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Milestones: From zero to 60 in 100 years

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Mary Virginia Shumpert already has her birthday present, even though she won’t turn 100 until Sunday.

A white Mercedes Benz E 350 convertible is sitting in her driveway at Heritage Plantation. It’s not the Corvette she really wanted, but driving again with the top down makes Shumpert feel good, according to her daughter, Suzanne Harris.

Shumpert sold her 1961 Corvette convertible 15 years ago to Mark Ashmore, the owner of a trucking company near Greer, and bought a Buick sedan. Though Ashmore still drives the Corvette to the beach to visit, she’s missed having the wind in her hair as she rolls down the road. “That’s what I’ve been hearing for 15 years, every time we’d see a convertible,” Harris said. “She carries pictures around with her and tells everybody, ‘That’s what I used to look like and this is the car I used to have. My daughter made me sell it.’ If you know my mama, you know I didn’t make her do anything.”

Harris decided she’d get her mother another convertible for her 100th birthday. They compromised in order to get a back seat with the Mercedes, and her mother gave Harris the 20-year-old Buick to drive. Harris doesn’t drive the convertible unless her mother is along. “It never leaves the driveway without her,” she said.

Mother and daughter will take the convertible to Precious Blood of Christ Parish Life Center Sunday at 2:30 p.m. for her birthday party. It won’t be as fancy as last year’s 99th birthday party at Brookgreen Gardens, more of a “church social,” said Harris. After the party, the two women plan on driving to Nashville, Tenn., to visit relatives. Their only challenge so far has been packing light enough to accommodate the car’s small trunk.

With her license renewed for another five years, Shumpert can drive anywhere she wants without restrictions. The car’s audio system is loaded with music from Russ Morgan’s Band, the group she and her late husband, J.C., followed years ago. “We ride around with the top down with the music blaring,” Harris said. “She didn’t feel good the other day, and I said put some lipstick on, and let’s go for a ride. She said riding in this car made her feel good. You know, it was worth every penny.”

Father Pat Stenson, priest at Precious Blood of Christ Catholic Church, will dedicate Sunday’s Mass to Shumpert. “She loves life,” Stenson said, “living it to the fullest. She won’t miss a function, enjoying herself and talking to people.”

Shumpert volunteers at Father Pat’s Lunch Kitchen, rolling silverware. “She’s involved in helping people and doing a lot of good,” Stenson said. “She’s still at it, doing great. She’s an amazing woman who’s seen a lot of life, in church every Sunday, hail, rain or snow. She’s done this all her life. The daughter gets it from the mother.”

Shumpert bought a restaurant, the Columbia Grill, in 1945 near the corner of Main and Hampton streets in Columbia. She opened on Armistice Day and gave away slices of bread to the revelers. She still bakes cakes — chocolate, coconut and caramel are favorites — to give away. She’s never smoked and her favorite foods are salads. She likes vodka at her cocktail hour at 5 p.m. She said her secret to reaching 100 is “staying away from doctors,” and she’s never been in the hospital. She doesn’t have any aches and pains.

Guests at Sunday’s party are being discouraged from bringing gifts. “I don’t like to write thank-you notes,” Shumpert said. With this year’s birthday plans coming together, the women are already thinking about a memorable 101st birthday: a road trip to Vegas. Mary Virginia and J.C. Shumpert would drive there five or six times a year and stay for weeks in order to catch the “Rat Pack” and all the shows, Harris said.

They’re inviting anybody who wants to join them. They can fly if they’re too old to drive.

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