Norfolk woman, still incredibly independent, celebrates 103rd birthday with surprise parade

Norfolk woman, still incredibly independent, celebrates 103rd birthday with surprise parade
·3 min read

Dorothea Gray turns 103 on Sunday, but she still paints the back deck her house of more than 50 years. She also does her own cooking, bakes rolls and pecan cookies and pays her own bills.

Some of the flower beds that dotted her back yard are gone. So are her five sisters and three brothers, her husband of over 75 years and many of her friends. Living so long has meant a lot of loss, but Gray still smiles and laughs easily when talking about her memories.

“I just had a happy life,” she said Friday from her living room filled with carefully maintained antique furniture. And in all the decades she was a domestic worker, from the time she was 17 until the mid-1990s, she said everyone she worked for was “crazy about me.”

On Saturday, friends organized a surprise parade in front of her house, with nine cars, banners, balloons and plenty of jubilant honking.

“I think it’s gorgeous,” said Gray, who seemed amazed that none of her friends had given away the surprise.

Mayor Kenny Alexander read an official letter. He wrote that Gray comes from a generation known for strength, determination, and generosity — qualities that apply to her.

Gray grew up off Tidewater Drive in Norfolk. Her father had a cleaning and pressing business. Longevity runs in her family. Her mother lived to be 99.

She and her husband, John, married when they were teenagers, and their bond remained strong until he died in 2014 at 95. They met when she was working as a maid and he was working in a grocery store. Eventually, they bought the small, immaculately maintained house where Gray still lives.

“We were real close,” she said. “We did everything together.”

When someone saw Dorothea, John was usually nearby.

And they had many friends. When they entertained, they sometimes had more than 80 guests, including families who employed her.

One man, whose mother employed Gray, recently sent her a big bouquet of flowers that she displays on her coffee table. He also mails her a greeting card every month. Those cards fill an antique cabinet in her living room. She said that man and his sister almost killed her with their antics — he persuaded her to ride a two-person bicycle and to go out in a boat when she was afraid of deep water — but she laughs when she tells the story.

Gray is proud when discussing people for whom she worked. She worked for one man after his wife died. He would tell her: “Dorothea, I’ve never seen anybody else like you. You can do anything,” she said.

When he got sick, he initially had other helpers, but they stole from him, Gray said. So he asked her to take care of him and she agreed, bathing him and washing his hair at the kitchen sink. Even after he ended went to a nursing home, she and John would visit him every Sunday. And John would pick him up and bring him to their cookouts, she said.

Dorothea doted on John, too.

“He was spoiled rotten. She did everything for him,” said Josie Mercer, Gray’s goddaughter who with her daughter, planned the surprise parade. Dorothea wanted John to die first because she didn’t want to leave him to fend for himself, said Mercer.

Gray said she thinks her time is coming soon.

“I just feel like this is my last year,” she said.

But in the meantime, she has some advice to impart.

“Be nice to everybody and you get a big return,” she said.

Noble Brigham,