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96-year-old Willie Tidwell shares secret for a long life

By Nancy Parsons

GREAT FALLS  – Willie Locke Bell was at a movie theater in Lancaster when her boyfriend, Derry Tidwell, and his cousin came to the theater for Tidwell to sweep her off her feet.

Tidwell purposed to find the young girl he wanted to make his wife.

He was successful in his Saturday, July 11, 1934, endeavor.

Bell, then 17, and Tidwell had been romancing one another for a while.

They didn’t get to date but they’d write love letters to express their intimate feelings.

Willie Tidwell said her mother did not approve of the relationship because of an age difference.

“I’d see him when I could,” Tidwell said. “And I’d get a whooping if I saw him.”

The young couple left the movie theater and went to Fort Lawn, where the Rev. George W. Stewart married them.

Tidwell said the ink in the minister’s pen ran out so he used the black coal dust from his heater to sign the marriage license.

“It looks like ink,” Tidwell said.

Tidwell still has the treasured document that denoted their marriage.

The young married couple spent a week with Tidwell’s cousin, George and Annie Bell Boulware, in Lancaster.

The now Mrs. Tidwell said her mother was worried and had no idea where she was.

She said her mother-in-law convinced her to go home, tell her mother where she was and that she had gotten married.

“She liked to have killed me,” Tidwell said laughing. “She was upset. She gave me a good whooping. That was the worst whooping I ever got.”

“But that made my love stronger.”

After their marriage was announced, the Tidwells got a house in Great Falls and lived in it almost two years until they decided to move to Washington, D.C.

“We felt it would be a better life and we could make some money,” Tidwell said.

Mr. Tidwell worked as an interior decorator with United Airlines and part time as a tailor.

Tidwell said her husband was an excellent seamstress and made a lot of her clothes. She reached down and touched a pair of tan-colored pants her husband made for her.

Mrs. Tidwell worked almost 29 years for the federal government and transported diabetic patients to Mount Alto Veterans Hospital, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Washington Hospital Center and the Veterans Hospital, she said. In addition, she worked full-time at her own beauty salon and part-time at a drug store and the Greyhound bus station.

“I was a hard worker,” Tidwell said. “I wanted some money to build a house.”

Tidwell said she loved to wash and iron. She said she starched her husband’s shirt collars until they were stiff.

She also loved gardening and enjoyed canning and freezing vegetables from her garden.

“I always had tomato plants,” she said.

Tidwell shared a secret she said was passed on to her.

She said you can pick a fresh tomato, wash and dry it and freeze it in a freezer bag for later use. She said the tomato is supposed to taste garden fresh.

She loves to eat green cabbage and beans and still enjoys canning and freezing fruits and vegetables.
Tidwell’s green thumb was also evident in her flower garden, she said.

Although they both loved to dance, Tidwell said she and her husband did not socialize a lot.

She said they went to a dance one night but chaos broke out when some of the partygoers began cutting and shooting people.

She said she was afraid and searched for the exit.

She decided that night to always know the exit points in any building she enters.

“I always like to know my way out,” Tidwell said.

The couple birthed a daughter but sadly, the infant died three days after she was born.

Tidwell said she’s lived a good life.

“I had happy times all my life,” she said. “I had a happy marriage. They called me the ‘happy girl’ and they called my husband ‘jitterbug’ because he could and loved to dance,” she said.

Tidwell smiles and laughs as she tells about some of the happy times in her life.

One of her favorite memories was a two-week “around the world” trip she and her husband embarked on.

She said she enjoyed visiting Germany but did not like Thailand or Hawaii.

“We spent most of our time in San Diego and Los Angeles,” she said. “I loved it there.”

Tidwell said she always preferred to pay for items she bought.

“I don’t like to owe and I don’t like to borrow,” she said.

The first of six children born to the late Susie Benson Bell, Willie Locke Bell Tidwell was born Jan. 16, 1917, in Lancaster County.

Her biological father was Claude Bell, but she was reared by her step-father, George Gladden.

“When growing up, we came home from school and did our tasks,” Tidwell said. “I milked the cow.”

She said her family had church with singing and praying every night.

“I’m thankful for my training and raising,” she said.

Tidwell has outlived all of her siblings. She said it is a lonesome feeling when she stops and thinks about the loss of her family members.

In her living room hangs a painting of her late sister, Susie Bell Reid and her husband, Labon.

Tidwell retired from her government job on Aug. 10, 1988. That’s when the Tidwells moved back to Great Falls and lived at 1 Hall St.

“Everybody loves home,” she said, telling why she and her husband returned to small -town living. “It’s bad if you can’t go back where you come from.”

Tidwell has never smoked and said she did not drink coffee, tea or soda until she retired.

She now enjoys a glass of tea.

She said she always cooked good, country meals.

Tidwell said she stayed active for a while and transported Margie Azouri and Helen Sealy to their doctor appointments in Columbia.

“After retirement, I sat down on my hips,” she said laughing.

In 1992, Tidwell faced another of life’s challenges.

After suffering heart problems, her husband passed away.

“It was a very hard time,” Tidwell said.

Sometime after her husband’s death, a man began to pursue Tidwell. She said she was outside hanging clothes on the line when the suitor made his intents known.

“I told him to go home, get on his knees and pray to God to take that love away,” Tidwell laughed.

In 2005, Tidwell moved into her sister’s house at 9 Cedar St.

She loves animals and has a dog, Shondi Tidwell, and an inside cat, Candi Tidwell.

On Jan. 27, Tidwell was honored with a surprise birthday celebration at Paradise AME Zion Church, where she holds the distinction of being the “Mother of the Church.”

She is the oldest female member of the church and has served as a class leader, the church representative for Great Falls Referral and Assistance Program (GRASP) and on the usher and stewardess boards.

In August, Tidwell can be found attending camp meeting services at Camp Welfare AME Zion Campground and in September, she joins in the celebration at the Mount Carmel AME Zion camp meeting. She has a tent at both campgrounds.

“I love church,” Tidwell said.

Tidwell admits she has slowed down a little.

Betty Ann Hill works as her caregiver and helps with household tasks and driving.

Tidwell offered a few words of advice to others.

“I think you should live right, eat right, do right, treat people right, help people in need and don’t be a messy person,” Tidwell said.