I first met Anita through a letter-writing ministry I led on the John Brown University campus called "Pen Pals."
My co-leader, Rose Hanlon, and I used to write letters to Anita and other residents at the nursing home where she lived. Little did I know then that I would have the opportunity this summer to sing for her on her 93rd birthday and watch her open up birthday presents. Or sit down with her for over an hour to talk about life, love, and barrel racing. After all, I already knew pieces of her story and her witty personality and was confident that I could learn a lot from her perspective on life . . . and simply have a blast with her joy for life and sense of humor!
Q: What was life like when you were 22 years old? What were you doing at my age?
"When I was 22, I was doing my rodeo in McAlester, Oklahoma. I did barrel racing. Oh I loved doing barrel racing! It was fun. I never was number one, but I was always there trying. For two years straight I was second, so I did good then. One year I was going in a parade and it was so heartbreaking, because I dropped the American Flag. I was out front and someone shot a firecracker off in the audience and my horse jolted. Oh man, she jumped and went sideways a little bit and it messed me up and I dropped my flag. But I was down off of that horse so fast that people didn’t hardly know that I did it because I was down and got the flag and I got back up again in my saddle in a flash! I will never forget it. It was an embarrassing place for me."
A look at McAlester around the time when Anita was in her 20's
"Because McAlester has that big prison, the rodeo was made up of prisoners. They rode the bulls and wild horses and they roped and didn’t care if they got hurt or not. Nobody got hurt really bad, but some went to the hospital and were injured enough to need urgent medical assistance."
Q: What are some other stories from your childhood and teen years?
"Stigler, Oklahoma was where I was born . . . in a goose pasture. My mother’s home was sitting on the hill, and my mother was in the pasture of our white geese [when she had me]. She raised them at that time. The field was full of geese, and she and her friend picked the geese feathers and made feather beds and pillows. We didn’t have air mattresses back then. Those feather beds were heaven! She would get $100 for a feather bed, and a feather pillow was pretty expensive, too. She got by really well with that. Mother always found something that she could do."
"When I was in high school, she had a coffee shop in town called Main Street Coffee Shop where I ran the cash register and did waitressing. I didn’t want anyone in my way. If anyone was in my way, boy, I got ‘em out! The high school was about a mile from the coffee shop and I always ran the whole way from school to the coffee shop. My mother always made me a sandwich when I got there. Then I ran all the way back the next day. I got my exercise. I enjoyed it."
"My mother also had the Traveler’s Hotel that she owned. We had two apartments upstairs and the rooms to the right were for overnight people. I made the beds and cleaned the bathrooms and I worked with my mother and my wonderful sister. My sister was gorgeous, oh she was so pretty! She was three years younger than me and LAZY! She was supposed to be upstairs helping me but she didn’t do much. She was the baby in our family so she didn’t have to do much. I enjoyed my growing up years."
Q: How did you meet your husband?
"I met my husband there at the Traveler’s Hotel and there was a wait to see his sister who was near Fort Smith, and he stopped in the hotel. My mother set us up! When he checked in I knew his last name was Renn, and my mother was in the room right next to where we were talking as I was checking him in. She came to us and said to him, "Was your mother’s name Elizabeth?” He said, “Yes, ma’am! That’s my mother’s name. Do you know her?” And she said, “Yes I do! We went to church together.” He said to me, “Would you like to go out to dinner with me later this evening? I don’t know this town or anywhere to go for food. Would you go with me?” And I said, “I’ve already eaten. There are plenty of places down the road you can go.” Then my mother said, “Anita, why don’t you go with him? Show him around and you can go have coffee or pie with him.” She started us dating right there. I said, “Well, okay!” That was when we began. He was a nice looking young man. Well, the next couple of days he asked me if I wanted to go to Fort Smith to meet his sister and check out the town there. After I graduated high school, we got married when we were both 18 and 19. We were married 25 years before he died of bone cancer.
Q: Are there any other memories that stand out to you?
"I met Clint Eastwood in Carmel, California. My husband and I had coffee with him. We were having coffee that morning at a little restaurant and Clint Eastwood walked in. As soon as I saw him I said “Well, hi Clint!” He said, “Well, hello there!” I said, “Come over and have coffee with us!” We had a wonderful conversation and enjoyed meeting him."
"I’ve been to Ireland and Scotland when I was married to my second husband. They always say that we Americans drive on the wrong side of the road. Haha! Their roads are opposite of ours. Ireland and Scotland are absolutely beautiful and wonderful!
Q: What can younger people learn from the values of your generation?
"I feel like politeness is something young people could learn more of . . . manners. We had ‘em, and we were taught how to engage with people better. Nowadays, young people are consumed by texting and using their phones all the time. I wish they had never invented smartphones, because it takes away from healthy interactions. But they did, and I know you have to have one these days for work."
"[Younger people] need to be taught honor and respect. Not all, but some of them were not taught very well how to show respect to others -- especially elderly folk. I can always tell when parents and grandparents teach their kids how to show respect and love for others.
As I was listening to Anita, I couldn’t help but feel like her life was like a beautiful movie with so many exciting stories, entertaining for anyone. She is a vibrant character with so much zeal for life and passion for others! I was inspired to go out, have fun, and enjoy this beautiful and wonderful gift called life. I eagerly await another delightful visit with my new friend!