“My first job was running the elevator at the AIE Building in Columbus (now known as La Veque Tower),” McNeal said. “I earned $28 every two weeks. I rented a room next to Central Ohio Publishing Co.”

Later in life, McNeal worked for 18 years at Westinghouse until she was forced to retire. Every day at noon, she played euchre with her co-workers.

She continues to do her own house-work, from shoveling a path to the driveway in the winter to sweeping the grass clippings off her sidewalk.

Home and Family

One job McNeal has had for most of her life is as a mother. She and her husband had three girls and one boy. Norma Freeman, the eldest, lives in London. Rhoda Church lives in Worthington. Lois Ann McNeal and Herbert (Tom) McNeal are deceased. Over the years, McNeal’s family has grown to include 21 grandchildren, 32 great-grandchildren and 27 great-great grandchildren.

McNeal has lived in London ever since she got married in 1928. In 1945, she purchased one of 12 rental properties her grandfather had bequeathed to his children. She still lives in that same house on Center Street.

Always on the Go

While she has moved only three times in her life and has always lived in Madison County, McNeal has never restricted her horizons to the county line.

As a young woman, she would travel to nearby cities on the Interurban and later, when she was a parent, on the Greyhound bus for $1.05 round trip.

“One day, I had the Monday blues. After I got the kids off to school, I took the bus to Columbus, walked down High Street, looked up at the marquis at the Palace Theater and saw that Nat King Cole was performing. I only had $3; the cost to get in was $1.50. I got to hear him in person, then I caught the bus home.”

Many times, she has traveled cross-country to visit relatives stationed in California in the military. On one trip, she stood in line for four hours to get into “The Price Is Right,” one of her favorite shows. While she didn’t get called to contestants’ row, she did get a shout-out from Bob Barker. She was 98; he told her to come back again when she was 100. He retired before she could make good on the plan. (By the way, McNeal’s pick for Barker’s replacement is Whoopi Goldberg.)

On another trip, McNeal shook hands and had a conversation with Barack Obama, Democratic candidate for U.S. president.

For McNeal, transportation is the thing in her lifetime that has changed the most. She’s gone from hitching the horse to the buggy to watching for the latest fares on Skybus.

She’s never one to turn down a ride to something fun. When someone calls with an invitation, she asks only that they wait long enough for her to grab her hat. Then, it’s out the door she goes.

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