By Bill Robinson
Grace Bowles raised a glass to her lips with a shaky hand, sipping some homemade iced tea before setting the glass gently down again on the table.
“I’m from a long-lived family,” she said. “It’s on my daddy’s side.”
On Sunday, Grace turned 94. She and the family of her daughter-in-law, Deenna Bowles, who lives in Richmond, celebrated by going to Lake Cumberland to fish, one of her favorite pastimes.
As she said, Grace is not the first in her family to reach such a lofty age. Several of her sisters, aunts and other relatives have lived long lives, including a cousin who lived to be 104.
“I don’t want to do that,” Grace said with a laugh. “Any time the Lord wants me I’m ready to go.”
One of eight children, Grace was raised in Lothair, now a part of Hazard. Her father, a merchant, owned and operated a grocery store with one of her brothers, Herman.
After spending two years at what is now Eastern Kentucky University, where she studied business, Grace decided to leave and work full-time at the store as well, it was 1939.
Just a couple of years later, when the U.S. entered into World War II, Grace found herself running the store with three other women.
“All the men were gone,” she said. “We ran the store like that for about two years.”
However, with war-time rationing and the stress of keeping her town supplied with limited resources, Grace became overwhelmed.
“My doctor told me to walk out of that store, or they were gonna carry me out.”
When Herman returned home on leave and saw the state his sister was in, he encouraged her to enlist in the armed forces.
“He said, ‘Grace, go join the service. It’ll be a vacation for you.’ And it was,” she said.
Grace joined the Navy as part of WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. She attended boot camp in New York state before being sent to the Navy’s largest inland supply depot located in Salt Lake City. There, she helped organize and supply ships with resources to operate overseas.
“We used to supply five ships and send them out, hoping one would make it, because so many of them got sunk,” she said.
Grace said the discipline and work was difficult, but compared to the work she had been struggling with at home, she was able to handle it well.
“For me it was a snap, because of what life had been like at home.”
During her time in the Navy, from 1944 to 1945, Grace married Fred Bowles, who had grown up her neighbor and was also serving in the military. When offered a military wedding the couple turned it down, opting instead to be married in a small Baptist church outside Salt Lake City.
For their wedding dinner they went to a local drug store, where each enjoyed a ham sandwich and a soda.
When the war ended, Grace and Fred moved back to Hazard, where they went back to work at the store Herman ran. The couple raised four children.
Grace is still a very independent woman. She likes to take fishing trips with her family. She also attends the Lothair Baptist Church where she still plays the piano.
Grace has a place at the Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. Her daughter-in-law’s family took her to visit the memorial a few years ago, and Grace said she enjoyed it, but was disappointed she couldn’t find anything about her friends from the service there.
Seth Littrell can be reached at slittrell