Halie Forstner has lived through 19 presidents and two World Wars.
She drove until two years ago when friends asked her to stop.
She loves the 99-cent bacon cheeseburger at Wendy’s and eats it with fries every Sunday.
She lives on her own in Lookout Valley.
She’s 109 years old.
She was born in March, but the pandemic prevented a celebration at the time. On Friday, a belated birthday party was held, complete with a four-foot-tall, two-tiered (and fake) birthday cake with “109” spelled out in balloons on top and a tiara that said “Birthday Girl” for her to wear.
At the party, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Chancellor Steve Angle presented her with a certificate declaring her an honorary Moc. Michael Thompson, head of the UTC History Department, also gave her a certificate pronouncing her as honorary president of the History Club and honorary chair of the History Student Advisory Board.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Forstner said, speaking from behind her face mask, hands steepled in front of it. “I can’t hug you, but I do thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Born in 1911 on the Georgia side of Sand Mountain, she graduated in 1930 from Chattanooga High School on Third Street, the building now housing Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. She enrolled in the University of Chattanooga—now UTC—and attended for a short time, but the Great Depression hit and the money just wasn’t there.
“My biggest regret is not being able to go to college,” she has said. “We just couldn’t afford it.”
In his remarks, Angle mentioned her disappointment about college, but described her as a “lifelong learner.”
“Your grace and perseverance are an inspiration to all of us. We’ve heard the stories of your life and your passion for learning and we know circumstances did not permit you to finish,” he said. “We all hope we can be as active and sharp at 109 as you are.”
Longtime friend Linda Moss Mines says she and Forstner — “Miss Halie” to pretty much everyone, although she says “Call me Halie.” — usually sit together in church. But Mines was a bit late last Sunday.
“I got there and she said, ‘Moving kinda slow this morning, aren’t you?’ ” said Mines, historian for Hamilton County and Chattanooga.
Forstner lost family members in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. She remembers the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919, which gave women the right to vote. Both of her grandfathers fought in the Civil War. But the fact that she made it to 109 never crosses her mind, she said.
“I know it’s true, but as far as feeling 109 years old? No. Even with the aches and pains — and I do have a lot of things wrong — but 109? That’s a period of time,” she says with a laugh.
She was married for 52 years to Charles Forstner, who died in 1990. They had no children, and she has lived on her own since. She is now in a house across the street from her church, Lookout Valley Presbyterian.
She worked at Loveman’s department store and Chattanooga Medicine Co., which now is Chattem, but stayed the longest at TVA, hired soon after it was created in 1933. Her first job, she recalled, was boxing up candy at a little store in Chattanooga during the Christmas holidays.
Her ability to recall details from the early 20th century doesn’t surprise her friends. Nor is her refusal to let her age define her.
“She’s got a mind like a steel trap,” said Jim Bailiff, who has been her neighbor for 16 years.
A few days ago he took dinner to her and “she was ironing in the kitchen,” he said, making the movement of pushing an iron back and forth.
David Carroll, anchor and reporter at WRCB-TV/Channel 3, met Forstner four years ago when he interviewed her for a story. They’ve been friends since.
“She’s delightfully opinionated, well-read, aware, spunky,” he says. “Everything you would expect a 109-year-old person to be, she is not.”
Dr. Thompson’s remarks appear below the video.
Dr. Thompson’s remarks:
Thank you Chancellor Angle, and many thanks to Mr. Carroll, our generous host Mr. and Mrs. Bailiff, and all those who have organized this wonderful event.
It truly is an honor to be here this morning and participate in this celebration of Miss Halie Forstner’s long and rich life.
My colleagues in UTC’s History Department teach courses ranging from the ancient world to present times, covering nearly the entire globe. Over the past 109 years Miss Forstner has borne witness to tremendous tragedies and triumphs, complexities and changes, progress and setbacks.
As many of us read and hear about the “unprecedented” times we are living through—whether it be due to political partisanship, economic crisis, movements for racial and social justice, or a global pandemic—Miss Halie surely hears the echoes of the past, recognizing that history doesn’t actually repeat itself, but that it sometime rhymes.
As a lifelong and avid reader, writer, learner, and teacher, Miss Forstner sets an example of us all. Given her love and appreciation for the study of the past, the faculty, staff, and students of UTC’s History Department are so proud to welcome this strong and resilient woman into our community.
In addition to honoring Miss Forstner as an Honorary Moc, UTC is thrilled to award Miss Halie with two distinguished titles in the History Department:
Honorary President of UTC’s History Club
Honorary Chair of the History Department’s Student Advisory Board