Neva Morris died April 6, 2010 at age 114 years and 246 days.
Imagine the thrill of qualifying for placement on one of the world’s most exclusive lists of achievers – one that includes only 78 people globally. Before she died April 6, Neva Morris of Ames, was a Supercentenarian, and the only one in Iowa. The Gerontology Research Group (GRG) came up with this term to mean anyone validated to be 110 years old or older. Before her death, Neva was listed as the 2nd oldest person on Wikipedia's list of living supercentenarians. In first place (as of March 2010) is a 114-year old woman from Japan. As expected, the list favors women over men, 75 to 3. Two years ago Mrs. Morris became the oldest Iowan following the death of Emma Carroll in Ottumwa. Ms. Carroll died July 10th, 2007 at age 112. Neva celebrated her 110th birthday four years ago at an open reception at Northcrest Community. On August 3rd, 2009, Neva observed her 114th birthday at the same venue, but in a more private celebration.
In response to the inevitable question, “To what do you owe your longevity?” – Neva invariably replies, “Nothing special.” However, her son-in-law, Tom Wickersham, observes, “It didn’t hurt that she worked hard all her life and ate hearty and healthy meals prepared from meat, dairy products and vegetables produced on the farm.” Walter Morris, Neva’s youngest son and sole surviving scion, thinks her passion for fast cars was a factor, as witnessed by her 80-year accident-free driving record.
Through much of her life Neva has been closely involved with farming. She is a member of PEO Chapter OH, a 60-year member of Collegiate United Methodist Church, and for 75 years was active in Eastern Star. She also enjoyed singing in women’s choral groups, including one in Gilbert and the Story County Women’s Chorus under the direction of Max Exner. Neva particularly loves to sing “You Are My Sunshine.”
Neva’s parents, Schuyler and Carebie Freed, farmed land located on the Slater road one-half mile south of new Highway 30. Her father was known for raising Durock Jersey hogs that won championships at the state fair and attracted buyers throughout the Midwest. Neva was the youngest of four children, all of whom attended a one-room country school through the eighth grade and then entered Ames High School.
Neva Freed married Edward Leonard Morris in 1914. The couple lived with Edward’s parents, Gertrude Rutherford and Walter Leonard Morris, on a farm encompassing 224 acres of land between 24th Street and Top-O-Hollow Road and west of Hoover Avenue. Edward graduated from Iowa State College in 1917 with a degree in engineering. Ed's uncles, Frank and Lynn, each operated a livery business in downtown Ames. Shortly after Ed graduated from ISC, Neva and Edward moved to Chicago where he took an engineering position with a building contractor. Edward also taught at Mooseheart Child City and School located 38 miles west of Chicago. This facility provided a home for children and teens in need and taught them skills for success in later life. Neva loved the city and considers it the best time in her life.
When Edward’s employer quit the contracting business in the mid-1920s the family moved back to Iowa. Working as an engineer with the Iowa Highway Commission, Edward and family moved around the state as he oversaw one construction project after another. During the Great Depression, they moved back to Ames and took over the Morris family farm, rented by “Sig” Olson after Walter’s death. Farming guaranteed a living and food on the table in those difficult years. Neva worked hard taking care of chickens, hogs and dairy cattle. Leslee, the oldest son, and his two sisters, Betty Lee and Mary Jane, delivered milk daily to the Iowa State College Dairy Industries Building driving an old black Chevy coup loaded with two 10-gallon milk cans in the trunk.
Eventually, Leslee took over farming both the Freed and Morris farms, allowing Edward to return to his engineering career at the City of Ames and Iowa Department of Transportation. Edward also oversaw the construction of the student center addition to Collegiate Methodist Church.
Neva is known for love of cars and her lengthy driving career. She continued driving her 1985 Mercury Grand Marquis until age 95. The ‘Merc’ was her favorite for two reasons: it was fast, and it had an extra long seatbelt installed on the driver’s side by Moffitts, the car dealership in Boone. Neva loved powerful cars, but did not always relish their required maintenance. She was known to have a “heavy foot” and once asked if the new 55-speed limit applied to “everyone.” She took particular delight in breezing down to Des Moines on shopping trips with her two daughters. One day, however, the trip was cut short when the engine in her Pontiac burned up for lack of oil.
After Edward’s death, Neva continued to live in the two-story farm home designed by Edward and built by Phil Coy and Sons in 1939. Many Ames residents will recall the Morris homestead at 2519 Hoover where Neva lived for over 55 years. The deep lot features an expansive lawn sloping up to the west and highlighting the stately white house.
The Morris home will long be remembered as being among the first in Ames to display outdoor, lighted Christmas decorations. In the 1940s, Ames residents could go “north of town” to admire one of the area’s earliest outdoor lighted Christmas holiday displays, found at the Edward and Neva Morris farmstead. Today, this house is within the city limits, located five houses north of Twenty-fourth Street on the west side of Hoover. The outdoor decorating tradition began about 1939 or 1940 when artistic daughter, Betty Lee, cut out a sleigh and reindeer from an old refrigerator carton and mounted it on the housetop. The following year and thereafter a more permanent plywood display graced the peak. Hundreds of people drove along Hoover Avenue to view the novelty.
Neva Morris stands with her husband, Edward, in front of their rural home north of Ames (now 2519 Hoover). This home replaced the old farmhouse that was earlier lost to a fire in the late 1930s. On March 8, 2010, Ames resident Neva Morris was declared the oldest person in the nation as well as the second oldest person in the world. On December 22, 2009 she had broken the record for living longer than any other Iowa native in the state's history.
In later years, Neva could be found enjoying the warmth of Florida during the winter months. At age 99 ½ she moved from her beloved farm home to North Grand Care Center and later to Northcrest Community. Although facing hearing and vision challenges, Neva enjoyed visiting with her close relatives and spending time with her eight grandchildren, 19 great grandchildren, and several great-great-grandchildren. We miss you, Neva!
By Jason Bultje, CNA, read at Neva's memorial service
My first memory of Neva came from the first time she needed my help getting into a chair. I had just been hired by Northcrest and was trying to get to know all of the residents. Neva was famous. The legend of her age was the first thing I heard about after walking into the healthcare center and her sense of humor the second. While helping her to her chair, I decided to see if I could get a taste of it. I asked if she knew any jokes. She immediately said no and seemed to ignore me. Disappointed, I helped her into the chair and she immediately started howling in pain. She grabbed her thigh, claiming I had broken her leg, asking what I had done wrong. I panicked. It was my second day and I had broken a 112 year old woman! Horrified, I got down on my knees and inspected her leg, looking for what could have happened.
That's when I realized she was no longer screaming in pain, but laughing. A lot. Nearly hyperventilating, sweating, I grabbed her hand and said, "What???" She smiled, squeezed my hand and said, "That's my joke!" I about died. She kept chuckling.
I've worked for Northcrest for about 3 years. Neva was over 114. Doing the math, this means I've known her for roughly 2% of her life. That's not a whole lot. Many of you here have known her longer and better than I, a fact that makes me quite envious. But to me, that was a part of Neva's gift. She could make you feel special. She'd always ask how you were doing. She would sing to you. Encourage you to call your mother. She'd hold your hand and tell you not to go, or at least promise to come back, and always, always to be careful. All you had to do was crouch down and take the time to say hello. Without a doubt she could be feisty...but sometimes that was half the fun. I could only ever stare with wonder at how such a big personality could fit into such a little body. After hearing of her passing, most of us were relieved. She often spoke longingly of those loved ones who went before her. As of Tuesday morning, the good Lord has his hands full. In the end, the rest of us are happy being left to cherish our 2%.
Neva lived an incredibly long time, experiencing life in three centuries and outliving three of her four children. She represented the quintessential Iowa woman of her era – growing up on a farm, attending one-room country school, working hard, raising a fine family, and contributing to her community. In the end, she became the talk of the town. Whether they personally knew her or not, visitors to Neva’s Northcrest Community residence would always ask staff, “And how is Neva doing today?” Ames remains extremely proud of her national longevity record, especially since she was one of our own native daughters. We join her family in mourning the passing of this impressive woman.