This story was published in the December/January edition of Chatham Magazine. Joanna Leach passed away Dec. 11 at 104.
By Matt White | Photography by Beth Mann
When Joanna Leach turned 104 in September, she put on a crown.
Since turning 100, her family and friends from her church, Mt. Sinai AME, have presented her with a series of crowns to mark the years, made of metal, glass and gems that shine and sparkle in the sunlight of her Chatham Street home. “I have never lived anywhere but in this neighborhood,” Joanna says. “I know everybody in this neighborhood, and they know me.”
At 104, Joanna remembers details from the 1930s and ’40s with as much sparkling clarity as the sunlight reflecting off her crown’s jewels. She was born in Pittsboro on Sept. 29, 1915, seven years before electricity arrived. The only time she hasn’t lived on Chatham Street was a decade ago, when she joined a daughter in Maryland for three months as a new home was built on her property to replace her original one. She attended Horton High School, which was then Pittsboro’s segregated school for African Americans, leaving it in her teens to get married. She and Robert Leach had three children, Jeanette Marie Leach Brown, Robert Louis Leachand Peggy Ann Leach Berry. When her own sisters moved away, she says, “I stayed home to look after Mother and Father.”
Her parents, Lugenia and Joseph Moore, were descended from families with Chatham roots that predated the Civil War. They lived into their early 70s, also on Chatham Street.
Joanna began working as a young girl, looking after a local family’s two children for $1 per week, a salary that the family eventually doubled. She worked for 20 years at the Mathieson Clinic on the Pittsboro circle, which for decades was the town’s primary healthcare provider (many lifelong Pittsboro residents today recall it as the place they were born). Later in life, she returned to nannying, forming bonds so deep with kids in her care that trouble occasionally flared up, she says, like when one little girl refused to stay at school.
“Her mother said, ‘Miss Joanna, why does that girl not stay at school?’ She was crying and saying, ‘I wanna stay with Miss Joanna!’” she says, laughing at the memory. “She was crying, ‘Joanna, I love you!’”
She recalls big events, like President Franklin Roosevelt stopping in the middle of town in 1938 to greet school children on his way to give a speech at UNC. She also recalls the destruction of Hurricane Hazel in 1954, with winds so strong that it blew out the Mathieson Clinic’s elevator doors.
She also recalls details of daily life – her father, Joe, bringing home coal from his job as a janitor at Chatham Mills for the house furnace and picking cotton in a local field with her sisters. Her sisters could pick 100 pounds in a day, Joanna says, “I never could.”
She also remembers many of the milestones that pass in a long life – realizing she could no longer drive in her 80s (despite a lifetime without a single ticket), the loss of her sisters and children Jeanette and Robert, and a fall at 101 that ended her years of self-sufficiency. Her grandchildren say that, even past 100, Joanna cooked for the whole family at holidays.
“When I met her, she was 101, still living alone,” says Denise A. West Berry. Until the accidental fall, they say, Joanna made meals for herself, kept up her home and attended Mount Sinai AME, which was founded three years before her father was born.
Now Joanna requires daily assistance, which has meant relatives staying over at her home. Members of Mount Sinai, says Peggy, have kept up a years-long string of services and visits for Joanna. The Chatham County Council on Aging has provided programs like Meals on Wheels to Joanna since 2010. “The family is so grateful for the help they provide,” Peggy Ann says.
Additionally, Joanna recently began getting visits from Liberty HomeCare & Hospice Services. Amber Alexander, Liberty’s volunteer coordinator for Chatham, says Joanna’s case is exceptional, but not unique. The company recently helped care for a woman in Dunn who died at 109. And many people they care for aren’t as lucky as Joanna to have extended family and a church just steps away.
“We want to think that everyone has somebody to stay with them, but they don’t,” Amber says. Hospice groups like Liberty and senior-focused organizations like the Council on Aging rely on volunteers, which can be a struggle to recruit. “I have eight active volunteers in the area, and I need about 25,” Amber says. “People hear that word, ‘hospice,’ and they recoil. I’ve had people take a physical step back from me in the grocery store when I tell them what I do.” Council on Aging volunteers deliver meals, transport seniors to appointments and provide in-home care, among other duties. Most hospice volunteers, Amber says, provide both needed services and companionship in their patient’s own home. Volunteers only perform tasks they are comfortable with. One volunteer, she says, helps almost entirely with pets.
Joanna’s home sits just two blocks from the Historic Chatham County Courthouse, where her husband, Robert, worked as custodian until 1978, when he died of a heart attack at 67 as he was getting ready to go to work. In 2016, Denise and Joanna’s grandson, Donald Berry, were married there. Denise recently told Joanna, “we got married there because you’re part of its history.”
Joanna laughed and shot back, “I never considered being part of history. Just one of my memories.” CM
Local senior care services and volunteer opportunities
Chatham County Council on Aging provides information and services to seniors, like Meals on Wheels; tax, insurance and pharmacy assistance; and help with other programs. 919-542- 4512; chathamcouncilonaging.org
Being a hospice volunteer can require as little time commitment as one hour per month. For information on becoming a Patient Care or Supportive Care volunteer, contact: Liberty HomeCare & Hospice Services – Amber Alexander – 910-892-1906, [email protected]
UNC Hospice – Marketta Williams – 984-215-2650, marketta. [email protected][/box]
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