To grasp the significance of Ethel Lamanca’s tenure here on Earth, let’s take a historical spin back to the year she was born.
Woodrow Wilson was president. A German U-boat attacked and sank the passenger ship RMS Lusitania, prefacing the United States’ entry into World War I. George Herman “Babe” Ruth, perhaps the most famed baseball slugger of all time, hit his first major league home run. He pitched 12 1/3 innings in the same game.
It was 1915. On Sept. 10 that year in her parents’ rustic farmhouse in Keenan, West Virginia, Ethel Shires drew her first breath. The retired Roanoke city schoolteacher is 104 today.
She has neither smoked a cigarette nor taken a drink. “I’m not much on coffee,” she told me. “I like my tea.”
Her extended family threw a big luncheon for her Friday at Olive Garden. The day before, Lamanca and I sat down to talk about her long life. She’s outlived five siblings and two husbands. Seventeen different presidents have occupied the White House during her lifetime.
“I can’t imagine why I’m still here,” she told me. “I’ve had a good life. I’ve been blessed.”
Lamanca has probably forgotten more in the past century than you and I have learned.
“I can’t remember dates too well,” she said apologetically. Inside her spotless home, there’s plenty of material she can consult for details like those.
Lamanca appears to be in darn good health. She said she takes no medicines, and she seems spryer than many people 20 years younger. She didn’t need my help getting up from her living room sofa when we moved the interview into her large back yard. Her hearing is sound. She reads the newspaper without glasses, she told me proudly.
Recently, “I went back [to the Department of Motor Vehicles] to get my driver’s license renewed,” she said. The DMV required her to show up in person and take a vision test. She passed.
“They gave me three more years,” she added. She hasn’t been driving in the past six weeks, though, because the battery is dead in her scratch- and dent-free Cadillac sedan. Relatives take her grocery shopping or other places she needs to go.
Lamanca was the firstborn of six children of farmer Lannie Shires and his wife, Eula Kountz Shires. Her father worked on the Lewis farm in Monroe County, she told me. As the crow flies, the family’s homestead in Keenan was roughly 12 miles due west of Paint Bank in Craig County. When she was little, the house had no electricity.
She and her younger siblings attended a one-room schoolhouse near their home. Later, she studied at and graduated from Gap Mills High School.
“I rode a horse to high school,” Lamanca recalled.
After her graduation in 1933, Lamanca attended Concord College for two years. That was enough to qualify her for a job teaching grades one through six in Monroe County. She ended up marrying the boss — Guy Biggs, then Monroe County’s superintendent of schools.
They met one weekend while she visited her aunt and uncle in Union, the Monroe County seat. A bachelor, Biggs took his meals at the home of Ethel’s aunt. He was 10 years older. She chuckled when I suggested he’d robbed the cradle.
“He was from Monroe County and so was I,” she recalled. “He was a very nice man ... I have to say, he was a very bright man.”
Biggs set his career sights far beyond West Virginia. He and Ethel moved around the country as he pursued graduate degrees and moved up the ranks of education. For a while they lived in McKenzie, Tennessee — where Ethel attended Bethel College and earned a bachelor’s degree.
Other places they lived: Highgrove, California; Alexandria, Louisiana; Gallipolis, Ohio; Waynesburg, Pennsylvania; and Clarksburg, West Virginia. The couple had no children. While in Ohio they were separated for a spell while Biggs pursued a doctorate in education from a university in Texas.
His last employer before retirement in 1963 was the University of Virginia. That year, they moved to Roanoke and settled down, she said.
Ethel was not done working. She took a job teaching at Preston Park Elementary School, where she spent 18 of her 33 teaching years. They’d lived here a decade when Biggs, who suffered from phlebitis, died, Ethel recalled.
A few years later, close friends introduced her to pharmacist John Lamanca, a widower with five grown children. For many years he managed Garland’s Drugstore on Grandin Road. It was the largest pharmacy in the Roanoke Valley until the chain drug stores moved in.
She and Lamanca met for lunch at Billy’s Barn, a Hanging Rock restaurant that’s still around. They dated three to four years, Ethel said. In 1981, they were married by the Rev. Charles Fuller, the late pastor of First Baptist Church in Roanoke.
“I retired from teaching in 1981 and I got married in 1981, too,” Ethel said. “He was a great guy. He loved everybody.”
The marriage was also Ethel’s entree into a big Italian family. Though John Lamanca died at 91 in 1996, Ethel remains close to his children and their families. When I visited her home, her youngest stepson, Larry, and his wife, Kathy, were there.
Four years ago, when Ethel turned 100, the Lamancas threw a big party for her at Hidden Valley Country Club. That, Kathy said, drew about 300 people, “including some of her old students from Preston Park Elementary.”
Ethel’s youngest sister, Isabel Thomas, died a year ago at 90. Just a few weeks ago, Ethel’s beloved cat Bella died. She was 18. Ethel misses her greatly.
“One of the blessings of my life is the Lamanca family,” Ethel said. During our interview, she told Larry, “I haven’t done half for you what you’ve done for me.”
“It works both ways,” Larry replied.
Each Christmas, “she bakes a different cake for each of the Lamanca families,” Kathy told me. Ethel told me she can easily knock out three cakes in a day.
One of the things she’s proudest of is her large back yard, which looks to be almost a half-acre. It sports a grape arbor, a cherry tree, a rose garden next to her house and a well-tended lawn. Thursday, Ethel fussed about a small hole in the lawn where another tree had been.
“She probably works more in the yard than anything else,” Larry told me. “Up until about three years ago, she used to mow her own grass.”
The yard also sports a tomato patch that’s fenced in to keep out deer and groundhogs. This year, birds got to the tomatoes, Ethel said. She’s already hatching plans to keep them out in the future.
“Next year, can we get a net over that garden?” she said to Larry.