BOTETOURT – Hazel Wolf Hager has gotten her share of ribbing about winter weather. She was born on Groundhog Day, February 2; and more than once she’s been asked why she didn’t stay inside on her birthday so she wouldn’t see her shadow.
“I got the blame for the weather,” she confided late last week as the 2010 Groundhog Day approached.
By the way, this was her 100th Groundhog Day, her 100th birthday, too.
It makes it easy for her family to remember, and she has lots of family scattered around the country. Although she has no children of her own, Aunt Hazel, as she is fondly called, has lots of nieces and nephews who were sure to give her a call on Groundhog Day.
She celebrated her 100th birthday as a resident of the Brian Center near Fincastle; and will have a real party this weekend, one planned by her niece Twila Briscoe, who has become a surrogate daughter in this family that is known for taking care of each other.
In fact, Twila is only following her Aunt Hazel’s example.
Hazel Hager and her sister Delphia Louise cared for their mother, who lived to be just shy of 107. She passed away in 1988.
Longevity, though, runs in both sides of Aunt Hazel’s family. Her Grandmother Wolf lived to 102; and her great-grandmother on her grandfather’s side of the family also lived to 102—making her a fourth generation centurion.
She was very tolerant of the questions she was asked about her life, and this milestone of longevity. Family was at the center of her life, her own family and her church family, and she has enjoyed it. “It’s been ‘bout as good a life as anybody could have,” she said.
While it was quiet by most standards, it was not without tragedy and heartache.
Her father worked in the coal mines in McDowell County, W.Va. where she was born in the community of Twin Branch.
A slate fall seriously injured her father, and a week after the accident he died. Her mother eventually remarried, and Hazel wound up with four brothers and her beloved sister.
Growing up, she recalled how she and her sister would walk the railroad tracks to pick up “bone,” the white coal that got discarded with the “slack” that was separated from the coal. “It made the hottest heat in the house,” she said of the bone. It was a welcome discard since it was difficult to afford to buy coal.
Hazel took her time getting married, but she caught “the love of her life” at 26 when Ora Hager chose her as his bride. He was past 30 himself, and was considered McDowell County’s Outstanding Bachelor.
He was an outstanding baseball player, too, and played until “he ruined his arm,” Hazel explained. He played baseball in several of the organized leagues in those days.
There are many articles about him in the McDowell County newspapers, and while he was well known for his baseball skills, he was more than a ballplayer.
“What he believed in is what he did,” Hazel explained. “He lived a Christian life.”
As it turned out, it would be a much shorter life than either had hoped for.
Ora worked as a conductor for the local railroad, and died after another tragic accident one night while walking home along the tracks.
He fell through a bridge that was open. It had been boarded up on one side, but not on the other. Ora fell on his lunch kit and lantern, and he never recovered from the internal injuries.
“The funeral was the largest one they’d ever had in Welch,” Hazel said. They’d been married just three years.
Her faith sustained her. “I stood out in front of his window in the rain (at Welch Emergency Hospital),” she said. “I knew he wouldn’t get better and I had to give him up.” He never regained consciousness after the fall.
When asked what stood out the most in her 100 years, she readily offered, “The Depression. That was the deep depression…. Ora was fortunate to have a job.
“We never did go hungry, there was plenty to eat. We didn’t suffer, but it was a hard time.”
She got around by walking, she said. “There was no other way to go other than walking. That’s how I stayed thin,” she explained.
It’s hard to tell how many miles Aunt Hazel has walked. She made it a habit every day even after moving to Ballard, W.Va. where she lived with her mother and sister. She walked 2.5 miles every morning at 10:30 for 20 to 25 years—until her mother died—rain, snow, sleet or hail.
“I’ve tried to live for health,” she said, and she attributes some of her longevity to healthy eating and her daily walks.
“But,” she quickly notes, “the Bible says, ‘If we honor our fathers and mothers, our days on earth will be extended.’”
After Ora died, World War II broke out, and Aunt Hazel boarded a bus for Delaware; but the climate didn’t agree with her, and she got sick with tonsillitis. She headed back home to take care of her tonsils, then went to Bristol, Tenn. where she went to work for the Navy examining ammunition as it came off the stenciling machine.
She worked for a Lt. Biggs, who said he’d give her a recommendation for whatever she wanted to do.
She didn’t need a recommendation for what she wanted—to go back home and stay with family. And that’s what she did.
She and her mother lived upstairs in a home owned by her oldest brother, who lived downstairs, and they enjoyed the family company.
After the war, she recalled buying her mother a pressure cooker with War Bonds she cashed in. They canned everything, she said, fruits and vegetables of all kinds. “Everything was so good. As fresh as it could be.
“My mother was the most amazing woman—person—I ever knew,” Hazel continued. She recalled helping her when she was a child, boiling clothes, washing on a washboard, making lye soap and having “the whitest clothes I ever saw.”
“It was just life to us, and I’ve had a good life.”
Her church, the First Church of God in Welch, was a central part of that good life, too. “They are the best church people,” she said. She taught pre-school Sunday School for 17 years, too.
Her mother’s death was difficult. The family received the flag that flew over the White House when her mother died nearly 22 years ago. She was one of West Virginia’s oldest residents, if not the oldest, at the time.
She and her sister had been caring for their mother where her sister lived in Ballard, W.Va. A local doctor was amazed at how well the sisters were able to care for their then bedridden mother.
Hazel said the night her mother died, her mother knew it was her time.
“Momma said, ‘Hazel, I’m not going to live through the night,’” Hazel said.
Her mother also assured her there is a heaven. “Don’t let anyone tell you there’s no heaven,” Hazel’s mother told her that night. “I’ve got a glimpse of it.”
Hazel wasn’t able to attend her mother’s funeral because of pneumonia, one of the few aliments she ever had. She’s never had an operation, and only took aspirins for headaches, she added.
She cared for others in her family, too, and confided, “All I ever knew was to give if they were sick or needed me.”
Aunt Hazel is living in Fincastle now because of her niece. Twila Briscoe’s mother was Ora Harper’s brother. Briscoe’s mother and father bought a farm near Eagle Rock in the 1950s and moved there when her father retired from the coal mines in the 1970s. He loved Eagle Rock and that farm, Briscoe said of her late father.
And her mother and Aunt Hazel had a unique bond—like sisters, Briscoe said, and Aunt Hazel agreed.
Aunt Hazel was looking forward to the manicure she was going to get, but she wasn’t quite sure how well she liked her new haircut. “It’s a bit too short for my liking,” she told her niece, but Briscoe thought it looked wonderful.
Her niece was also happy to see that her aunt was able to come off the oxygen she’d been using because of her recent trouble with asthma. Aunt Hazel thought it was a pesky device and was glad she didn’t have to bother with it right then.
As she reflected on her 100 years, Aunt Hazel took much comfort in her family and her faith. “I’ll say ‘good night’ here and ‘good morning’ up yonder, and Mother assured me there’s a heaven,” Aunt Hazel said as she was cajoled into a 100th birthday photograph.