Busy 108-year-old ‘an inspiration to us all’

Photos by Brittney Lohmiller/The Herald
Mary Kay Aylsworth of Indianapolis, left, chats with her 108-year-old mother, Helen Alysworth, at Springs Valley Meadows in French Lick on Wednesday. Helen celebrated her 108 birthday on Jan. 6. "I never thought I'd be that old," Helen said. 

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

FRENCH LICK — When Helen (Dickhaut) Aylsworth was born, the Titanic had yet to sail, both world wars had yet to be fought and Amelia Earhart had yet to disappear during her attempt to fly around the globe.

Helen was born in Posey County on Jan. 6, 1911, and recently celebrated her 108th birthday at Springs Valley Meadows retirement home in French Lick. She is just six years younger than the undisputed oldest living American — Alelia Murphy of New York — and seven years younger than the undisputed oldest living person in the world, Kane Tanaka of Japan.

“I never thought I’d be that old,” Helen said.

Although dementia has taken a toll on Helen in the past two years, she remains in good health — the only pill she takes is a multivitamin — and active, attending every activity Springs Valley Meadows offers. Her daughter, Mary Kay Aylsworth, and her grandson, Luke Aylsworth, say her busy lifestyle now is exactly how she’s always been.

After graduating high school in the late 1920s, Helen attended college, earning a degree in education from Indiana State University, which was unusual for women at that time.

“She just went her own way and did her own thing and loved it the whole way,” Mary Kay said.

After graduation, she returned to Posey County to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. In the mornings, Mary Kay said, Helen’s father would go down to the school house and get the fire started. Then, a little while later, Helen would ride her horse to the school to get ready for the day.

Helen was teaching in that one-room school when she married fellow teacher Gilbert Aylsworth, who she met on a double date. The two married in 1934 and moved to Hazard, Kentucky, where Gilbert had a teaching contract. While Gilbert taught band in Hazard, Helen taught elementary music and piano lessons.

Four years later, French Lick’s schools offered Gilbert a job founding a band program. In 1938, the couple headed back to Indiana, picking up instruments along the way that Gilbert fixed up to later rent to the students. When they arrived, Helen and Gilbert moved into the home Helen would live in until she was 105.

Helen Alysworth of French Lick, left, hits a balloon back and forth with First Chance Center worker Donna Bledsoe at Springs Valley Meadows on Wednesday. Before retiring Helen worked as a teacher and had Bledsoe as a student in the eighth grade. Helen celebrated her 108th birthday on Jan. 6.

From the moment the Aylsworths arrived in French Lick, music was key to their lives. Gilbert founded the band program, and Helen taught music and piano lessons at Orleans and West Baden. She also helped Gilbert with the band. When French Lick and West Baden schools consolidated into Springs Valley, Helen remained on the staff, finally retiring in 1994.

The couple had two kids: Mary Kay of Indianapolis and the late John Aylsworth. John would go on to take over directing the band his father founded in 1969. The band is now at Springs Valley High School and directed by John’s son, Luke Aylsworth.

“It’s really kind of neat,” Luke said of directing the band his grandfather founded. “Growing up, it was normal to have music all over our lives and to hear conversations about how things were.”

Some of Luke’s students have parents and grandparents who played under John’s or Gilbert’s direction.

Although she never directed the band, Helen volunteered a lot of time to the program. An avid seamstress, Helen put those skills to use for the band, making 100 pairs of pants for the students one year and 100 flags for the band another year.

When she retired from teaching, she continued to volunteer with the band program, regularly spending eight hours a day at the school. Luke and Mary Kay figure that’s part of what kept her from feeling her age.

“I really think it has to be that sense of worth ethic,” Luke said. “She just never let herself really be retired.”

Helen Alysworth of French Lick celebrated her 108th birthday on Jan. 6. at Springs Valley Meadows in French Lick. Helen learned to paint when she was 70 years old and her room at Springs Valley Meadow is decorated with her paintings.

Perhaps more important to Helen than her involvement with the Springs Valley band was her desire to give back. She was very involved with Springs Valley First United Methodist Church, and often made dolls for foster kids, bed rolls for the homeless that she shipped to larger cities with her own money, and baby blankets for local kids in need. At one point, she won a statewide service award from the United Methodist Church, and she was a torch bearer for Indiana’s bicentennial in 2016.

Hearing her resume of service projects now, Helen says, “I don’t remember doing that.”

But Mary Kay assures her that she did.

“You did a lot of things Mom,” Mary Kay told her. “You were sort of an inspiration to us all.”

Although Helen says she never expected to live so long, longevity runs in her family. Her mother lived to be 103, and her sister, Florence, lived to be 110.

When asked how long she wants to live, Helen just smiled and said, “As long as I can.”




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