It is with a heavy heart that I report the passing of Catherine Stovall this past Tuesday, January 24th, at 2pm. She was 103 years old and lived her life as an inspiration to her family, her church and her community. Mrs. Stovall, or "Queen Stovall" as my Crane High School Reunion group called her, is the mother of Joshlyn Dortch Banks, whom we have known since our days as students at the High School on the Westside of Chicago. "Sometimes you know you have a precious jewel, but don't really know how valuable it is, how extra special it is until you hear from friends and family that confirms we have a one-of-a-kind jewel that's more precious than rubies," Joshlyn told me. "I think her example of feeding seniors who had no family for Thanksgiving, out of her limited finances, helped to shape us into the individuals we are today."
We extend our deepest sympathy to Joshlyn and her family.
In February of 2021, Mrs. Stovall was awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award in Robbins, Illinois. She met Dr. King in the 1960's at her church in Chicago, and spent her life trying to practice his teachings. She was interviewed by Brad Edwards of the local CBS station who asked her for some words of wisdom. (See video below) She said she learned that fear was her biggest thing to overcome, and that by overcoming fear, she began to believe in herself and what she could accomplish. Her other words of wisdom for that day were, "Get an Education... an education can help you get a better job and live a better life." She was the model for this.
She was born on August 1st, 1919, in Carleton, Alabama, and lived through many things including the Great Depression of 1929. She spoke about not having food to eat or running water or indoor plumbing during that time, but said the grace of God brought her through. She raised seven children (the eighth died at an early age), and she learned to sew to make clothes for them. Times were tight after the death of her first husband but she worked hard to provide for her family, and eventually remarried.
Joshlyn told me that her mother was determined to get her diploma to set an example for her family and neighbors. When Joshlyn was a little girl, she cried because her hair was short. Her mother admonished her, "Remember, it's not what's on your head, but what's in your head that counts." Joshlyn took those words to heart. She said her mother had taken the GED many times before she finally passed it on the thirteenth try. But once she did, she immediately went to college. "I guess another of her other words of wisdom," mused Joshlyn, "is 'Persistence.' Mother inspired so many people to stay in school or to go back to school with her actions."
Helping her children with their homework inspired Mrs Stovall to go back to school, and she was awarded her GED at the age of 71. After that, she attended Northeastern Illinois University and Malcolm X College. She also earned a Christian Education Diploma from the National Baptist Convention at a ceremony in San Francisco. She worked for Motorola and Allied and retired from the Board of Education. She taught Sunday School until she was 95 years old!
Joshlyn remembers: "We knew Mom would make things happen. For example, we didn't know there was a problem with a lack of money or food, because Mama would get in that kitchen and come up with the best one-of-a-kind meals from whatever she could find in the kitchen. She was resourceful and humble in what she did. Mom followed the word of God as taught in Matthew 6:2. She did things in a quiet manner, not boasting or bragging and people have never forgotten her many acts of kindness. She taught us to provide service in our communities. And even after her 100th birthday she remained determined, inspiring others to get out to vote."
At her 101st birthday celebration (which was a drive-by car parade because it was at the height of the coronavirus pandemic), Mrs. Stovall emphasized staying active. Although she could no longer travel, she fondly recounted her love of travel and how it took her to the World's Fair in Canada in 1964, the Bahamas, and Ghana. Her family added that she was proud of being able to cruise and especially of visiting ports of call in Barbados, Belize, Jamaica, St. Martin, Hawaii and Alaska. "She would smile when recalling she has visited 38 of the 50 states."
During our conversations in recent years, Mrs. Stovall's outlook was surprisingly refreshing. “Live life a day at a time,” she told me. I have heard that expression in various forms but somehow hearing it from a woman over a hundred years of age who had a lifetime of experiences to prove it made it more profound. Her gratitude was always front and center. "We will get through this thing," she said, referring to the pandemic. Astonishingly she lived through two pandemics, because she was an infant in 1919 during the Spanish Flu Pandemic that lasted from 1918 until 1920.
Some of our Crane Cougars group were privileged to celebrate Mrs. Stovall's 103rd birthday with her in August of 2022. "It's a true blessing to be here today celebrating Mother's 103rd birthday," said Joshlyn. "We never knew from day to day what to expect when she was recently in the hospital, except for one thing, she was determined to make it to this party!"
Laughing robustly that day, Joshlyn said that there wasn't one day that went by that her mother didn't ask about some detail of the party, whether it was about the caterers, the decorations or the invitations. "When she got sick, she didn't want us to know because she thought we would cancel her party. And when she finally got out of the hospital, the first thing she said is, 'Don't put any salt in my food. I want to stay healthy.'"
And stay healthy she did, for at least 103 years. At her birthday celebration last August, I was impressed by the longevity genes in her family. She sat between her brother, Jeffrey Davis, who was 95 years old, and her "Baby Sister," Eula Davis, who was 83. Jeffrey and his wife Dorothy had driven all the way from Mobile, Alabama to attend the party. And they were waiting for their younger brother Herman Davis to arrive. He was 87 years of age.
As she looked around the room that day, taking in the assemblage of those in attendance, her voice took on a stronger, louder quality when she declared: "Family is love!" Besides her daughter Joshlyn, she was also surrounded by her children Alfreda Williams, Jacinto Dortch, Alonzo Stovall, Barbara Stovall Carter and Rodney Stovall, and by assorted grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews and in-laws.
Thelma Ramsey, a friend of Mrs. Stovall from Friendship Baptist Church, told me, "She is amazing, she is soft-spoken, but people listen to her when she speaks, and they respect her. And she is still inspiring us." Her neighbors spoke in awe about her ability on her own to organize dinners for people who were lonely because she loved to feed people. Her neighbor Maria Perez, said she had been worried when she didn't see Mrs. Stovall out on her regular walks. "She could walk by herself, even at this age. And when I didn't see her I was worried. We played Bingo together, and her memory is very good. I call her Mom. It is a joy to be here today."
During the interview with Brad Edwards, when she received the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, award, she was asked what advice she would give to people today: "The world is in an uproar, and we need more prayer to overcome the violence." That is why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the heroes she tried to emulate with her work in the community. Those words still resonate today.
Thank you for your lifetime of inspiration, Queen Stovall.