The quilts cover the couch, the chairs – piled up in the closet and on a nearby recliner too. Dozens of vibrantly colored and delicately made quilts help to personalize the home of Helen Clark. They are all creations of the soon-to-be 100-year old woman and they represent the long and rich life she has lived.
Clark, born and raised in Hodgenville, will hit the century mark on Saturday, June 16, and there will be a birthday celebration for friends and family at the Lincoln Museum Community Room in her honor. While some people who have made it into their 90s or 100s are in poor health or poor attitude, Clark is in neither.
She is unable to go to church every week, like she used to, but she made it out to Wesley Meadows Methodist for Mother’s Day, and the church was giving away an award to the oldest mother.
“Well I thought there wasn’t any use to find out who it was,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t have any competition.”
Clark’s life that has now spanned nearly 100 years has had its share of harsh times. She grew up right in the middle of the Great Depression, and using her resources is something she had to learn at a young age.
“Most of our dresses were made from chicken feed sacks,” she said. “But all the kids at school was that way.”
Even with those problems looming overhead, Clark says that her favorite part about her life, besides her marriage and the birth of her children, was her time at Lincoln Spring School, a one-room schoolhouse that she went to until she was 14. After her time there, she had to pass a two-day exam in order to attend the high school, where she stayed until age 16. She married her husband the following year and had her first child the year after that.
Clark ended up with five children, and the struggles she faced as a kid reappeared in a different form while she was a mother. World War II was going on, and Clark’s family had to deal with the rations they were given of sugar, stamps and other necessities. They lived on a farm, however, and were able to raise most of what they needed.
“We got by,” she said. “I raised chickens and sold eggs to the hatchery. I would have to buy chicken feed for them, but other than that, we just made our own hay and corn and everything.”
She said that even in today’s world, where running to a store and getting anything you need is easy, she would rather be on the farm where she could just make everything herself and know that it was the real product. Real butter and real milk beat out the store-bought kind any day, according to Clark.
Living off of the land is perhaps what made Clark so healthy from an early age. She says she can’t pin down what exactly she’s done in her life to help her live to 100, but her time on the farm is what Clark always comes back to.
“I never did smoke or drink, and none of my kids drank either,” she said. “We’d just drink spring water out in the country.”
Maybe that spring water is what has helped Clark become somewhat of a medical anomaly. Her gallbladder has been removed, and she’s had a pacemaker put in recently, but has had no other operations. The only medications she takes are for her heart and blood pressure.
“Her doctor said she was the oldest patient he’d put a pacemaker in,” Betty Allen, Clark’s daughter, said. “We had people from other departments coming to see her.”
Medical miracle or not, Clark has always valued personal relationships throughout her nearly 100 years, and thinks the way people communicate with each other today is the biggest change she has noticed.
“People aren’t as friendly now,” she said. “We used to walk to a neighbor’s house and sit up until bedtime. Nobody does that anymore and sometimes you don’t even know your neighbor.”
Clark has always held her relationships in higher esteem than the material things in her life. However, physical objects can often hold special meaning as well.
Dozens of cardinal birds decorate her apartment – statues, clocks, wind chimes, everything you could imagine with a cardinal on it. The story behind that collection begins with one of Clark’s most important relationships: the one with her husband, Paul. Paul passed away on Valentine’s Day of 1990, the day before the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary.
“We had an orchard right beside of our house,” Clark said. “My husband would sit by the window and there’d be a cardinal sitting up in the tree, and it looked like a big, red apple. Every time one would come, he would want me to come and look. After he died, I’d had several that I’d collected and it just went from there.”
One hundred years of quilts, 100 years of cardinals, and 100 years of memories – Helen Clark has them all. What a century it has been.