By Ethan Colbert
Bowling Green Times
Her smile lights up her entire face. Her soft blue eyes still have that twinkle. Her hands hardened by years of tending to her beloved rose bushes reach out to greet every friend and stranger that walks by her room.
Nestled in her red armchair at Tri-County Care Facility in Vandalia, Juanita Raufer Henderson, formerly of New Harmony, will become the area’s newest centenarian Friday. This fact is not lost on Henderson, as she embraces the milestone with her signature smile.
“I do not have a secret for a long life,” Juanita said. “The Lord has a reason for keeping me here all this time. Now, I think he has left me here because I have not figured out what my purpose is yet.”
Juanita says one of life’s biggest mysteries is why some lives are long and others are short.
“No one knows why someone lives as long or as short as they do,” Juanita said. “The scripture tells us to live out our purpose in life. Some would say our purpose is to maybe aggravate some other living person. I would say the reason people live, besides their purpose God gives them, is to love one another as best they can.”
Born to Henry and Anna Mae Raufer in the once vibrant community of McCune Station on June 6, 1914, Juanita spent her early childhood in the area north of Bowling Green before moving to New Harmony in 1922. Juanita describes her initial reaction to moving to New Harmony as, “an instant feeling of home.”
Juanita would attend the New Harmony Country School, then known as Eureka Rural School under the tutelage of a Ms. Artimcy Rector. A name she can still spell today and who left a profound impact on her, inspiring her to become a teacher herself. As a teenager Juanita would attend Curryville High School for a year before transferring to Vandalia.
“At the time Curryville offered a three-year program and even though I liked it there, I had to transfer to Vandalia,” Henderson said. “Vandalia offered a program where you could take classes to help you become a schoolteacher and I really wanted to be a teacher.”
Graduating from Vandalia in 1937 with her class of 32 fellow students, Juanita briefly attended Culver Stockton College in Canton to further her preparations to become a teacher. She then accepted a position at Murray Hill Rural School, which was on Route M south of Bowling Green by about four or five miles.
Juanita described the experience of being an educator as one of her most proud accomplishments in life and as one of the most “wonderful times of my life.”
“I loved to teach math,” Juanita said. “It may not be a child’s favorite subject, and it is probably the hardest (for them to learn), but I love math.”
Juanita said it was during those five years at Murray Hill and the decades spent as a Sunday School teacher that she developed her love of children.
“I have taught a lot of children over the years,” Juanita said. “You cannot help but fall in love with a child, it does not even have to be your own child, you can love them all the same.”
A member of New Harmony Christian Church since Oct. 23, 1927, at the age of 13, Juanita says she has many fond memories of that congregation including the first time she met her husband William James Henderson, known throughout the community as J. or W.J. Henderson.
“The first time I met him it was at a youth meeting at the church,” Juanita said. The young Juanita was not instantly smitten with her future husband, but Juanita said her feelings for him developed over time.
“We didn’t start going steady until well after our first date,” Juanita said with a chuckle. “Our first date was a double date. We were supposed to go for a drive and for a movie, but I don’t think we ever made it to the movie. We just drove and talked for hours.”
The young couple would date off and on for several years and Juanita says there was never a formal proposal from W.J. because they both knew they were meant to be together.
“We had talked about marriage and how much we had loved one another for so long,” Juanita said. “We waited (to get married) until we had saved up enough money to start keeping house.”
Once the young couple had enough money saved they drove into Bowling Green and were wed by Brother Campbell in his home on Jan. 20, 1937, W.J.’s birthday.
During their 19 years of marriage, W.J. and Juanita lived in true marital bliss says Juanita until W.J. passed away in 1956 due to a heart attack. Of all her memories, Juanita remembers this one very clearly.
“It was a Sunday afternoon,” Juanita said. “I was busy preparing our dish for a basket dinner at a nearby friend’s house. He was outside doing evening chores when he found out that one of our sows had gotten out of her pen. He must have tried and tried to get her back into her pen because he came back to the house in so much pain and out of breath. I called the doctor and immediately took him to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Hannibal. He died of a second heart attack July 30, 1956.”
After this tragedy, Juanita said she was reminded of how truly wonderful the people of New Harmony were as they supported her and her only son, Ronnie J, for years with their thoughts and prayers.
“I could not have made it all these years without my dear friends and my family,” Juanita said. “They truly are the best thing to me.”
After speaking with a few ladies from the 50-plus member congregation of the New Harmony Christian Church it is clear the congregation feels the same towards Juanita.
“She is one of the dearest people I have ever known,” said Bert Jennings, who bonded with Juanita over a shared love of poetry and flowers. “She is a treasure to us all at New Harmony. I have sat beside her in the pew for many years and I would not sit anywhere else because she is that special to me as a friend.”
“I have known Ms. Juanita my entire life,” Deborah Kraft said. “When I think of Juanita, I think of that smile and her wrinkles. I think how her face just radiates God’s love and the love of people.”
For New Harmony Reverend Dawn Turner, meeting Juanita five years ago was “a blessing beyond measure” and said Juanita’s signature smile is something she will always remember because of how “it seems to come from within her entire body and soul.”
“It is very humbling to be Juanita’s minister,” Turner said. “I would not trade these past five years for the world.”
As a single mother Juanita never gave up and instead rolled up her sleeves and began work in the fall of 1956 at the Bobbie Brooks Factory in Vandalia, where she worked for a number of years.
Her friend Bert Jennings says it is that “can do attitude” of Juanita’s that has helped her through the years.
“I do not think she has ever said the word quit,” Bert said. “You just can not keep that woman down.”
Outside her country home with her well-cared for flowerbeds of miniature hollyhocks, Siberian iris, peonies and her beloved red rose bushes, Juanita said her best gift to the community around her was also her biggest regret in life.
“I always loved helping others,” Juanita said. “So many times I think back to a time when I could have helped someone and I regret not helping them when I should have.”
Juanita anticipates her friends will throw her a party Saturday afternoon at New Harmony Christian Church especially after they surprised her for her 90th birthday with a horse and buggy ride through the New Harmony she holds so dear, though she is quick to point out they do not have to do much of anything at all.
“I just imagine them doing a lot of singing,” Juanita said. “The songs they sing do not matter, what matters is the people that are there, because they just mean the world to me.”
As far as her plans for the future, Juanita says it is all up to the Lord as she is going to take it one day at a time from here on.
“Everyone has ups and downs, life is not always easy, it is not always bad,” Juanita said. Her advice to young people looking for true happiness and contentment in life is, “Do the best you can and remember there is a God and Jesus. You need to remember those two because they are so important. Take each day as it comes, pray and love one another and you will be happy.”
With that sentiment, Juanita flashed her signature smile and said, “That’s the way I feel, truly happy.”