Chattanooga's "Miss Halie" Forstner celebrates 107th birthday in style
David Carroll: I’m tempted to say Miss Halie is no ordinary 107-year-old, but how would I know? She’s the first one I ever met.
David Carroll: I’m tempted to say Miss Halie is no ordinary 107-year-old, but how would I know? She’s the first one I ever met. She’s not what I expected. For one thing, we actually met 27 years ago when I was doing a live broadcast in downtown Chattanooga. Of course, I barely recall being there, but she remembers every detail, down to my bad jokes.
She told me then, and now, that we might be distant relatives since we are both from Sand Mountain. She grew up on the Georgia side, near what later became the Big Sandy golf course. Her parents were Garrett and Minnie Gass, and it is evident they insisted she get a good education. She is well-read and chooses her words carefully. There is a lively spark in her eyes, especially when she entertains visitors with her quick wit.
Some examples: “I’m old-fashioned. I find that very convenient at times.” Also, “I don’t have any children. They say that’s why I’ve lived so long!” And, “I’m not afraid of dying. It’s the getting there that’s kind of scary.”
Married for 52 years to Charles Forstner, Miss Halie has been on her own since his death in 1990, and she remains fiercely independent. Each Friday, she gets her hair done (“I like the big hair dryers. I told you I was old-fashioned,” she laughs). A woman of strong faith, she is thankful her church, Lookout Valley Presbyterian, is just a short hop away. Oh, and there’s Wendy’s: “People know I love Wendy’s, so they give me gift cards, and I get the 99-cent bacon cheeseburger.” There may be hope for all of us burger lovers.
Her memory is razor-sharp. Born in 1911, she was around to see remnants of the Civil War. “The emotions were still raw when I was growing up,” she said. She remembers the horse-drawn trips up Sand Mountain on heavily rutted dirt roads. “Our old horse would make it halfway up, to what we called Red Hill, which was just red clay. After a rain, it was so slippery, and that horse would spin around sideways!”
Her family moved to Chattanooga in 1920, where she attended Lookout Jr. High, and then Chattanooga High School on 3rd Street. She is surely the oldest living graduate, from the Class of 1930. “My biggest regret is not being able to go to college,” she says, “but I was a victim of the Great Depression. We just couldn’t afford it.”
One of her first jobs was at TVA, shortly after it was created. “I will always be thankful for TVA,” she said. “It saved the south, creating so many jobs, and providing power. Before TVA, we used a lot of coal oil just to have light and stay warm.”
Later she worked at Loveman’s department store (“Luther Masingill would come in a lot because he had a girlfriend who worked there. It was before he got married,” she laughed.)
Another longtime employer was Chattanooga Medicine Company (now Chattem), where she saw the second computer in the city (Combustion Engineering had the first, she says). “It was as big as two rooms in my house, and now they have computers you can put in your pocket!” However, she doesn’t own a computer, nor does she Facebook or Tweet. “I don’t have time for that,” she says. “I see people doing 5 or 6 things at a time, and that’s too much. The human brain wasn’t made for that!”
She regularly hears this: “You’re how old? 107? That’s impossible, you don’t look a day over 79! It blows their mind.” She takes it in stride. “I’ve been blessed. I broke my hip when I was 95, but that wasn’t the worst thing. When I was 102, I had a twisted intestine, and the doctor came in and told me that surgery was the only hope. He seemed surprised when I said, Well, what are we waiting on? I survived the anesthesia and surgery, and he told me I was a miracle.”
Five years later, she’s glad she took that chance. She has no close relatives but counts her church as family. Pastor Grady Davidson “might as well be my grandson,” she says. She exercises each morning, cleans her house and watches the news.
On her 105th birthday, friends drove her to the State Capitol in Nashville, where Sen. Todd Gardenhire and fellow legislators honored her, and Gov. Bill Haslam came by for a chat. “How about that?” she said. “Me, talking to the governor. Not bad for a little girl from Sand Mountain.”