FARMVILLE, Va. (BP)--The year was 1894. Grover Cleveland was two years into his second term as 24th president of the United States and was trying to settle the Pullman Strike. The first clutch-driven automobile was invented. And, on Oct. 18, Kate Soyars was born near Farmville, Va.
In 1998, Farmville observed its bicentennial year and Soyars was honored as the county's oldest living citizen. Just recently, the Southern Baptist Convention's Annuity Board recognized her as its oldest, living "adopted annuitant."
Soyars was one of 13 children. Her father owned a store near their home. Looking back over the years, she still remembers her family's first washing machine. "It was on stilts; you just turned the wheel!"
She also recalls the first automobile in the neighborhood. However, her fondest memories of her early years turn toward her mother.
"My mother was the best Christian woman I ever saw in my life," she recalls.
Soyars went to school in Harrisonburg and took a teaching position in a one-room schoolhouse. "I was teaching one day when our pastor brought Norman Soyars with him. That turned out to be my husband," she said. They were married on June 4, 1919.
Norman Soyars was a country boy. He was very talented and could have done just about anything. But, after graduating from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., the Lord directed him back toward the rural areas of Virginia. He related well to the farmers and others in the region and spent much of his time in personal visitation with people. In most of his pastorates, Soyars ministered to a field of churches instead of a single congregation.
Kate Soyars remembered what it was like for a minister's family in the early part of the century. "The churches would give us poundings," she said. "We'd get bags of vegetables, fruits, canned goods and other items that would last us quite a while. We never went hungry."
The Soyarses' older daughter, Katherine Grizzard, recalled, "We were poor but we didn't know it."
Her mother made all the clothing for the children. One Christmas, the family gifts consisted of lollipops tied onto the Christmas tree.
Katherine's sister, Norma Watkins, added, "I guess we were rich in lots of ways other than money."
Although they served 10 churches over 40 years, very few of their congregations provided a contribution toward retirement. Those that contributed only offered a small amount. Family members helped to make some contributions in the latter years of their ministry. When pastor Soyars died in 1974, his widow was left with a monthly survivor's benefit of $56.79 from the Annuity Board.
The Annuity Board's Adopt An Annuitant ministry has been a tremendous help to her. This program now provides a $75 monthly supplement to aged ministers and their widows living on inadequate retirement incomes. Currently, nearly 2,700 individuals or couples receive assistance. Funding for the program is provided by individuals, groups and churches who make direct gifts to the Annuity Board in support of the $2.5 million annual cost.
Shortly after the program was launched in the early 1980s, Kate Soyars was one of its early recipients. For the past 15 years, she has been getting an extra supplement to her annuity benefit each month.
"She would not have been able to make it without the Annuity Board," Watkins said. "The basic benefit plus the extra amount from the Adopt An Annuitant fund have meant the difference between merely existing in poverty and a reasonable quality of life."
Soyars lives in a Farmville retirement home, but at age 105 she still enjoys knitting, crocheting and spending time with her family. When asked about living a long life, her advice is simple: "Just behave yourself and go to church."
Over a century of memories has convinced Soyars that many things have changed, yet one thing remains the same. "For many years, Mother said that her motto was, 'The Lord is my Shepherd,'" daughter Norma said.
"I still say it!" Soyars was quick to add.
Ambra is a manager in the Annuity Board's endowment department.