Virginia Shelton at her home in Ashland. Ash Daniel photos
God-fearing, independent and sociable, Virginia Henry Shelton, 104, is Ashland's oldest resident and among its most celebrated. A lifelong Hanoverian, Shelton has four children, 14 grandchildren, 37 great-grandchildren and 15 great-great-grandchildren. A widow since 1984, she served as the grand marshal for the town's annual Christmas parade in 2008, and this past May was recognized by the Hanover Board of Supervisors for her past volunteerism at the polls, in the schools and in her church, where she was a deaconness. She turns 105 on Sept. 8.
Q: What are the tips to living a long, healthy life?
A: The J.C. pills [Jesus Christ], attitude and exercise.
Q: Do you still exercise?
A: I sit down and take it by the music. I sit; the others don't sit. I go to the Senior Connections. We use music and a scarf, and we do things with it. You do like this [she waves her arms side to side], and you do this and you do like that.
Q: How do you stay mentally active?
A: I used to read a lot. I don't read too much now. Reading was one of my favorite subjects. I get the papers [the Times-Dispatch, the Hanover Herald-Progress and the Free Press]. I go to Sunday school, and I have the Bible and Sunday-school book.
Q: What other advice can you give about aging?
A: Love people!
Q: Were other family members centenarians?
A: Nobody. I'm the first one that I know of. My mother died when I was 11. My father died when I was an adult. I had three brothers and two sisters. One brother, Percy, lived to reach 80, I think.
Q: How do you deal with having to bury so many loved ones?
A: I don't know. All my children are gone, too. Three children have died [Sonny, Virginia and Earl Scott]. I only have one girl living, Doris Anthony, 77. She's a diabetic. The others were diabetics. My husband [Charles] was a diabetic. I am not.
Q: You were born 42 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Were any family or friends former slaves?
A: No. I grew up on the Wickham plantation down the road from my church, Providence Baptist, but we were not slaves.
Q: Race relations improved quite a bit during your lifetime, didn't they?
A: I didn't like segregation. I didn't like when we had to go to the back of the bus. I went to a one-room school down on the plantation. After seventh grade, I went to Virginia Randolph School on Mountain Road. [Whites] didn't treat us the way they were supposed to. You just couldn't do certain things. You couldn't go to their front doors, a lot of things. They didn't have any schools for the blacks, so Virginia Randolph let us go to her high school on Mountain Road. Some of us children, I think six or seven of us, caught the streetcar. We rode the streetcar to high school.
Q: How is President Obama doing? How did it feel to vote for him?
A: My friend Obama, he's doing all right. Yes, I voted for Obama. I did that. I felt good, I felt just fine. I just want to see him and meet him. I never thought I would live to see a black president of the United States of America. If I ever see him anytime soon I would tell him so. Obama! Obama! Obama! [She chants, pumping her fist]. I want to tell him and squeeze him. Whoo!
Q: What would you say to President Obama?
A: To tell the truth, I would be so excited, I don't even know what I would say. [She pauses.] Stand up and be truthful in whatever you do.
Q: You will soon turn 105. How do you feel?
A: I feel all right. I don't hurt anywhere. I have a good appetite. I like to go.
Q: Any hobbies?
A: Not really. I sit in the house with God. I thank Him.
Q: When did you stop driving?
A: I was 99 when I stopped driving. I thought it was time to stop. My family wanted me to stop. I got my last speeding ticket in my 80s. My friends named me "Speed King." I used to like to drive a surrey when I was a child. I hitched up to the buggy, and I'd take the horse from the buggy and hitch it to the wagon, and take the horse from the wagon, and I'd get on its back. I would go to the field and call the horse, and Spoke would come plop plop plopping , an old big horse. He obeyed me very well. I could do anything I wanted to Spoke, put the wagon harness on him, and we'd go down to the woods and get something to eat. We had a garden; we lived in the country. I used to ride the horse to Ashland to the Crawford's store.
Q: Did you smoke or drink?
A: I never smoked. I want some [wine] now, but I can't drink it. I used to take the wine often, but being I take the medicine [for her thyroid], I can't take the wine. I have a nephew who makes the wine; he has a wine cellar. He makes it, and I used to drink it. I asked the doctor; he said I could take a little if I had somebody at home with me.
Q: What can you tell me about your home of 72 years?
A: I paid $1,200. I paid $400 down and $6 a month. The house was auctioned. I stood on the street with the high-class men that had the money. All of them was white, and all were real-estate men. My husband would not stop working to vote. So I stood out there to bid, but I did not bid. I didn't have anything to bid against those men. They were men with money, and I only had $1,000. It was sold to Kenny Cox for $900. I went around to this office after the bidding was over. He said, "Virginia, why didn't you get some of those houses?" I told him I just want one, the Colemans' home, and he said I could get it if I paid $400 down and $6 a month, and I told him I wanted it. I told my husband that night when he got home that I got the house.
Q: Do you still enjoy shopping?
A: I go to Wal-Mart with the senior citizens. And we go to the food bank once a month.
Q: Do you still cook?
A: I cook in the crock pot most of the time. I cook chicken and vegetables. Sometimes I make a custard. I carry Jell-O to the club; they have a senior citizens meeting at the library every first Monday.
Q: Any favorite television shows?
A: I like Channel 8. I like Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. Those two are the ones. I watch Oprah sometimes.
Q: What kind of work did you do?
A: I kept babies when they came home from the hospital and when they were sick. I was a nurse. I also worked at the nursing home in Ashland and a shirt factory. [At the factory] after they voted for the union and won the union, a man didn't like it, and he had them to vote the union out, and everybody but one voted the union out. And I was that one, and so I quit.
Q: Are you on the Internet?
A: I don't use a computer. [She chuckles.]