Phoebe Catlin: A Humble Centenarian

by Greg Lindberg

A lot can happen in 100 years. Many wars can be fought. New technology can transform the world. The global population can skyrocket.

But remaining humble for more than a century is quite an accomplishment. And that’s the perfect description of the life of Phoebe Elizabeth Carter Catlin.

Born at home on March 9, 1917 in Williamson, W.Va., she was the only child of John Patton Carter and Lydia Ethel Olinger Carter. Both parents hailed from Virginia, and her mother was from a town called Olinger. The family’s roots can be traced back to England, Scotland, and Ireland.

“I was home-schooled at an early age,” Catlin recalls. “I wasn’t sent to public school until I reached third grade. That grade school was in Kentucky, so I had to cross the bridge over the Tug River to get there each day.”

That school was in Chattaroy. Before she entered seventh grade, the family moved to Bristol, Va. They later relocated to Kentucky, where she graduated from Corbin High School in 1934. She then attended Sue Bennett College in London, Ky. She earned a master’s degree in education with a specialization in guidance counseling.

The Great Depression hit while they were living in Corbin. “Everyone in town did business with the same bank. Your money wasn’t protected in those days. When the stock market crashed, the bank said they had no money left, so people got nothing back from the bank. I also remember that the church in town padlocked its doors shut. We had moved to a farm, so fortunately we had enough to eat. We had seven cows on the farm and sold their milk. My parents milked the cows, and I washed the milk bottles.”

With a degree in education, Catlin pursued a teaching career. She started off teaching in Ferriston, Ky., and later taught in Corbin. She began teaching kindergarten through third grade and was later promoted to teach fifth and sixth graders. Many of these classes were either held in a two-room schoolhouse or in a church.

“We put up curtains in the church’s auditorium and planned it so that one teacher would teach at a time,” she explains. “One school I taught at didn’t have any textbooks or even a building. My attic was full of Sunday school papers and reading materials, which I brought in to use. Our free books finally arrived 6 weeks into the school year. The funny thing is that they had a big section on all the boroughs in New York because they were shipped from a school district up there. So, all these kids in Kentucky were learning about these boroughs.”

With summers off, Catlin kept busy by working at the DuPont Laboratory in Louisville. “I helped make synthetic rubber out of materials we got from South America. The people there worked swing shifts around the clock. We all worked very hard.”
In addition to her education career, Catlin spent three years working as a civilian in the U.S. Army in the Office of the Quartermaster General during World War II. “I helped supply the Army with food, blankets, and other supplies they needed,” she says. “When the war ended, I transferred to the U.S. Geological Survey. Both of these positions were in Washington, D.C.”

It was around this time when Catlin met the man who would become her first husband. “A friend from my hometown in Kentucky introduced us. … He was working on his law degree at the time and then became a federal attorney in D.C. later on.”

She and Paul Beath were married in 1947 in Louisville. They had one daughter, Mary Elizabeth. The couple was married for 35 years until Paul’s passing.

Mary was born in Washington, D.C. She later attended Duke University and “was really good in math and science,” according to her mom. She majored in botany and zoology there. She then went on to the Rhode Island School of Design where she earned a master’s in art design. She made a career out of being a nature artist. It was Mary who organized her mother’s 97th birthday party in Williamsburg, Va.

“We got 10 timeshares for a whole week for all of the family and friends who came in for it. Everyone said, ‘We’ll see you in three years for your 100th birthday, but please don’t have it in Williamsburg again.’ That’s because we got 2 inches of snow while we were there. So, everyone was right about seeing me in three years, and we had my 100th birthday party in May of this year at the Hilton here in St. Petersburg. We had 85 people come for it.”

For 25 years, Catlin worked in the Washington, D.C. public school system. She was a teacher and guidance counselor, and some of these years were around the time when integration was taking place.

“They sent me to the main large high school in Washington,” she recounts. “They said we needed to have 50% black students at the school, and we only had one at the time. They chose me to be a guidance counselor because I had experience working in lower-income schools in the past. At the time, a judge ruled that higher-income black students be sent to us, but we actually wanted lower-income black students. Some of the lower-income students had never even seen a $20 bill before. Many of them were hard to handle. But we had a wonderful black principal, and I met many very professional blacks who worked in the school system.”

She recalls one troubled student who went on to become quite successful. “As a counselor, I had a special button in my office that I could press for security if something ever happened. There was a big black boy who came charging into my office one day. He told me that he had started to kill his father that morning because he had been beating up the boy’s mother, but the mother never reported it. I referred him to a psychologist. But they wouldn’t see him because his father was in the Army and was undergoing his own psychiatric treatment. Eventually, Walter Reed Hospital took the kid at just 16 years old. He played a cello that his brother had stolen. Years later, I found out he was playing in an orchestra in Boston and was doing quite well for himself.”

She remarried in her sixties to Glenn Catlin in 1984. The two were married for 24 years; Glenn passed away in 2008.

For most of her life, Catlin had good eyesight. Upon turning 93, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration. Three years later, she founded the Visually Impaired Persons Group in her retirement community. She invited speakers from the Lions Club, the Lighthouse of Pinellas and other organizations to come out and present information to the residents. They also had a talking book club, where people would get together and talk about what books they were reading.

The VIP Group was formed in May 2013. After a while, Catlin became aware of ACB and wanted to make a connection with the organization. “I was interested because we have quite a few visually impaired residents here at my retirement home,” she said. “I called them up and asked how we might be able to get a speaker to come out to talk about vision loss and other topics of interest. They said ACB has chapters within states and local communities, and they referred me to the Pinellas Council of the Blind.” The VIP Group then became a satellite affiliate of the Pinellas Council of the Blind.

While Catlin doesn’t have as much eyesight as she once did, it certainly doesn’t hold her back. “I say you just have to deal with it and move on,” she says.

And how has this humble girl from West Virginia reached the century mark?  “When people ask how I’ve lived 100 years, I say you have to be able to accept change. Some people don’t want to change the way their furniture in their house is arranged or anything else. Then they catch some disease and are gone before you know it.”