Peachtree City resident Jean Koon was warmly received by dozens of her friends and family as she celebrated her 100th birthday last week at Christ Our Shepherd Lutheran Church.
She was clearly enjoying herself, receiving all her well wishers at the birthday party.
“More people showed up at the party than we invited,” said Denise Clark, wife to Koon’s son James Clark.
Koon enjoyed herself at the party. Some guests brought small children that were fascinated to meet someone that was 100 years old. She just laughed at the notion, admitting that it must be hard to fathom for someone so young.
Though she now attends a different church, Koon continues as a member of the “Holy Folders” group at Christ Our Shepherd, which meets each Thursday morning to fold church bulletins for the Sunday service. Up until last year, she wasn’t the oldest member of the group, as another woman, who since passed, was 107. She said even she could relate to the wonderment of the children she met that someone could live so long.
Having lived now for a century, Koon has experienced all of the ups and downs that life can offer.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on Dec. 5, 1914, the oldest of seven children to come, Koon lived through the challenges that affected so many families in the Great Depression.
Koon grew up in Port Chester, New York, and was still living with her family in 1934 when they made the decision to move down to Georgia. She remembers her mother’s two brothers, who were stationed at Fort McPherson in East Point, had wanted the family to move closer to them.
The move from New York to Georgia presented some challenges for her family, she recalls, as they adjusted to a new lifestyle. The effects of the Great Depression were even starker in the south than they had been in New York.
“It took us a year to adjust,” she recalls. “The depression was worse here than in New York. In the south, it was much more serious. In fact, there weren’t any jobs. I didn’t get a job for probably almost a year until I got a job at Rich’s.”
Her skill was as a beautician, primarily cutting hair, a skill she would continue to use when she later started her own business out of her home in East Point.
Koon would marry her first husband, James Clark, after meeting him at a dance at Fort McPherson. They would marry in January of 1939 and three years later, while she was pregnant with her first child James Jr., her husband was sent to serve in World War II.
James, Sr. would become ill while serving and, though he managed to recover, eventually died in 1952 at the age of 38. After 13 years of marriage, Jean Koon found herself a widow with two children, James and her daughter Linda.
James, Jr. remembers his father, but got to spend precious little time with him between his service in the war and his early death. James was only nine when his father passed.
“When he came back [from active duty], I was probably about 7. It was a small window there that I knew him. I actually knew my uncles and grandfather a lot better than him because they were here,” he remembers.
That strong family cohesion was a distinct feature of life for Jean. She had always lived near family and felt very supported, even as she struggled to manage a household as a widow. Family members lived on the same street in East Point and were constantly in and out of each other’s homes.
“There was a strong family unit,” James recalls. “Looking in your rearview mirror, you could see that we were just getting by a little bit at a time, but you really don’t know that at that age. We just sort of did what we had to do and kept on moving.”
Koon said that family cohesion was so important and she’s somewhat sad to see that it’s not as common today as it once was.
“I think it’s very important. You miss so much if you’re not close to your family. We all lived together, children in and out all the time. It was just beautiful,” she remembers.
There was about a five year window in which she continued to raise her two children. She would take a job as a beautician in Atlanta at Ricardo’s Beauty Salon. She would eventually be introduced to George Koon, also a widower with children of his own. They were married in August 1957 and remained together for 33 years before his death in 1990.
James remembers having a new father figure come into his life around the time he was entering the ninth grade.
“It was helpful to me to be able to have the experience and ask questions and so forth. We got along real well. My friends from school would come over and we would watch sports with him. My mother always encouraged me to bring my friends over,” he recalls, his mother nodding in agreement.
“Always, always,” she said. “He was a good dad to you, he was.”
Jean moved to Fayette County 19 years ago, to be closer to James and his wife Denise, who live in Fayetteville. Denise and James both credit her for her great faith and wealth of experience.
“We had a praying mother and she prayed both of us through a lot of things as we grew up, which is very, very important,” James said.
“The Bible says with age comes wisdom. We look to her for many things because she is wise,” Denise said. “It’s interesting what she does know, has seen, the changes in the world.”
The changes have been remarkable. Jean wistfully remembers her first job in Rich’s, and is somewhat sad to see the department store has faded from prominence.
On the obvious question of “what’s our key to a long life,” she doesn’t have a quick answer. She trusts her life to the Lord.
“The Lord is in charge. It’s not me. He’s keeping me here. I just live my life like I always have, do what I always do,” she says.
There are some clues to what has kept her going, however. The strong family connections and continued effort to be active and spend time with friends clearly keep her engaged with life. As she says quite simply, “I like being with my friends.”
She’s also always paid attention to healthy living, Denise says, keeping a regular practice of walking for thirty minutes a day.
Christ Our Shepherd also hosted her 90th birthday, and Denise smiles saying everyone is looking forward to 110. The thought is a little too much for Jean to comment, but she won’t be concerned with it day to day. She will continue to visit with her friends and stay active as long as she can, and trust that the “Lord is in charge.”