By Anita Reed
Special to the Odessa American
When Fran Rice was born on April 27, 1917, between Sherman and Denison in Grayson County, Texas, Woodrow Wilson was president, World War I had seen more than two and a half years of conflict, and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was poised to sweep across the continents.
In April, Fran celebrated her 104th birthday, she enjoys talking about her childhood years, passionately discusses presidents and politics, and is keenly informed on the current pandemic that threatened to cancel her 103rd birthday party.
Texas to Kansas Fran, only recently a Kansan, lived the first 103 years of her life in either Oklahoma or Texas, owning the same home in Odessa, Texas, for 73 years. Last year, for her 103rd birthday, her friends put together a drive-by birthday party where youngsters handed out napkins and cupcakes, and police, sheriff, and fire department escorts “with sirens going” joined in the festivities. The drive-by was planned by Teresa Ford Shepard, a dear friend from church.
Fran’s hair stylist and close friend, Leti Martinez, joined in, and Fran’s daughter Shirley Pokorny provided the cupcakes and helped coordinate the birthday fun. Fran sat outside in her yard and savored every minute of her celebration.
“I kind of thought they had something planned, but I just couldn’t imagine what…with things the way they were with the pandemic and all… I thought maybe something in the yard.”
The memory of that day and the surprise drive-by still brings a smile. Teresa describes how Fran’s parade of friends made signs for their cars and drove by in a long train of well-wishers. “We were honking and happy birthday-ing and hollering.”
They parked in an empty lot across from Fran’s house, got out of their cars, and sang to her on that April day in 2020. And now, a year has passed — a year that brought heartache as Fran’s daughter Shirley died in September of 2020.
Shirley’s husband John had died just two months prior. With no family nearby in Odessa and the macular degeneration eye problems that caused her to give up driving worsening, Fran decided to accept the invitation from her son Dave (she calls him David) and daughter-in-law Jeri Rice of Liberal to come and live with them.
She now proudly shows off her bedroom which Jeri decorated for her at her new home in Liberal, and the desk Fran brought into the decor, and the family photos that grace the walls. Family is important to Fran. “I’m the 8th of 13 children,” she says, with eyes wide and sparkling just waiting for the expected reaction.
She then names off the siblings along with birth years to emphasize her point, naturally including the birthdate of a certain Frances Anne Taylor on April 27, 1917. She was the 8th born, but two baby brothers born before she was didn’t live.
In addition to the 13 children born to her parents, she has five younger half brothers and sisters. She went on to have two children, and now her progeny includes seven grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, and 18 great-great grandchildren, and she doesn’t miss a beat sharing their names and stories about them.
Of course, from such a large family, a host of nieces and nephews grace the family circle. Fran recalls family reunions with more than 100 in attendance. Her two children, Shirley and David Rice, were born in 1939 and 1940, respectively, to her and her husband Alvin. Alvin Alvin came into Fran’s life by literally walking through a door in Colbert, Okla.
“We went to a lady’s house on the pretext of playing dominoes — 42,” she smiles slyly. “Well, nobody brought the dominoes, but everybody brought their fiddles and guitars.”
Fran could chord, so she latched onto a guitar and was playing when “Alvin Rice walked up to that door.” When Fran saw him, she said, out loud: “Ooh, that ol’ boy don’t know it, but he’s mine.” She had attended the “domino” party with her sister Mayhew and Mayhew’s boyfriend George.
Fran would go along with them on their dates to get out of the house where Fran and Mayhew were living with their sister Richie.
After that night, Fran told them, “I’m not going unless I have a date.” George asked her who she wanted to date. “Well, that Alvin Rice would be all right for a starter!”
In April of that year, Mayhew and George married. In July they were standing up as the only witnesses when Fran and Alvin got married at a preacher’s house in Durant, Okla. The honeymoon was unique. They left the preacher’s house and went to a hamburger place. Then, all four packed in the seat of Alvin’s flatbed truck, took their food and drove to an overpass on the railroad tracks between Colbert and Durant where they stopped and ate their hamburgers. George and Mayhew dropped the newlyweds off at a little motel between Colbert and Calera, Okla., and took the truck to Alvin’s mother’s house so no one would know where they were. With that many brothers and sisters, who knows who might have thought it was funny to show up there.
That wedding day in July 1938 started a marriage that lasted for 63 years and 11 months. Fran lost “that ol’ boy” that sparked her love at first sight when, sadly, his death parted them on the 10th of June in 2002.
Fran’s many talents have shone to those around her. Not only was she a wife and mother and active member in her church, but Fran also made beautiful quilts, painted pictures, sewed, knitted, cooked, and had a distinctive career at Sears Roebuck for 18 years. She started in the men’s department when she helped lay out the Odessa store, putting merchandise on the shelves, for its opening in 1954. That got her a job that spanned 18 years, from Odessa to Dallas and back again, from the men’s department to Piece Good Department Division Manager selling patterns, fabrics, and sewing supplies, and to the ready-to-wear department.
She also finds some politicians useless and got somewhat of a reputation as a writer of letters to Barack Obama and letters to the editor of the Odessa American when Obama was president. Fran is a lifelong, dedicated Republican. In fact, when asked what she would wish for this year when she blows out the candles on her birthday cake, she replied, without hesitation, “That we could elect another Republican president.”
This year, Jeri and Dave highlighted Fran’s birthday at a family affair with the appropriate theme of “104 and still glowing,” Fran cherishes her memories that span the past century, but she’s all about moving forward and making new memories with family and friends.