Pennington and Gerhardt are joined by Pennington’s caregiver in front of a fountain at the health care facility. L&T photo/Robert Pierce
By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
Alberta Pennington is a lifetime resident of Southwest Kansas, having lived in the area since her birth on April 22, 1914, to John Lawson and MayBelle Angel Lawson in Meade County.
Pennington’s parents and grandparents were pioneers from the mid 19th century, with her maternal grandparents coming to the area in covered wagons from North Carolina and settling in an area about seven miles south of current day Plains.
Her father came from Kentucky and homestead in the present day Elkhart. His family were tobacco plantation owners in Kentucky. John and three of his sisters came to Southwest Kansas to fulfill the American dream of homesteading free land.
One of the sisters, Annie, along with Dr. Tucker, were the first to come west, traveling as far as the railroad went, locating their choice of land track to homestead. John and his other two sisters soon followed.
John was a certified teacher, teaching school to settlers’ children and farming the land belonging to he and sister, Jenny. The land was adjoining, and their dugouts were side by side as each had to live on his track of land in order to homestead.
Dr. Tucker soon began to draw people and business around him in what would later become Elkhart. He built a large home and used some of the bedrooms as a hospital for those people that were in need of critical care in the early days.
A museum commemorating Dr. Tucker and the history of Elkhart is located in the small Morton County town.
With settlers in the Elkhart area being unable to pay a teacher, John joined a harvesting crew following the wheat harvest south. MayBelle’s father, with seven children of his own, built a small school on a piece of his land and was actively looking for a teacher for his and the other children in the area.
John, who had his teaching certificate with him, was hired. It is while teaching that he and MayBelle, one of his students, met, and the two were married in June of 1909, making their home in John’s dugout.
After the birth of their first child, John sold his land, and the Lawsons moved to Meade County, just a few miles from MayBelle’s parents. John continued to farm and teach school in several different rural area schools in the Plains-Meade area.
In addition to being a school teacher and farmer, John was also the Plains city judge and head deacon of the Baptist church.
While expecting with Alberta, MayBelle’s closest sister was killed by a train when her family’s buggy did not clear the train tracks crossing, leaving a mother to grieve the loss of her sister.
Albert and her siblings attended grade school classes in Plains and Meade rural area schools where John was teaching.
“Alberta recalls that her father would have to leave very early to get the fire started and the school warm for when the students would arrive for the day,” said Pennington’s daughter, Glenda Gerhardt. “The Lawson children would put a very heavy quilt over them in the wagon, and the horse would take to school and home again, often past dark when they got home.”
The family’s pioneering spirit would continue later with MayBelle’s brother, Charlie, patenting the Angel one-way plow and spearheading the first building of what would later become the Plains Baptist Church.
The Angels were very strong in the area, attending and supporting the church, as Gerhardt recalled.
“Alberta says that she remembers well everyone gather up at her uncle’s home and listening to the radio on a Sunday afternoon,” she said.
With the arrival of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, like most, the family fell on hard times, but would endure, many times with only church or school activities as the only social functions available.
“Only the strong survived, and many lost children to childhood diseases and dust pneumonia,” Gerhardt said. “Many families, being unable to find work, migrated to other parts to survive.”
Pennington would attend and later graduate from Plains High School in 1935. She is a self-taught piano player, being able to play a melody after hearing it. She began playing for her Sunday school class at the age of 14 and played in some capacity for church for about 70 years.
Alberta would later meet Glenn Pennington, and the two were married in May 1941. Glenn was later inducted into the military, but due to an accident at age 3, he had lost sight in one eye and was stationed stateside in Leavenworth as second cook at the VA hospital.
Family influence was once again felt, when later MayBelle took a civil service test and passed with a high score and was honored with the position of postmaster in Plans, a job she held from 1942 to 1960, before taking an early retirement because of a terminal illness.
Pennington herself served as the social correspondent for the Southwest Daily Times newspaper for the Meade, Plains and Fowler area activities for many years.
“She was a very active member of several different women’s clubs and also worked at the Lone Tree Nursing Home for years before she retired,” Gerhardt said. “During this period of time, Alberta attended and became very active in the Kansas Author Club and presided as Kansas Author Seventh District president.”
After Glenn passed away, Pennington moved to Liberal in 1992 at age 78 to be near Gerhardt.
Her advancing age did not slow her down, however. At 81 years old, she decided to try oil painting with some of her friends when lessons were offered at the Liberal Senior Center, studying under Phyllis Fennen.
Pennington would continue oil painting until it was no longer possible because of failing eyesight. Her local artwork was displayed at the Plains Community Library.
Pennington is now a resident of the Liberal Good Samaritan Society, where she has lived for the last five years. When asked what she attributes her longevity to, she said her dad always maintained a large vegetable garden and fruit trees.
“The children enjoyed pulling carrots or veggies or climb the trees to shake for fruit whenever they wanted, and they always had the chickens and their own meat they raised,” Gerhardt said. “She feels their food was clean and pure and good for them.”
All of Pennington’s siblings except her wounded brother lived beyond age 90, and she has one younger brother living. She also has seven grandchildren with one deceased and six great-grandchildren.
Gerhardt said reaching the milestone of age 100 has been a constant dream of Pennington’s for many years.
“We know she has done lots of things that we are very proud of, but to us, she is just mom,” Gerhardt said. “I believe she fits into the 21st century better than the century she was actually born in. She has been through many changes in her lifetime.”