Usually I select the theme of this column myself by experiencing some wonderful person doing something positive in the community or discovering some new facet of my neighborhood or the northern part of Chautauqua County, which not only appeals to me, but which I think somehow needs to be highlighted for more general acclaim. The subject of this month's celebration was brought to my attention by many, many people petitioning me to, "Write her story!"
This is how I came to meet and interview the amazing Grace Grimes.
Actually, we both attend Grape Belt Senior Aerobic and Weights with Catherine on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This is not just some wimpy workout. We work up a sweat and move a full 30 minutes through all kinds of gyrations, knees up, kick, side step, grapevine right, march in, march out, cha cha cha, with a short break to grab weights and stretch those abs, point toes out and write the alphabet vertically with one leg after another. And there is Grace Grimes, stalwart until the end, rarely stopping to catch her breath and here is the phenomenal part: Grace is 96!
Grace Grimes attends exercise classes each week with the Grape Belt Seniors.
This physical stamina is not new for the amazing Grace. With Fredonia roots, Grace graduated first from the Fredonia Normal School, taught a couple of years and returned to school in Ithaca to get her BA in physical education. She had pursued many different sports in high school, so followed her passion. She resumed teaching gym classes in several Western New York communities like Falconer and Niagara Falls. Some schools were well equipped for physical education but others demanded ingenuity to create exercises which could be performed right in the classroom. Grace enjoyed the challenges.
During college, Grace met John Leslie Grimes, whose military service took him to Korea in the 1940s. Grace joined him there and they were married in Korea. She began teaching conversational English to the wives of Korean government officials. The couple returned to the states with John intent on earning his master's degree at Cornell and starting a family.
Daughter Jean was born in 1949 and son John in 1951. Grace brought her family back to Fredonia in 1953, joining her parents in the 1860s farmhouse near the top of the hill on Hamlet Street.
Her father had been fiercely independent and moved to Fredonia from Philadelphia in 1919 to start his own business selling cars and tractors. His business operated in town for many years. The red barn where he stored some equipment remains at the back of the property today. Grace, also with an independent streak, began teaching in the Fredonia schools, moving into a career as a third-grade teacher, lasting 23 years and touching the lives of hundreds of area residents. I asked Grace what she thought about changes in teaching over the years.
"There is more paperwork,", she said. "And more testing. Children should go to school to learn, not for testing." She also believes that children need more responsibilities around the house and community. Jobs help build skills and attitudes for the future. She hesitated to comment further because she has been retired and away from teaching now for 32 years!
Retirement has not meant strictly leisure time for Grace. Always busy at some new endeavor, she has enjoyed sewing, "making about everything," even some quilts. Most recently she has taken up making her own greeting cards. She has volunteered with the Circle of Love knitting prayer shawls, sweaters and baby clothes. Once while Grace was visiting a cancer survivor and delivering some gifts, the woman admired Grace's bright, knit hat. " She just took it off and gave it to her," reports Josie Christopher, who directs the Circle of Love. "She is all heart."
Grace has also been an avid gardener and since 1995 has explored vegetarian cooking. She is a member of the Vegetarian Society which meets monthly, affording her an opportunity to try new recipes all the time. "I am not a strict vegetarian," she confesses, "I just don't eat meat on purpose. If I am invited out, I eat what they give me." She grows her own vegetables in containers on an expansive back deck starting them in a small green house in the back yard. The house is surrounded by flowers of many varieties and fruit trees now in blossom. She casually pulled out some invasive garlic mustard as we walked through the back lot and lamented the growth of weeds. "I was out weeding yesterday," she said, then stooped to admire the spreading ginger and the white daffodils, while holding onto her cane for balance on the uneven ground.
Her grandson stays in his own apartment in the house and takes care of some of the work around the house. Her niece, Debbie Vercant, lives 20 minutes away and helps out, plus, there seems to be a bounty of friends who are willing to help her get to places she wants to go. The Fredonia Baptist Church is a favorite destination.
The Rev. Don Howard can attest to her years of active membership and leadership at the church. "She grew up in this church, her parents attended here before her. She has done everything at the church. She has taught Sunday school, sung in the choir and has been the longtime moderator of the Board of Deacons. One Saturday a month church members serve lunch at Rural Ministries Friendly Kitchen.
"Every now and then you might catch Grace dancing in the kitchen," says her pastor. "She gave up driving her car just last year at 95. Now she has a scooter and I think she might just get a ticket for speeding on that thing," he joked.
Slowing down does not come naturally for Grace. Niece Debbie suggested she might want to give up bowling. She just couldn't give it up, but she did consent to a lighter ball. Once when she broke her foot she didn't change her busy schedule, she merely changed her plans on how to get there.
Friends arranged a birthday dinner for Grace at the Buster Brown Bean Co. on May 7 to celebrate her 96 years of life.
"What keeps you strong and vibrant?" I asked. "Positive thinking," was her answer. "I am positive about everything."
And that may be the key to understanding why those who know Grace Grimes refer to her as "Amazing Grace."
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