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Joda Ollis at 108 –“Blessed Beyond Anything I Could Ever Imagine”

Joda Ollis, at 108, is likely the High Country’s oldest residents.
Photo by Sherrie Norris 

By Sherrie Norris

Avery  County native Joda Greene Ollis celebrated her 108th birthday on April 10 at The Waters at Roan Highlands in Roan Mountain, Tenn., where she has resided for the last 13 years.

In recent years, she didn’t want “a big deal” to commemorate her birthday, especially television interviews. “The last time they came, they asked me what I attributed to my longevity and I told them it was the good Lord. Do you know when they showed it on television, they cut that part out?  When they called back the next year, I told them not to come, that if they couldn’t leave in the most important thing I had to say, they didn’t need to come back.” So they didn’t. 

But this year, when the call came in, Ollis agreed — with a strong  stipulation —and when the segment was aired later that night, her message was loud and clear. “The good Lord has taken care of me all these years. He’s blessed me beyond anything I could ever imagine.”

While the celebration began days earlier and continued for several days later, the official birthday party was held on Easter Sunday, at her request, the day before her actual birth date. “It’s just special that I can celebrate my birthday on the day that Jesus came back to life after that awful crucifixion,” she said.

On Sunday, dozens of friends and relatives poured into the dining room at the  facility where Ollis resides.

Gifts of flowers, candy and more had already begun piling up in her room; and her many birthday cards, sent from near and far, were read to her and placed in a box for safe keeping.

“I just can’t explain what all this means to me. You just have no idea,” the grateful centenarian said. ”I can’t believe that people care so much about me to drop what they are doing to come visit me. My family has been especially good to me and I love them every one.”

 It was just another day in the life of Joda Ollis, and what has become expected at the long-term care facility. It’s just a short drive across the state line from where she was born and raised in Avery County’s  Powdermill community —108 years ago.

In the  midst of celebrating her 108th birthday on Easter Sunday, 2023, Joda Ollis takes a moment to reflect on all that is happening around her. Photo by Marie Beale Greene.

Not Ready To Give Up, Just Yet

With a rare mental clarity for one her age, and an infectious  enthusiasm for life, Ollis said she is not ready to give up “just yet,” but added, “It’s not up to me. I’ll be ready whenever the Lord calls me.”

Rebecca Birchfield, activities director at Roan Highlands, had this to say about “Ms. Joda,” as she is known at the facility. “One of the best things about Joda is her strong faith in Christ and her love for her family and friends.  She still presides over our resident council and has a standing appointment every Monday at 9 a.m. with our beautician.  Joda attends as many activities as she possibly can, especially church, Bible study, any religious activities  — and bingo. She  is also a member of our ladies’ Red Hat Society.”

According to Birchfield, Ollis enjoys attending the social events with her best friend and fellow resident, Janice Setzer.  “Where you see Joda, you will also see Janice.  Janice lives next to Joda and they often visit each other throughout the day.  Janice tries to help Joda with anything she needs, like looking things up online, writing stuff down, assisting her with bingo, and just being someone she can talk to.”

Birchfield continues, “Although she can’t see well, Joda is still able to recite many of her poems and songs (word for word) that she has written — and she is still creating them!  Her latest song was written on November 15, 2022 and is titled ‘He’s All I Need.’”

“Ms. Joda”  survived COVID, not once, but twice, and is still doing great, Birchfield adds. “This woman is incredible.  Staff and residents love her very much and she is an inspiration to anyone who meets her.  She loves to sit and reminisce about growing up in Powdermill, and will  talk with anyone about the Lord.”

According to Birchfield, Ollis  is still the senior most resident at Roan Highlands and is currently one of the two oldest females featured in the Northeast Tennessee Century Club, which celebrates those over 100.

When High Country Press visited Ollis in the midst of her milestone birthday week, Olllis was overwhelmed by the attention she was receiving .”I’m so thankful to the dear Lord for all He has done for me and that people care so much about me,” she said. “I’ve been here for 13 years and the staff are all so good to me. I am really blessed.”

With blindness stealing her ability to read her Bible, her family provided her with an electronic King James Bible, which she listens to daily. 

Such was the case as we entered her room. “Just a minute, I’m finishing up this chapter in Revelation.” And then, she proceeded to share how “the Bible is being fulfilled right now. “

“We’re in the end times. It’s as plain as the nose on your face,” she said. “In the 16thchapter of Revelation, the 12th verse, it talks about the great Euphrates River drying up toward the end. That’s exactly what’s happening over there right now. I want everyone to be ready to go. It’s going to be a sad day for those who are not ready. All they have to do is accept Jesus Christ into their hearts.”

And that led her to talk about the current conditions in the world today. “I’ve never seen the  United States in such a mess as it is right now. It’s a crying shame.” 

A letter commemorating her latest milestone arrived just days earlier from President Joe Biden.

“I guess it’s an honor that any president sends you something for your birthday, but my friend is the one who put it up on there on my wall. I’m not too crazy about it, if you want to know the truth, but according to the Bible, we’re supposed to treat our leaders right.”

Does she still vote, we asked? “You better believe I do! I would not have a right to say a word about any of this if I didn’t exercise my right as a citizen of the United States!”

Joda Greene Ollis, pictured here as an infant, was born at home on April 10, 1915 and delivered by a midwife. Photo submitted

“As Different As Daylight Is to Dark”

Ollis has lived “a real good life,” she said, but she added that today’s world is “as different as daylight to dark” compared to her earlier days.

Delivered by a midwife at home on April 10, 1915, Ollis was the first of four children, and  the only daughter of Thomas J. and Margaret McCoury Greene. She and her youngest brother, T.J. Greene of Crossnore, are the only survivors. “I’m the only one I know of in our family who lived to be 100.”

 “Our family grew most everything we ate, and we children had chores,” she said. We raised farm animals for our meat. We milked the cows and churned the milk to make butter. We had to slop the hogs, feed the chickens, chop and carry in the wood to build our fires. We carried water from a spring and washed our clothes on an old washboard. We didn’t have much money — not many people did back then — but we didn’t go hungry.”

Her childhood memories have remained so vivid that she wrote a lengthy poem called “Growing up in Powdermill;”  she hopes it will help her nieces and nephews appreciate what life was like “back then.”

She also wrote “The Stages of Life,”  which she was asked to recite for a nursing assistant’s graduation celebration. She still recites both these poems and others for family and friends who visit.

Ollis attended school at Riverside through the seventh grade, graduating from Cranberry High School in 1933; she took a business course afterward, but dropped out to care for her ailing mother.

 “I decided not to go back to school and got married, instead.”

She still remembers clearly the day she met Stokes Ollis at the home of her friend, Grace (Buchanan) Ollis. 

“Grace’s family was having a bean stringing,” she recalled with a smile. “Stokes was working with his dad on the road below her house. I didn’t dream of him coming back that night to help (string beans), but I’m awful glad he did.”

Romance blossomed between the couple soon thereafter, but they dated for nearly eight years before marrying, in 1936.

A young Joda and Stokes Ollis. Photo submitted

‘Til Death Do Us Part

 “We got married in a little one-room church at Belview in Cranberry,” she said. “The preacher met us there at 11 o’clock, just like he had told Stokes he would.” 

Her parents didn’t know about the prearranged ceremony.

“My dad never wanted me to marry,” she said. “He kept telling me I had been seeing that boy long enough — and warned me that I’d be sitting up in some holler with a house full of young’uns one day and not enough to eat.”

Her wedding day started out like most other days, she recalled. “I had picked beans all day and told my parents I was going to my friend’s house. I got my bath and left my mother a note on the kitchen table, telling her I was going to get married, but I’d be back. That’s all I told them.”

She wore a pretty white dress with pearls that she had bought. Her dress, with a jacket and fur on the sleeves, “was real pretty,” she said. “It was a Saturday and my brother, Ray, was at the store where I was going to meet Stokes. They said when Ray saw me, he jumped up and ran home and told Mama that he’d seen me and that I was all dressed up — that I must’ve been going to get married.”

She was 21 at the time; Stokes was 22. 

“Stokes was just making $1 a day working with the CCC Camp, so we didn’t have any extra to go anywhere. We stayed at his brother’s house for a couple of nights,” she recalled.

The newlyweds returned to Joda’s family home on Monday. “We sat down at the dinner table and Papa gave us a little lecture and nothing more was said.”

They stayed between their two families for the first two months of married life, which Ollis remembers was in the late summer, during a busy canning season.

Their first home, she described, was “an old house at Cranberry Gap that had never been painted.”

“It was a monstrosity, but we were just as happy as if it had been a mansion,” she said. And she remembers her curtains made out of flour sacks. “You don’t have to have fine things to be happy.”

On the move

Stokes soon got a job with the Virginia-based A.B. Burton Construction Company, where he worked for the next 30 years

“He helped build roads through four different states,” she said. “And he always wanted me with him, so we bought a little trailer at first, and then a nicer one made out of solid metal, war material, and moved it from one job site to another. It was just like a home.”

The two lived at 16 different locations in North Carolina, 14 in Virginia, two in West Virginia and four in Tennessee.”

She eventually grew tired of it, she admitted, but said it was something Stokes loved — and  seeing him happy was enough for her.

No surprise, she made friends easily with the wives of other crew members, and they made long-time friends with many of the couples. She is still in touch with one of those women, Faye Huddleston, from Cookeville, Tenn., whose husband was a shovel operator, Ollis said.

Not one to just sit around, she said, she became bored in those early years. 

“The only time I mentioned working, Stokes said, ‘Well, you go on and make a living and I‘ll quit what I’m doing and do the housework.’ I never mentioned working again, but there were times when we could’ve used the extra money.”

She admitted that cooking was not one of her talents, “But Stokes never complained. There was not much he wouldn’t eat, except for pickled beans and kraut. He loved coconut cream pie, so I always tried to have him one of those.”

The couple left their trailer behind to new owners in Bryson City at the last job site, before Stokes retired and the couple moved into the home they had purchased in Elizabethton, Tenn.

“He was 62 when I talked him into retiring,” Ollis said. “I’m awful glad he did. We had 11 more wonderful years together, a total of 51 years and nine days, when he died in 1973 with leukemia.”

Life was never the same, Ollis admitted. “I still miss him so bad I can’t hardly stand it, sometimes. I’d give anything if I could just see him walk in this room.”

As a widow, she lived alone in Elizabethton for 15 years. She was a faithful member of Big Springs Baptist Church, enjoyed participating in activities at the senior center and working in her flower gardens.

Everything changed, however, when she fell and broke her hip, she described, after which, her brother, T.J., encouraged her to move to Crossnore to be near him and his family.

“I lived there for nine years and enjoyed making so many new wonderful friends and going to church,” she says. “I couldn’t have moved to a better place, but I missed my home and all my friends and neighbors, and my little doctor, in Elizabethton.”

Giving in, but not up

In 2010, Joda agreed with her family that it was time to relinquish her independence; she agreed to a move into the Roan Mountain facility, halfway between family and friends in Avery County and Elizabethton.

She was determined to remain active and quickly found her niche in facility events. When she turned 100, Ollis received an honor of distinction from the Tennessee Health Care Association’s Tennessee Center for Assisted Living, when she was named to the organization’s Who’s Who in Tennessee Long-term Care. She was among others honored, including military heroes, educators and entertainers, living in the THCA/TNCAL member nursing homes and assisted living communities statewide.

The last 13 years at the facility have been good, she admitted. “They take such good care of me here. The staff is really good to me My family is so good to me. They didn’t put me in here and forget about me. They come regular to see me.”

Despite visual and hearing deficits, Ollis said she is still “in pretty good shape;” she has a pacemaker and takes “a few pills for my heart and my blood pressure.”

 “But other than that, I can’t complain.”

She makes occasional trips outside the facility to have her pacemaker checked and to see her dentist. “But other than that, I’m right here all the time.”

At the same time, she said, “I never asked the Lord to let me have a long life, I just depended on him to give me what He wanted me to have. I reckon this is part of it.

And, we asked, if she had her life to live over again, what would she do differently. Her response? “I’d try to be a better person.”

In her century-plus eight, we’re just not sure how she could have done it any better.

Listed among Tennessee Healthcare Association’s Who’s Who, Avery County’s Joda Ollis has been a resident of The Waters of Roan Highlands in Roan Mountain for the last 13 years, where she still holds office of Resident Council President. Photo by Marie Beal Greene