Your Neighbor — Bright star: Etta Idol has lived life to the fullest

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 4, 2018

For anyone trying to describe Etta Idol, these words may come to mind: resilient, upbeat, and up for anything. That perspective seems to be her magic recipe for longevity and a life lived with great zest. Where did her positive outlook and gusto for life start?

Etta grew up on a farm in Wilkesboro. At the age of three, she went to live with her aunt and uncle on their farm. “My aunt and uncle had lost one baby. I was impossibly sick and my parents had just had a new baby,” says Etta. “But I was like their only child. They took me in.” Etta says she loved being raised by her aunt and uncle. With a sparkle in her eye and a smile that reflects a well-spent childhood, she nearly whispers, “They spoiled me. Why would I ever want to leave?”

Even today, the big white farm house in which she grew up in Wilkesboro looks elegant enough to be part of the Vanderbilt estate. The backyard showcases a view of mountains, one after another. Acres of land hold cows and other wildlife. Growing up, Etta had a horse named Pearl, a cow, and a special sheep she named Big Boy. The sheep was the reward she earned after winning the school spelling bee. “I still remember the word — warrior. But I don’t believe I could spell it now,” Etta says with a belly laugh. Of course, she gives it a try. Etta spells it perfectly.

Her bucolic life on the farm is enviable still today, especially in juxtaposition of the busy, tech-filled days we have now. “On a Saturday morning, Etta’s uncle would heat up coffee and chocolate. Her aunt would make cookies and fry some chicken. “Off to Blowing Rock we would go. If there was a youngster to invite, my uncle would always invite them to go along. They were very gracious people to me, but not just to me.” Etta’s uncle was also on the board of education. She recalls him hopping in the Ford Model A to go to board meetings. “It was black,” she recalls.

While there were not a lot of women who attended college then, Etta’s aunt and uncle appreciated the importance of education and wanted Etta to go. She attended the University of North Carolina Greensboro for two years and then went off to Appalachian University. Etta decided to attain her master’s in chemistry at Appalachian. Not only did she get an education, Etta also found a beau. His name was John.

When John was drafted to fight in World War II, Etta wrote him letters every day. When he came back, the two were married. Two years later, they had their first baby, whom they also named John. Seven years later, a daughter came along, Sharon. “I was very fortunate I had my uncle and aunt. They had no children except mine and me. They kept my children for me while I taught.” Etta taught high school chemistry. Etta’s husband John also taught and eventually became assistant superintendent of the county. He went on to help open up the community college as well, and Etta wrote the charter.

As Etta’s children grew up and got married, they were ready to have children of their own. Her daughter Sharon was overseas when she and her husband started their family. When it came time for Etta’s first grandson to arrive, it seems he was in no hurry to make his debut into the world. Etta decided to write her unborn grandchild a note. “I said, ‘This is Granda talking. We would like for you to hurry up and come because your parents want to come home to the States.’ Ever since then, I have been Granda to anyone who wants to call me that.”

Once Etta became a grandmother, she could be found tumbling at gymnastics class with her grandchildren, or picking rhubarb, okra and tomatoes, among other fruits and vegetables in her prodigious garden. When great grandchildren came around, Etta would go with Sharon to help take care of the kids. She would dress up in fancy hats for tea parties and dance at music class. Not one to slow down, Etta has traveled to Australia, ridden camels, and celebrated her 90th birthday by running a 5k in Florida.

Like many of us, she has had her share of setbacks. She has fought off illnesses such as pneumonia and survived falls that resulted in a broken hip. None of these events seem to waylay her for long. Perhaps it is her attitude that lifts her back up. Upon reflection, she says, “Life is a fight. Life is a struggle and when we see these struggles, we do the best to overcome them.” Then Etta sits up a little with a grin and gleam in her eye and teases, “You know I am making this up.” She laughs and sits back. “No, it’s true. How many times have I fallen and struggled with walking — well it’s not wonderful — but it’s just good. I could complain, but why?”

If Etta ever had any doubt about how incredible she is or the impact of her charismatic can-do attitude on others, she can just delve into one of the boxes sitting next to the chair she likes to rest in. The boxes are filled with letters from old students wishing her well. Former students have written phrases like, “To the best teacher ever! Thank you for being a constant inspiration to us all.” And, “I often think of my days at West Wilkes. I always see your smiling face. Your love and devotion to us students, really, really made a difference.”

Thank goodness Etta’s aunt and uncle had the foresight and kindness to take in that sickly little three-year-old girl. She has been a bright star to all who have known her and benefited from her shining example. Whether the people in her life have known her as Etta, Mrs. Idol, or Granda, the diminutive person who stands before them stands tall in their hearts and minds.