February 28, 2013

106-year-old woman to get high-school diploma

It took a long time but 106-year-old Reba Williams, Louis Bromfield’s cook at Malabar Farm from 1943 to 1957, will receive her high school diploma from Mount Vernon High School in the coming days.

Williams was born Jan. 23, 1907, in Germantown, Pa. to Sherman and Myrtle Lavata Williams. Her family moved to Mount Vernon when she was a child.

She never graduated from Mount Vernon High School even though she completed all 12 years.

Her daughter Lavata Williams said Reba refused to read a book a teacher assigned. The school even asked her to take it home and read it over the summer and they would give her the diploma if she wrote a report.

“(Reba) said the book was not worth reading and she’d already read it once and didn’t like it and wasn’t going to read it again,” Lavata said. “My grandmother told me the story more than once.”

The Columbus resident retains a sharp mind while living with her daughter on Karl Road. Williams, now 78, grew up on the spacious Lucas farm, living there with her mother. The property is now the state’s only working farm and park and called Malabar Farm State Park.

Williams and her daughter have fond memories of Malabar Farm, and its world-famous owner. Reba said “Mr. B” was “just the same to everybody.”

Reba initially worked at Malabar as “the second girl” cleaning and dusting, making beds and serving dinner each night.

When the cook got time off every two weeks, “the second girl” was assigned to do all the cooking from Friday through Monday. Reba advanced on the farm when the regular cook took her usual two days off and didn’t return.

On Feb. 18, the Mount Vernon Board of Education made a motion to approve Williams’ diploma. Arrangements have not been finalized for how the board will present the diploma to Williams, in person or in the mail, a spokeswoman in the board office said Wednesday.

Fred Dailey of Mount Vernon, who served for 16 years at the director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said his wife Rita, a retired English teacher at Mount Vernon High School, approached the board about bestowing the diploma to Williams after reading a News Journal story earlier this year.

Fred Daily, a big fan of Louis Bromfield and his writings, said Williams would have graduated in the Class of 1925 or 1926.

“It seemed like a nice thing to do and although I never knew her personally it seemed like something that was overdue,” Fred Dailey said.

Lavata Williams said when she told her mother the news, Reba said with her typical sense of humor, “That’s nice.”

“Grandmother’s father was a slave and the owner of the plantation’s sister taught him how to read and write and he was very educated,” Lavata said.

Lavata said she will frame the diploma and put it on the wall in front of her mother’s bed, alongside family photos her mother treasures.

“I called mother’s sister in Cincinnati (Jayne Prince). She’s 92,” Lavata said. “She was laughing.”

Ellen Bromfield Geld, one of Bromfield’s three daughters, said Wednesday she was glad to hear that Reba is still making wise cracks at the age of 106.

“She always was and always will be such a part of what Malabar was and is still all about,” Geld said. “She always had complete reign over the kitchen. I can see her chasing the seven boxer dogs out with the snap of a wet dish towel, serving up daily meals for anywhere from 10 to 20 people.”

Geld said Reba made delicious but simple meals with wonderful desserts of caramel custard or prune whip.

“With great common sense she raised Lavata, sending her to school in Lucas, seeing she graduated,” Geld said. “Giving advice to our Nanny about me, as a teenager. ‘Nothing wrong with their going to the Lakes, they dance their feet off to all those big bands. Better than hanging around here with nothing to do.’

“Bless her!”

Geld said the last time she saw Reba, about five years ago, she asked if she had voted for Obama, thinking she had for sure.

“Nope,” she said. “He’s too much of a liberal for me.”

Geld said Reba was “always strong minded and straight to the point.”

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