December 05, 2012 - By Samantha Kraska
Gladys Graves (center) with granddaughters Lisa Phelps (left) and Angela Kohler. (click for larger version)
Gladys Graves has experienced 90 birthdays but judging by her tearful reaction, the one she celebrated on Sunday Dec. 2 at the First Baptist Church of Oxford was the most surprising.
Graves, a long time resident of Oxford, had no idea her family and friends would join her to sing happy birthday and honor her life after the service.
"I'm so surprised," Graves repeated as she walked into the room where her guests waited for her.
But with three children, 11 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren, it is hardly surprising that so many would gather for the special day. It also comes as no surprise that her party took place at the First Baptist Church, since Graves has been a member there for about 75 years.
"That was when it was on East St., before it burned down" she recalled.
Since then Graves has spent her time volunteering at the church.
"I believe she is the oldest living member, and the longest," said Pastor Jim Kester. "She did just about everything you can think of for the church. When she can be here, she's here."
Her association with the church also extends to the Oxford Christian Academy. According to her daughter, Pam Phelps, she was a driving force behind the idea.
"She and her mother had a vision for a Christian academy in Oxford and they prayed on it," Phelps said. "Then the church really got behind the idea."
Oxford Christian Academy opened in 1973 and closed its doors in 2006.Graves moved to Oxford when she was 13 and lived in a home on Hovey St. She attended school in Oxford and graduated in 1941. After school she worked at Geisler's Grocery which was "pretty much the only grocery store in town at the time," she said. She and her best friend Barabra Kessler worked there putting ads in the paper and later working the storefront.
In 1943 she married her husband, Walter Graves, who was an Oakland County sheriff's deputy. They moved to Leonard after having their first child.
"My husband decided to build us a house, so he bought five acres from a farm on Lakeville," she said.
Graves had her doubts, but her husband pulled through and built the house there while they lived in a tent on the property. "I said, 'Are you sure you can?' and he said yes. First he built the garage, then the downstairs and then the upstairs," she said.
As for how to live a long life, the best advice Graves can give is to have faith.
"I accepted Jesus Christ very young," she said. "I was about 8 years old."
But Graves has noticed some signs of aging over the years. "I tell God everyday, 'If you want me to speak, you have to help my voice.'" she laughed. "If you want me to hear you have to help my ears and if you want me to see, you have to help my eyes."