Family Larger than the Sum of their Years

The Bakersfield Californian
Tuesday, March 26, 2002
Section G, pages 1-2



by Herb Benham, Staff Columnist

They're remodeling on 19th Street. New light fixtures, throw rugs, wallpaper, pictures, lamps and sofas.

That's what caught my attention.

Made me happy.

Made me laugh.

Reminded me again that we have a choice to live our lives by the clock, the calendar or by our own internal compass.

Lots of people remodel, you say. What's the big deal? When an interior decorator friend told me that sisters Ruth Johnson and Reinette Sullivan were remodeling, I sort of nodded through the telephone until she told me that they were 81 and 84, respectively.

You know the ages. About the time when people look at their washing machine and figure it's going to go the distance. The same for the car, the stove and maybe even pets.

People don't remodel after 60, certainly not after 70. After 80, it's not done. The age police will not allow it.

The more I heard, the more I realized that the age police would have their hands full with this family. Ruth and Reinette are from a family of eight girls and two boys. The age span is 70 to 86.

Everybody is still here. Still alive.

Remodel? I'm surprised they're not building a house with their bare hands.

How do you live that long, feel that good and practically glow with optimism about the future? I found out how. You have to be a Poteete. The Poteetes from Bakersfield by way of Union County, Ga. You have to be of northern British extraction. Your parents have to to be William Lowery Poteete and his wife, Opla, who themselves lived to be 86 and 79.

It starts in Union County. Northern Georgia. Wouldn't you feel good if you were looking at this every day:

"On summer afternoons the distant hills were masked in a shimmering haze that gave the mountains their names," it reads on the family's Web site. "Great Smokey, Blue Ridge, Purple Mountains. No wonder our ancestors sought out this land in which to settle in on family farms and remain rooted to the land for generations."

Opla was one of 10 kids, William one of nine. They met and William would come across the river to court Opla on a big stallion.

They married in 1914, moved to Kerman, Calif., in 1917. William worked as a railroad watchman. After a transfer to Taft where the family lived in a converted boxcar, the Poteetes moved to Bakersfield in 1927. By this time, William was working for Standard Oil.

Bakersfield was where the Poteetes sunk their roots. Specifically, McCord Avenue, just north of the Kern River.

McCord is where good genes met healthy living and produced long lives.

The neighbors gasped when the Poteetes and their soon-to-be 10 kids moved to the four acres on McCord. The land, purchased for $2,500, had 20 giant cottonwood trees that William chopped down and replaced with walnut, almond, peach, plum, fig and apricot trees. You can't eat cotton fluff.

"There were two large Chinese umbrella trees along the emerald green alfalfa fields, in the summer, corn as high as 14 feet," recalls Monteen, the oldest of the Poteete children, now 86.

You'd live forever if you grew up eating fresh biscuits every morning for breakfast. Corn bread at night. Dry beans in the winter and green beans in the summer.

Organic unpasteurized milk, homemade butter and buttermilk from your own cows. Fresh bacon from your own pigs.

On special occasions, Mother would send one of the kids to Mr. Coates' store on Roberts Lane for 50 cents worth of round steak, a whole round, pound it with flour, salt and pepper and make chicken-fried steak.

William was resourceful. He took an electric motor and hooked it up to the churner and made butter. He wired the motor to the ice cream freezer and made ice cream.

Everything a kid needed was at McCord. There were tiny fish swimming around in a watering barrel. The kids tumbled around in the loft on the piled-high slopes of pungent hay.

"I still remember warm, powdery sand squishing up between our toes as we went barefoot on errands to the barn," Monteen said.

Education was important. Not only did it include piano lessons, hours of reading as the children swapped books, but chores that had them milking, gathering, feeding, raking, churning, cooking, washing and ironing.

At school, "deportment" was critical. Opla was concerned that her children learn morals and manners.

Opla was asked to join the PTA. Immersed in responsibility at home that included sewing clothing for the eight girls, she responded, "I'll furnish the kids, you do the educating."

Entertainment was family. Relatives gathered around and sang "When You and I Were Young," "Maggie" "Charlie, My Boy," and "Rainbow Round My Shoulder." As the children got older, they were allowed to go to the Nile Theater.

The Poteetes attended the First Baptist Church on Truxtun. Nine of the 10 kids were married in that church by Dr. Burton C. Barrett. Alan, the only one who didn't, got married in Japan to a Baptist girl.

The girls stayed married, the boys got divorced. The eight sisters agreed that they couldn't be married to each other's husbands.

No family is right without some color. A beloved but "are you sure he is a Poteete?" sort of man.

That was Uncle Edgar Lowing Poteete, William's younger brother who lived on an oil lease in Taft called Two Bit Hill. His nephews and nieces loved him because he lived in a shack, kept a monkey, had fighting roosters and would let them drive at an early age on the dirt roads in Taft. Lowing did hard labor in the oil fields his whole life. Lowing might have been the only man in the history of Kern County arrested for drunken driving on a horse.

"I think he'd been soaking it up at the Blinking Owl or Mickey's, two of the local bars in Taft, when he decided to ride his horse and visit some family," said Dennis Poteete, one of Lowing's nephews.

"He had a portable radio on his saddle horn which was probably playing "Relaxing With Jackson," a popular program on KTKR. He never went anywhere without his dogs and soon he was swearing at the dogs chasing his dogs. He was arrested for causing a ruckus. Lowing's arrest made the local paper.

Color was one thing, but that wasn't what William Lowery and Opla wanted from their family. They wanted hard working, good, solid citizens.

They were. They were also ministers, contractors, builders, school teachers, engineers and bankers. Although some moved away, eight now live in Bakersfield.

Ruth's husband died last April. Reinette's husband, Tim Sullivan, in 1996. Last summer, the women moved in together in Reinette's old green house on 19th Street, the family headquarters since 1953 when McCord was sold.

Ruth and Reinette are remodeling. It's as if they are turning over the soil. That soil is rich, fertile and just the right age.

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