Born with DAR, she's still patriot at 102 West Virginian, spry and prim, honors the flag

July 04, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- It will be a quiet Fourth of July for Mrs. Jessie Fiedler. To church first -- "a good way to start the week" -- and perhaps, if the day opens bright and blue and mountain rains cool the tepid air, she may venture to the green banks of Four Pole Creek, where this town celebrates Independence Day with picnic music, hot-air balloon rides, egg tosses and a contest to make old-fashioned, hand-cranked ice cream.

Or then again she may not. For Mrs. Fiedler, who never cared much for fireworks, needs none of the star-spangled hoopla to appreciate what the fourth day of the seventh month of the year signifies across the country.

She's a "daughter" of the American Revolution with the bloodlines, paper and medals -- a shoulder full of ancestor bars, rhinestone-studded shields and gold-filled insignia -- to prove it.

Hers is a patriotism born of a personal history and practiced in a women's organization, a spirit of independence cultivated over Mrs. Fiedler's 102 years on this earth.

"We still honor those men who gave us our freedom. We honor them still but not by sitting still," says Mrs. Fiedler, who sits primly in her living room, dressed in the blue and white colors of the national society she joined in 1915.

No one would accuse Mrs. Fiedler of sitting still. If she's not the oldest dame in the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution -- women didn't put their ages on their applications back then -- she certainly is among its most spry seniors.

At 100 pounds, a touch of rose on her cheeks, a pair of sensible beige oxfords on her feet, Mrs. Fiedler lives on her own, still drives (a Buick Century, circa 1980, which she calls her "boyfriend") and rarely misses the monthly DAR meetings in a historic log cabin owned by her chapter, named for a Revolutionary War soldier, Capt. William B. Buford.

A widow for 51 years, Mrs. Fiedler has a war chest of recollections about her tenure in this organization of more than -- 200,000 that distributes flags to new citizens, operates schools for mountain children and awards scholarships to college-bound youngsters.

Recalls Woodrow Wilson

She can still recall the color of the dress President Woodrow Wilson's wife wore as hostess to participants of the DAR's annual Continental Congress. The year was 1917.

"President and Mrs. Wilson stood in the receiving line with the national officers of the DAR," remembers Mrs. Fiedler, who displays a framed photograph of the DAR's historic, columned headquarters in Washington as it looked back then. "Mrs. Wilson was a handsome woman. She was dressed in purple. I can see her yet. He was a short man. After that we went to the East Room [at the White House] and had tea and cookies."

She is a foot soldier in a civic army that trumpets, "God, home and country," and a loyal one at that. Of a prominent newspaper in the nation's capital that has written about the DAR's achievements and its controversies, she maintains that it "never has anything good to say about us. They used to make fun of us . . . the ladies with the orchids."

Of the controversy surrounding the DAR's decision not to let black contralto Marian Anderson sing at DAR's Constitution Hall in 1939 -- an incident retold recently because of the opera singer's death -- Mrs. Fiedler says, pausing, "It hurt the DAR." Then, as if to explain the era, she adds, "People tell me the theaters and halls, large and small, were segregated back then."

On the topic of patriotism? "The DAR has kept it alive, certainly has. Of course, we always honor the flag and salute the flag. At every meeting," she says.

Born in a farmhouse in Uniontown, Pa., Jessie May Henshaw came bawling into this world the same month and year -- October 1890 -- in which four women founded the DAR to protest their exclusion from an organization of Revolutionary War descendants (a "one-sided patriotism," they called it).

"In my family, mother and father had 10 children. I was number six," says the former schoolteacher who, as a girl, dreamed of being a doctor.

Although not a student of history, the young Jessie Henshaw listened intently as her father plied their family with tales of their ancestors, including Capt. William Henshaw, her great-great-great-grandfather, who fought in the American Revolution. She joined the DAR in her hometown and met her husband one frigid February while canvassing for donations to support the Belgians, who had been overrun by the Germans during World War I.

"The Belgians sent the DAR little pasteboard cards. We would walk the streets, hotels and every place and ask [people] if they would donate at least 10 cents," she chuckles at the paltry sum it seems today. "Lots of people would give you a dollar bill."

Married man with Cadillac

In 1919, she married Stanley H. Fiedler, climbed into his red Cadillac roadster and moved to Morgantown, W.Va., where he )) bought and sold coal.

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