Age to Age: Celebrating Gwen Long’s 100th Birthday

Gwen and George Long

Psalm 71 NRSV

Psalm 71 is a beautiful declaration of an individual’s trust and hope in the faithfulness of God through every stage of their life: birth (v. 6), youth (vv. 5, 17), and old age (vv. 9, 18). Throughout any long life filled with many ups and downs, the Psalmist wants people to know that God can be trusted.

Most scholars believe that Psalm 71 is the declaration of a person in the latter stage of life who is uniquely capable of reflecting on all of life’s stages. Some suggest it could belong to an older David written shortly after Absalom’s revolt, but most believe it was an older member of the Rechabite community that was living in exile. Verse 21 suggests that it could have been a leader of that community offering hope to others during exile.

What a God-given coincidence that one of our lectionary readings for this day is this beautiful Psalm. Because on this day, we celebrate that this community called First Christian Church in Fort Smith has such a leader—someone who comes to us today on her 100thbirthday to offer all of us much hope.

Gwen was born on August 25, 1919 in Antlers, Oklahoma to Hugh and Lillie Vaughn.

Born ten years before the Great Depression, Gwen is probably the only person who is here today who rode a horse to grade school.

Gwen’s childhood was a rather unsettled time as the family lived in various places in Texas and Oklahoma as Gwen’s father would find different work in the new oil industry.

When Gwen graduated from the 8thgrade, her dad said that he could help get her an apartment as she continued her education, but she would need to find work to pay for room and board, which was not an easy thing to in that time.

At first, Gwen got a temporary job helping a woman in Camargo, Oklahoma who was pregnant. Then, she got another temporary job helping a Catholic woman who had several children. This was before Gwen was baptized into the Christian Church, so she recounts: “She must not have been a very good Catholic, because if she was, I suppose I would be a Catholic today.”

During her sophomore year, Gwen worked in a cafe south of Woodward, Oklahoma. But Gwen said that was a difficult experience, because the woman she worked for was an alcoholic and she “didn’t much care for that.”

Frustrated with her job in the cafe, as she was walking home one day, she happened upon a couple sitting in their front yard. They owned a mercantile store in Vici, Oklahoma. When they found out that Gwen was looking for a job, they said to Gwen: “Young lady, we have been praying for God to send us a daughter!”

The couple were leaders in the Christian Church. Gwen not only started working in their store, but she started attending their church, and at the age of 16, Gwen was baptized. Although she could not see it then, looking back she says she knows that it was God’s providential presence led her to that couple. For this is when life took a very promising turn for Gwen.

She soon met a young man who was working at a full-service filling station named Oliver Wendell Beck. After a courtship, the couple was married in 1937. World War II had just started when their son Kenneth was born on January 2, 1940 in Seiling, Oklahoma.

At this time, a new Air Corps Basic Flying School was being constructed in Enid, Oklahoma where Wendell landed a good job. However, not long after the young family moved to Enid, while Wendell was helping to unload gravel from a box car with a piece of heavy equipment, he was accidentally and tragically crushed to death.

Gwen remembers “There I was a widow and a single mother of a two year-old after four short years of marriage. She adds: “I was only 22 and had no sense. There is no way I could have endured that period in my life without God. I know God was with me.”

Gwen miraculously had the determination, the wherewithal and the strength to move back to Vici where she found childcare for Kenneth, worked hard and finished High School graduating as the Valedictorian of her class.

One day, a man from Oklahoma City was driving by the school looking for a secretary. The man saw Gwen and asked her to get in his car so he could dictate a letter for her. When Gwen finished writing the letter, the man read it and hired her on the spot. She then moved to Oklahoma City where she was able buy a house for her and little Kenny

Gwen soon learned of a grand opportunity at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Midwest City. This is where Gwen would become a real-life Rosie the Riveter. Their spirit of “We Can Do It” inspired not only their contemporaries but each subsequent generation of working women in all fields of employment.

More than ten-thousand Oklahoma women worked at the Douglas Aircraft Company and Tinker Field during the Second World War.

And Gwen adds that as a riveter, she made “barrels of money.”

During this period, Gwen received word that one of her good friends who in was living in California went through a painful divorce. Gwen, who had not that long ago lost her husband empathized with her friend’s loss like few others could. To help her distraught friend, she sold her car, and boarded a train with little Kenny and headed west where another riveting job awaited her in California.

Looking back, she knows without a doubt that the presence of God was with her and Kenny on that train.

After comforting her friend in her grief, and perhaps having been comforted herself in her own grief, yet another sign of God’s providential care, Gwen transferred back to the Douglas Plant in Midwest City. When the war was over, she got a job in the cosmetic department at Haliburton in Oklahoma City. It was then that her friend from California moved back to become a beauty operator at Haliburton. Soon after moving back, her friend met a soldier who had just returned from overseas, and the two of them married.

What does this have to do with Gwen?

Well, one of her friend’s customers had a brother who had also just returned from serving overseas in France and Italy. And obviously feeling grateful to Gwen for giving her hope after her divorce in California, she set up a blind date up for Gwen to meet this soldier. His name was George Long.

Gwen said that she was single 9 years after losing Wendell, because she never met anyone she wanted to marry, someone who would be a good daddy to Kenny. She says she supposes Kenny made her picky. George, however, fit the bill. George was college-educated, smart, handsome, an Army Major and a good father.

After marrying, George and Gwen raised Kenny and two had two girls Carolyn and Kathleen.

Gwen remembers that period of her life between marriages vividly. She said most of the time she really didn’t know what she was doing. Moving to Oklahoma City as a secretary and then taking the job at the Douglas plant and then going all the way out to California and then back to Oklahoma. She says, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did it.” But looking back, “I know it was God leading me, helping me. I know it was God’s presence.”

George and Gwen had a wonderful life together. Kathleen and Carolyn were both able to go to college, something Gwen was never able to do. And fortunate for First Christian Church, George transferred to Fort Smith as an engineer with OG&E. They joined our church after attending the first service here in this sanctuary. Here, George worked tirelessly on our Property Committee. Gwen sewed the drapes for the baptistery and made the cover for our piano. They both devoted their lives to this church.

During George’s retirement, they had the wonderful opportunity to spend 20 years traveling in RV’s across the country.

After many wonderful years, tragedy struck Gwen’s life once more as her son Kenny was diagnosed with brain cancer. After a 2-3 year-long courageous battle, on September 4, 2006, Kenny died. He was only 66 years old. Your children are supposed to bury you; you are not supposed to bury your children. And to compound the tragedy for Gwen, just three short months later on November 28, George, her beloved husband of 58 years, passed away.

Gwen said that losing her son and husband so close together was devastating, but she knows God was there, and it was God who got her through it.

Life after George has not been easy for Gwen. Although Gwen said George left her well taken care of, she says the only trips that she has been able to take since she turned 90 are trips to the doctor. She says she used to go anywhere she wanted to go, but now, living at Brookdale Assisted Living, “she only goes down to eat at 8, 12, and 5.”

She says she doesn’t know what she would do without Carolyn and Kathleen and calls them both gifts from God. “God has been so good to me, my whole life long,” she says.

And today, on her 100thbirthday, her very presence with us is a declaration of God’s faithfulness that offers us so much hope, hope that only someone who has experienced God’s protection and deliverance throughout a life-time can give us.

Her sense of humor, her smile, her laugh, her honesty (which sometimes can be brutal), the way she is still so very much engaged in the life of this community fills us with so much hope.

She gives us hope that although we experience many hardships in life (death, divorce, disease, in a thousand different ways we experience them), those hardships are never lasting. However, the faithfulness of God is lasting, from age to age.

Like the Psalmist, perhaps the eldest leader of the Rechabite Community, Gwen, our eldest leader gives all of us hope, for…
1 In God, Gwen has taken refuge;
and she has never been put to shame.
2 In God’s righteousness God has delivered Gwen, rescued Gwen; inclined God’s ear to Gwen and is to Gwen a rock of refuge, a strong fortress.

5 For the Lord is her hope,
her trust, from her youth.
6 Upon God she has leaned from her birth;

And today, she praises God continually.
8 Her mouth is filled with God’s praise,
and glory all day long.
9 The Lord will never cast her off in the time of old age;
or ever forsake her when her strength is spent.
12 God has never and will never be far from her.
God will always make haste to help her!
14 Thus, she hopes continually,
and will praise God yet more and more.
15 Her mouth will tell of God’s righteous acts,
of God’s deeds of salvation all day long,
though their number is past her knowledge.

17 From her youth God has taught Gwen,
and she still proclaims God’s wondrous deeds.
18 So even to old age and grey hairs,
God will not forsake her, and today on her 100thbirthday, she comes into to the house of God to proclaim God’s might
to all the generations to come.

20 The Lord has revived her from many troubles and calamities
and she knows that
even from the depths of the earth
God will bring her up again.

And the good news is that God’s faithfulness that Gwen has experienced throughout her life is for all people. As Gwen has trusted in God’s faithfulness, so can we. The good news is that Gwen’s story of trusting in God’s providential care from age to age is not the only story in this room.

So today, as a community of faith, we join hands with Gwen to praise God. Our lips shout for joy. For, with Gwen, our souls have also been rescued!

Thanks be to God!

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