'Everybody's dream grandma'

Caravan marks Castle Rock woman's 100th birthday amid pandemic

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 4/22/20

Evelyn Berkey didn't let the COVID-19 crisis stand in the way of celebrating her first century: “I never expected to live this long. I think it's wonderful.”

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'Everybody's dream grandma'

Caravan marks Castle Rock woman's 100th birthday amid pandemic

Posted

Evelyn Berkey of Castle Rock learned to ski at 57 years old. That was almost half a century ago.

Skiing became her favorite activity from the day she learned how in the late 1970s. She didn't stop until she was 70.

She and her husband, Johnny, first skied with their only child, Bill; his wife, Lyndia; and their grandchildren. Three generations trekked up to the mountain and went to ski school together. The family didn't stop for 13 years, Bill said, taking annual ski trips around Christmas and New Year's.

“I'd come down from the mountain and mom and dad wouldn't be there in the evening. I'd wonder, 'Where are they?'” Bill said.

A bus driver told Bill his parents were the first ones up the mountain and the last ones down. Evelyn explained to Bill she feared each time would be her last time down the mountain. So, she kept going.

The ski trip memories are at least 30 years old now, but they remain Bill's favorite times with his mother. Although the memories they share are too many to count and the family is making new ones each day.

Evelyn on April 21 celebrated her 100th birthday from the home she shares with Bill and Lyndia, and it was another memory for the books. She spent most of her life living in Oklahoma and moved to Castle Rock in 2005.

Bill was armed with a video and still-shot camera throughout the day to document his mother's milestone birthday. Evelyn cheerfully soaked up every moment of the celebration.

“I never expected to live this long,” Evelyn said. “I think it's wonderful.”

The day did not go as originally planned. The Berkey family had to cancel a party scheduled at the local country club because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a backup, Evelyn's friend Charlee VanderLinden arranged a caravan of loved ones to drive past Evelyn's home.

The Berkeys set up a throne-like, wicker chair in their garage surrounded by bouquets of bright flowers and photos from Evelyn's life. Evelyn watched from her seat as more than 70 vehicles drove past her, decorated in streamers, posters and balloons.

She waved with two hands at each visitor who stopped to talk to her, a smile beaming, her energy never wavering.

Evelyn credits her long life to three things. First, she has good genes, she said. Both her parents lived into their 90s.

Second, she always focuses on her physical health. She never drank or smoked and tries to eat well. Having lived through the Great Depression, she remembers when families were lucky to have food on the table. She always taught Bill to clean his plate because of it, she said.

“To this day he doesn't clean his plate,” she said. “I do.”

Lastly, she has always kept up a vibrant social life. Having friends and spending time with them is important, she said, and she thinks socializing contributed to her reaching 100.

'Everybody's dream grandma'

Most of her closest friends today are members of the two Bible studies she attends each week, including VanderLinden. Neighbor John Robbins watches the Bible study ladies pick Evelyn up each week. He's always been impressed by how active she is.

Amid the pandemic, Evelyn still participates in the studies by Zoom, said David Runyan, her pastor at Canyons Community Church.

VanderLinden said Evelyn quickly became a role model for the women in her groups, known for grace, strength and her smile. Both she and Runyan described Evelyn as one of the most giving people they know.

“She is like everybody's grandma — everybody's dream grandma,” Runyan said.

When VandeLinden's mother died in November 2018, Evelyn became her rock.

“She was on the phone with me, because I was in Arizona where my mother was, and Evelyn stayed in touch with me practically 24 hours a day. She became my spiritual mother,” she said. “She's just a constant reminder of how good people can be.”

When he met her in 2016, Runyan was immediately struck by Evelyn's wisdom and leans on it often as a pastor. He worked in the secular world in financial services for more than 20 years and transitioned into pastoring five years ago.

As he learned how to lead a congregation, he often turned to Evelyn for guidance. She's read the Bible cover to cover 35 times as of this year, and her “prayer life” put his to shame, he said.

Evelyn hand-wrote reading guides for church members that the Canyons copied and distributed, Runyan said. At 97 years old, she signed up to serve as a deaconess and did so through age 99.

Evelyn has instructed Runyan to handle her funeral when the day comes, and she insists it be a celebration.

“That's pretty awesome, somebody that faces their mortality with joy,” he said. “She's just a jewel. An incredible woman. I can't even imagine at a hundred years what you witness and now you're going through (COVID-19).”

A century of experiences

Evelyn can describe well the major global events she has experienced and how she has witnessed the world change.

She remembers how funny cars looked when they came out. It's been a while since she's seen a horse and buggy, she jokes.

“The Spanish Flu was talked about a little bit,” she said of her childhood, referring to a global pandemic in 1918.

She was too young to witness World War I, but she saw the fallout and how the war impacted people, she said.

She does remember World War II. In 1943, Johnny went overseas to serve in the Army Air Force. Bill was 1 ½ years old when he left and 3 years old when he returned.

“In a way we served too,” she said.

Raising Bill alone for two years was not easy, but it came with blessings. She and Bill formed a bond they would not have otherwise, she said.

“It was a blessing to have that. I learned to be independent, and that was a good thing,” she said. “Women should be independent. They should know how to take care of themselves and somebody else.”

Still, she was grateful when Johnny, the love of her life, came home. They married when she was 20 and Johnny was 23 years old. Their dates consisted of Evelyn sitting in bleachers watching Johnny pay softball, and him attending church with her on Sundays.

Johnny died after a battle with Parkinson's disease in 2010, with Evelyn holding his hand.

“I miss my husband terribly. I'll always miss him. We were married 70 years,” she said, adding she knows she will see him again.

'Love your fellow men'

Evelyn is grateful for her health. Being 100 would not be much fun without it, she said. She's also grateful to have her friends.

“God knew when I got to be 100, I would need friends like this,” Evelyn said.

Evelyn's mind is sharp and her memory of decades past clear. A stroke in 2018 affected her speech slightly, but she still holds a conversation with ease. She's seen much — although nothing like COVID-19, she said.

“I've never seen anything like this virus, this shut down,” she said.

Runyan admires how, despite the global pandemic, Evelyn's positive spirit and faith is steadfast. The world should look to people like her in times of such uncertainty and fear, he said.

If Evelyn could give people any advice after 100 years of living, she would offer a few simple thoughts.

“Don't put off anything that is important. Do it now,” she said. “Life is fleeting, but it's been good to me for 100 years. And so I would say that you need to walk with God, love your fellow men and always be thankful in your heart for all the blessings you have.”

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