Oklahoma woman to celebrate 100th birthday Sunday

Luegene Merritt recalls family's move to Story, Oklahoma, in 1919. When asked what's the secret to a long, happy life, she says, “I just do the best I can. I’m just trying to do what’s right ... and looking forward to the future.”
By Sonya Colberg, For The Oklahoman Modified: June 2, 2014 at 10:00 pm •  Published: June 1, 2014
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“It was a miracle. I don’t know how in the world she did it,” she said.

Feeding ‘broomcorn Johnnies’

Merritt married the farm boy next door a year after graduation in 1933.

William “Sam” Merritt finished high school at 15 and headed off to enter the pre-med program at the University of Oklahoma.

“Daddy made sure we got our education,” said Kay Merritt, one of three daughters who all finished college and became educators. “Mother made sure we went to church and Sunday school.”

After just two years, his brother’s illness and his father’s request for help managing the family farm drove young Sam Merritt to pack up his college books.

He returned home and soon realized the love of his life was living in the modest, elegantly furnished farm house in the very next section.

The married couple soon had their hands full with three daughters and fields full of cotton and broomcorn.

Both crops took hand-labor back then and lots of it. The Merritt family hired about 60 workers, called “broomcorn Johnnies,” to harvest the corn.

During mealtimes, they’d gather around a massive table in the living room that Merritt and neighbor ladies loaded down with roasted corn, beans, ham and other fare, topped off by fresh blackberry cobbler.

“We fed those broomcorn Johnnies good,” Luegene Merritt said.

From fishing lures to angel food to ‘The Price is Right’

Merritt insists that while everyone else in the family packs a wallop of talent, she really didn’t shine at much of anything. Her daughters beg to differ.

When Merritt wasn’t busy at the Maysville First Baptist Church or one of various ladies’ social clubs, she glued together lures in the “Storm Plastics” fishing lure plant, or sold Tupperware, or sewed dresses for the girls — the accomplishments, and the state fair ribbons, go on and on.

Just in the last few years, her pickles and angel food cake have won top ribbons, too.

Merritt was amazed when a blue floral dress, the first garment she entered in competition, actually won a blue ribbon at the Oklahoma State Fair.

“She made the most gorgeous dresses.

“She’d stay up all night working on a dress so that I would have something new to wear the next day,” said daughter, Phyllis White.

“She would make me a dress in the morning,” said daughter, Donna Wallace, “and I’d wear it out on a date that Saturday night.”

Kay Merritt recalled that in 1959, prodded by the independent streak nurtured by the girls’ mother, she traveled to New York and visited the set of “The Price is Right.”

Somebody tipped her off that smiling, excited visitors might get selected to return to the show as a contestant.

She “smiled and smiled and smiled.” Sure enough, her smile — or her green-checked dress made by her mother — or both — won her a spot on the show.

She still holds that dress and others sewn by her mother as closely as the memories they represent. She plans to display many — still in perfect condition — during Luegene Merritt’s 100th birthday celebration.

If partygoers beg Merritt for the key to a long, happy life, she’ll likely keep it short and sassy.

“I just do the best I can. I’m just trying to do what’s right,” she said. “And looking forward to the future.”