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At 96, Lessie Polk still is an active member in the group.
JOANNE POINDEXTER | The Roanoke Times
Ruth Claytor (left), a William Fleming High School administrator, shares a moment with Lessie Polk, the longest tenured member of the Ladies United Aid Society in Roanoke.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
The Ladies United Aid Society in Roanoke was observing its 23th anniversary in 1916 when Lessie Polk was born in South Carolina.
Now, Polk, who moved to Roanoke at age 11, is the society’s oldest and longest-tenured member.
During their 120th anniversary celebration on March 16, Ladies Aid members recognized Polk for her service to the society and community.
Ladies United Aid, which appears to be the oldest and longest continuing group started by black women in Roanoke, was founded in 1893 and chartered six years later at a time when blacks didn’t have easy access to medical care.
Members’ annual dues — still less than $20 a year — were insurance premiums used to help offset doctor and medicine bills, and Polk still remembers how club members would nurse, sit with and comfort members and their families in sickness, misfortune and death.
Polk is glad the dues are pretty much unchanged, and “I love that we have kept the over all insurance part still going,” said Polk, who has seen her two daughters and relatives of other members come into the society.
Polk, the wife of a printer, was a mother of five who was charging 75 cents a head as a beautician when she was invited to join the society in the 1940s.
She has served in numerous capacities and is still the one who keeps tabs on members who can’t attend the monthly dinner meetings because of illness or because they now live out of town. She sends cards, makes telephone calls and, many times, visits other members, making sure they get their benefits.
Polk, a widow for 23 years, said she has met many women through Ladies United Aid and has been able to spread her talents throughout the community.
She already was playing the piano and organ for her church, Price Memorial AME Zion, when she was inducted into the organization.
“I’ve been pecking for the church for a long time and never have been able to get where I wanted to get [musically],” Polk said, painting a picture of her being a persistent, persevering and even bullheaded lady.
But she’s still playing and directs a choir while staying heavily involved in services and other activities at Price Memorial.
Her community involvement includes the Wednesday Morning Coffee Club, the Democratic Women of Roanoke Valley, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1444 Auxiliary and the Eureka Chapter of AARP. She also has been a member of activist organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women and the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and brags about being a parliamentarian since 1940.
“I’m trying to make 100,” the 96-year-old said when she was honored.
“You have to make up your mind and stick with it,” advised Polk, noting that she grew up in an era where the scarcity of good-paying jobs temporarily separated many families.
She has survived the struggles, and “I’ve done what I wanted to do. I always wanted to be a hair dresser.”
She has worked out of her home and in shops. A recent fall has temporarily kept Polk from her only customer.
Polk, who even taught her three sons and two daughters “to do hair,” is proud that two of her granddaughters have followed in her beautician footsteps.
Polk also is known for her cooking and her flowers. It was her interest in gardening that led to participating in many local and regional flower shows.
In addition to organizing flower shows and exhibiting her own flowers, Polk has helped organize horticulture and flower-show judging classes, including one at Virginia State University.
She’s adamant about reaching 100, advising “that whatever you want to do in life, just keep on doing it.”
“We don’t have to get old because we are old,” she injected with a big smile.
Polk rather likes being referred to as “the Energizer Bunny,” because her adopted motto is: “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again,” adding it’s sad that many young people don’t adhere to it.
She’s an avid reader of the Bible and inspirational passages, although she said her eyesight “isn’t what it used to be.”
Still, she justifies her perseverance, saying, “We know that the Lord is coming so you don’t have to just sit and wait. I’m going to do all I can for his glory.”
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