PENROSE – Sarah Tillard has had a good life. But even more, she has had a long life.
She is a full century plus 4 years old. Yep: 104 years old, a centenarian.
Her youngest offspring is 75, her eldest, 84. Yes.
Born in Alligator, Miss., as the youngest of nine, she has seen four generations.
The NorthSider was honored to sit and chat with her in the living room of her longtime home in the 4400 block of San Francisco Avenue. The loving long-lifer sat in her favorite chair, where she likes to look out her front door and gather the sun.
First question, of course: Her secret to such a long life.
Well, she doesn’t have one, specifically. But in the sweetest of voices, she advised, “You have to take your life and use it the best way you can and just do the right thing.”
One thing one can do right for Tillard is to observe the speed limit when driving down her street. And she does mean her street. Her block is slated to become Sarah Tillard Lane, per Board Bill 60 by 21st Ward Alderman John Collins Muhammad.
The honorary naming will span the entire block of San Francisco, from North Newstead Avenue west to Taylor Avenue, where she has lived for more than 50 years.
“It feels pretty good – it’s something everybody don’t have,” Tillard said of having a street named in her honor.
A formal ceremony took place in June, but the sign was not complete because of mechanical issues with the machine that manufactures street signs.
Side note: The first stop sign appeared in 1915, the same year Tillard was born.
Some other occurrences that year aid in putting Tillard’s lifespan in perspective:
- The United States House of Representatives rejects a proposal to give women the right to vote.
- In June of that same year, Guinn v. United States was decided by the Supreme Court, finding grandfather-clause exemptions to literacy tests for voters to be unconstitutional.
- NACA, the predecessor of NASA, was founded in June that year. NASA wasn’t founded until 43 years later.
- 1915 also marks the beginning of electrified rail service that use overhead AC trolley wires for power.
- Babe Ruth hit his first home run, and blues singer Muddy Waters is born.
The Harlem Renaissance, the historically popular intellectual, social and artistic explosion of various black expression, hadn’t even begun. Tillard was 5 when it did.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born 15 years after Tillard. Middle age when he was assassinated, she lived through his birth, dream and death.
What most touches her eldest grandson, Darryl Tillard, is that she survived breast cancer at a time when treatment wasn’t as advanced as today.
“I tend to think it’s will for somebody to survive breast cancer back in the ‘stone age’ when all they knew how to do was cut it out and hope they got it all,” Darryl Tillard said.
She has been a widow since 1980 when her husband passed away. One thing that the family believes has kept her going was helping to raise her great-great-granddaughter who came to live with her.
“It gave her something to do,” said Tillard’s eldest daughter, Betty Foley.
Tillard retired as a receptionist for Mathews-Dickey Boys and Girls Club, where her husband had had a baseball team. Prior to that, she worked for the state of Missouri and the federal government.
She was also a licensed cosmetologist and a skilled seamstress, something she did as a hobby.
Tillard still makes her own bed in the morning and washes her dishes, though she has plenty of family, four generations, who come by often.
Foley and two of her sisters take turns caring for their mother. Or as quick-witted Sarah Tillard put it, “They come to boss.”
They all have offered to have their mother live with them, but she wants to live in her own home. That arrangement turned out to be a good idea. Foley said she had heard that people tend to live longer when they stay in their own environment.
“We’ve been really, really blessed, and we just like to do whatever makes her happy,” Foley said.
Muhammad said he was happy to be able to honor Tillard, who volunteered for her block unit for several years.
“When you have a community that’s struggling on so many levels, but that community still has a sense of pride, entitlement and community, you have to contribute that to the people who have been there, dedicating their lives to improving north St. Louis and various communities – Sarah Tillard is one of those people,” the alderman said.