By Ann Work: Wichita Falls Times Record News
WICHITA FALLS, Texas — Optimistic, check.
Socially active, check.
Effie Caffee, who spent most of her childhood in Portales, exhibits many of the trademark signs of centenarians. But if you ask for her secrets to living to be 107, she will tell you she has only one.
The petite, gray-haired lady with a pleasant smile and a firm handshake looks and acts 80 — decades younger than her true age — causing a stir when people learn how old she really is.
“They say, ’I don’t believe it,”’ she chuckled.
She’s probably right about the good genes; one sister also reached 100. Even now, Effie takes no vitamins — no calcium for her bones, no vitamins C or D. She doesn’t take any medications. “I’m fortunate for that,” she said.
By her account, she has lived an ordinary, peaceful small-town life as a homemaker in Burkburnett, Texas, — a far cry from the reality shows of today that depict life as a roller coaster full of arguments and stress.
She was happily married to Luther Caffee for 62 years until he died in 1984.
“She takes all the new things real well. She goes with the flow,” said daughter Janice Vincent of Burkburnett.
Effie has a sweet tooth and never skips dessert. She doesn’t exercise — unless you count sweeping the driveway.
It was her daily ritual, sweeping up the debris from the live oak tree that draped its limbs over the driveway of her condo, where she lived alone until recently. While sweeping, she fell — she’s still not sure why — and needed hip surgery, which landed her in Royal Estates, a Wichita Falls retirement center, where she is staying until she can walk easily again.
The hospital stay made her feel like a celebrity — or part of a sideshow — as word of her advanced age spread through the halls. One after another, visitors popped their heads into her room, inquiring if it were really true — could she be 107?
“I feel like I should charge admission,” she told her daughter.
Caffee has not always been so open about her age. In fact, for decades, it was her secret. If anyone asked how old she was, she responded mischievously, “Can you keep a secret?” When the inquirer nodded, she said, “So can I.”
But then two years ago, the town of Burkburnett — her home since 1922 — celebrated its Centennial.
Organizers asked if Caffee could be persuaded to share her age so the town could honor her as its oldest citizen.
Caffee not only agreed, but she conspired with them to hide in a large, 5-foot-tall cake and burst out on cue — to the recorded voice of Frank Sinatra crooning the lyrics from the song, “Young at Heart.” As he sang, “And if you should survive to a hundred and five, look at all you’ll derive out of being alive,” she emerged. She told the audience of 400 for the first time that she had, indeed, survived to 105.
Now, two years later, what does 107 feel like?
“You’re there before you know it,” she said.
Caffee was born Feb. 11, 1902 in Cordell, Okla., which was Indian territory until Oklahoma became a state three years later.
At 4, she moved with her family to Portales. Her mother drove the family in a buggy, while her father drove a wagon with their belongings alongside. Ever since, the family has told the story of how they had to ford the Red River to complete the trip. “Kind of like the old Westerns on TV,” said son Charles Caffee, a retired architect living in Iowa Park, Texas.
At 15, Effie moved to Ralls, Texas. After graduating from high school, she worked as a cashier at a Ralls department store, where she met Luther, whom she married at age 20.
She didn’t want to go to college. Nobody did, then, she said. She moved with him from Ralls to Burkburnett, where they visited the First United Methodist Church that first Sunday and never left. She continues to attend the church and its Wesley Bible Class 87 years later.
Luther took a job as a Burkburnett postal clerk for 20 years, then worked as assistant postmaster for 20 more. Effie has lived on his pension for the past 47 years.
The couple had two children — Janice (Caffee) Vincent and Charles Caffee — who grew up to become a high school teacher and an architect, respectively, and are both now retired, living nearby with spouses Bill Vincent, a former Burkburnett mayor, and Irene Caffee, Charles’ wife. Effie has three grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and one great-great grandson.
The greatest hardships for the Caffee family came during World War II, when rationing was at its peak, Caffee said.
She misses the days of sitting out on front porches and socializing with neighbors in the evening — a common pastime until the popularity of television sent everyone inside to his own living room.
Over the years, the easygoing family experienced little sickness or strife. After the children were grown, Effie decided to work for a while, logging 16 years at the Manhattan department store before retiring.
Her busy social life continued into old age, with a typical day in her home starting at 7 a.m. when she cooked herself breakfast and then went to the senior citizen center for lunch and card games — Canasta, Skip-Bo and “42.” She stayed until 4 p.m., drove home and cooked herself a simple dinner of soup or a sandwich, then watched television until 10 p.m. “Wheel of Fortune” is her favorite show.
She stopped driving at 105 because it seemed “time,” but she sorely misses it.
For years, the family has joked amiably about Effie’s advancing age. They recently replaced her condo’s ailing refrigerator, microwave, hot water heater and dishwasher — all new when she moved in nearly 30 years ago. “You are outliving your appliances,” they teased.
Son-in-law Bill Vincent feigned a serious announcement at one Thanksgiving dinner, saying that he and Janice — in their 70s — were hiring a financial planner. They wanted to ensure that Caffee would always be cared for after they passed on.
“That’s not funny,” Caffee said Wednesday. “I don’t want that to happen.”
She’s already outlived several generations of friends — one of the hard things about living so long, she said.
She feels well.
“I feel lucky that I stay well,” she said.
She rarely naps and is always up for family outings.
“She’s never tired. She goes until everyone else is dropping,” said Irene Caffee.
Doctors say they are in new territory as they care for Effie. The doctor who operated on her hip told her he had never had a patient so old, but she sailed through surgery.
Recently, her doctor gave her a clean bill of health.
“The only thing wrong with her is her hearing,” he said, “and you don’t die from that.”