Hester McCardell Ford, believed to be the oldest living person in the United States and among the oldest human beings on the planet, died peacefully at her home in Charlotte on Saturday, according to her family. She was at least 115, but possibly as old as 116.
She lived more than twice as long as her late husband — John Ford, who died at age 57 in 1963 — and was the matriarch of an enormous family: 68 grandchildren, 125 great-grandchildren, and at least 120 great-great-grandchildren.
“She was a pillar and stalwart to our family and provided much needed love, support and understanding to us all,” said her great-granddaughter, Tanisha Patterson-Powe, in a statement emailed to the Observer on Saturday evening. “She was the seed that sprouted leaves and branches which is now our family. God saw fit to make her the matriarch of your family and blessed us to be her caretakers and recipients of her legacy.”
Ford was born on a farm in Lancaster County, S.C., where she grew up plowing and picking cotton. She was married at 14 to John Ford, and gave birth to the first of the couple’s 12 children at age 15. Hester took care of the house, farm and the children while John worked at a local steel mill.
The couple eventually sold the farm and moved to Charlotte, building a house near the intersection of Interstates 77 and 85 around 1960.
After her husband died three years later, for the next half-century — up until she was 108 — Ford continued to live in that same house in the Dalebrook neighborhood on her own (that’s right, without live-in assistance). It was only after she fell in the bathtub and bruised her ribs that family members insisted someone move in with her.
In a testament to her durability, that was the first time in her life Ford had ever needed to be hospitalized for any reason.
For the past several years, she had family members living in the home with her and helping to care for her.
In recent years, Ford’s birthday had been known to draw a crowd.
In 2019, for example, QCity Metro reported that it was celebrated during an event hosted by Cooking Matters in Your Community, a nonprofit that educates families about healthy eating. She received a proclamation from Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles recognizing Aug. 15 as Hester McCardell Ford Day.
“Her light shined beyond her local area and she lived beyond a century with memories containing real life experience of over 100 years,” Patterson-Powe said in her statement. “She not only represented the advancement of our family but of the Black African American race and culture in our country. She was a reminder of how far we have come as people on this earth.”
Last Aug. 15, the Charlotte great-great grandmother celebrated her birthday during a global pandemic — the second of her lifetime. She also lived through the influenza pandemic in 1918, when she was either 13 ... or 14.
According to her family, U.S. Census Bureau documents indicate she was born in 1905, but then another set of Census Bureau documents say she was born in 1904. Either way — whether Ford was 115 or 116 — before her death she was the oldest person on record living in the United States, based on data compiled by the Gerontology Research Group.
Depending on whose information was the most accurate, she was either the sixth-oldest or the third-oldest person in the world.
Ford became the oldest living American last November, when North Carolina native Alelia Murphy died in New York at 114 years and 140 days old. (The oldest living human is Kane Tanaka of Japan. He turned 118 on Jan. 2.)
When asked during a phone interview with the Observer last summer what the secret to her longevity was, Ford replied quickly and confidently: “I just live right, all I know.”
Also on that call, her granddaughter Mary Hill outlined a typical day in the life of Hester Ford as a 115- (or possibly 116-) year-old woman:
“After we get ourselves together personally and get up and sing, we come into the kitchen and she has breakfast.
“Granny loves grits, and she loves pancakes. But sometimes she has waffles, pancakes or grits or oatmeal, and then she has sausage or bacon, with either a scrambled or boiled egg and a piece of toast. And then half a banana. She’s been eating bananas all my life, and I’m 62.
“After breakfast, we take her outside for (fresh air) — weather permitting. Then she has certain little games she likes, like the Go Fish game, where she has to catch the fish and pull it out. She has an Etch-a-Sketch where she writes her name. And we sing, we do puzzles together, we look at the family album. And the best thing she loves to do is get in her recliner and watch her family on (home videos) and watch and listen to gospel singing.
“We also try to keep her pretty active. We do little exercises in her chair, and she gets up and she can walk a little bit from her chair to the hallway. When she gets tired, she’ll say, ‘Mary, I’m tired now.’ So we have the wheelchair right behind her. And she’ll sit in the wheelchair and we’ll take her on to wherever she wants to go.
“I’m just so grateful. Just so grateful.”
Patterson-Powe said planning of funeral arrangements for her great-grandmother is underway and will be announced at a later date.