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Learning the secrets to old age

Robert J. Woodall Jr. of Jonesboro reached a milestone Nov. 14 few of us will — the former North Clayton High School math teacher and coach celebrated his 90th birthday.

His wife of 46 years, Tilly, came by the news office to ask about putting something in the paper about it. I sat with her, asked her a few questions and made arrangements to visit their house to take a photo of her husband. She wanted to know the charge.

“We are a community newspaper, Miss Tilly,” I told her. “This is what we do. There is no charge.”

A few days later, I slipped out of the murder trial I had been covering and headed to their home. I cover crime, courts and cops in Clayton County and that is certainly where my passion is but I enjoy getting out of murder and mayhem once in a while to meet people who aren’t wearing a jumpsuit and shackles and making a first appearance before a Magistrate Court judge.

Miss Tilly let me in. I was born and lived in St. Louis the early years of my life but have lived in the south far longer. The first thing the editor at my first newspaper, The Jones County News, told me is to call all ladies “Miss” followed by their first name and to call all gentlemen “Mister” followed by their first name.

Apparently, it is a sign of respect in rural Georgia and I find it endearing.

As soon as I walked into their tidy ranch house in a quiet subdivision, the phone rang.

“I bet that’s someone else calling to tell you ‘happy birthday,’” said Miss Tilly. “The phone has been ringing all day.”

She was right, and who can blame anyone for calling a man on his 90th to extend greetings?

Miss Tilly told me a party had been planned at their church, Jonesboro First United Methodist, the following Saturday and they were expecting a crowd. Their daughter was flying in from Connecticut and their son was coming in from Virginia. The Woodalls have no grandchildren.

When Mr. Robert got off the phone, I sat at their kitchen table with him and Miss Tilly to talk a bit. That’s what you do in the south, you sit a spell and visit before you get down to business. I also learned that at my first newspaper job.

I was always in a hurry, a mad rush, had to get things done. I remember walking into the Twiggs County Sheriff’s Office and asking the secretary, Miss Betty, about talking to the sheriff.

“Sheriff Stone’ll be along directly, honey,” she’d tell me in a drawl as sweet as the sugar in the bowl next to the coffee pot. “There’s coffee around the corner, there, why don’t you get you a cup and have a seat?”

It was frustrating at first. I just wanted to get my information and be on my way. Then I realized the good folks of Twiggs County weren’t going to adjust to me and I’d better just get with the program. “When in rural Georgia,” so to speak.

Soon I was walking into the office with a totally different attitude.

“Morning, Miss Betty, I’m gonna get some coffee, you want a cup?” I’d say, helping myself to the pot in back. “How’s your mama?”

Things went a lot smoother after that.

Visiting with the Woodalls reminded me a lot of the people I met in those early days as a reporter in rural Middle Georgia. Each has a Southern accent as smooth as a bowl of buttery grits and a level of respect for me, someone 40 years their junior, that I had not yet earned. They were cordial, polite, mindful of my time and comfort.

That’s true Southern hospitality.

Mr. Robert told me that he met Tilly at West Georgia College, my alma mater, only it was called University of West Georgia at the time I graduated. After graduating high school in Woodland, Talbot County, Ga., he took classes in the few years leading up to the U.S.’s entry into WWII.

Then he went into the Army, served his country and returned to college. Tilly, who is about nine and a half months older, was working at the college. She grew up in Hartwell, Ga. He finished college and got his teaching degree.

They fell in love, married and raised a son and daughter, who is an Episcopal priest. Pretty progressive.

Mr. Robert worked at North Clayton as a math teacher and coach about 60 years ago, before taking a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. After he retired about 30 years ago, they returned to Clayton County and bought their house in Jonesboro.

I wanted to know the secret to long life. Mr. Robert told me that a few days after his birthday, his sister would celebrate 95 years on God’s green earth. His mother and other relatives lived into their 90s as well.

“Well,” he said. I could see that he was thinking of just the right answer. It may have occurred to him that he would get that question a lot at his party. I wondered what it would be? Clean living? No vices or red meat? Faith in God? The love of a good woman?

“I’d have to say good doctors,” he said, chuckling. “I’ve been patched up pretty good over the years. I had heart surgery in 2001 and hip replacement. Yep, having good doctors.”

Well said, Mr. Robert, well said. Happy birthday and here’s to plenty more.