Columbia Star

Lee celebrating a century


Lee plays her nephew’s guitar at her 100th birthday celebration.

Lee plays her nephew’s guitar at her 100th birthday celebration.

Bonnie Kilby Lee has eaten an apple a day for almost a century.

Born August 21, 1921 in Clayton, Ga., Bonnie began her apple-loving habit as a child growing up on a farm that was originally an orchard where varieties of apples ripened throughout most of the year.

“We had fresh apples available almost all the time,” Bonnie said, and during those few times when no apples were on the trees, her mother brought out bags of apples that she had cut and dried in the sun and jars of canned apples for stewed apples and pies.

Her parents told her about a time when she was very young and became so sick they worried she might die.

“I was feverish and very sick and wasn’t eating anything,” Bonnie said. “As I grew weaker, my mother kept trying to persuade me to eat something. Finally, she gave me an apple and urged me to take a few bites. Soon I was feeling better and ate the whole apple.”

Bonnie loves every variety of apple but the one she loves most is a golden one that she can’t find in grocery stores.

Bonnie Kilby Lee, 1938

Bonnie Kilby Lee, 1938

“Some of the varieties we had must not be grown anymore,” she said.

In addition to being a family of apple lovers, everyone in her family played a musical instrument or sang or danced.

“Since we had a family of 10 children, we had a ready-made band, and every Saturday night, we would play together—just for our own enjoyment,” said Bonnie, who plays the guitar.

“Everyone in the family except Geneva played some kind of musical instrument,” Bonnie said. “She never seemed to be interested in any instruments. I guess Daddy decided she had to have something to do on Saturday nights when we played, so he taught her how to do the Charleston. All she ever wanted to do was dance.”

No one ever took music lessons, and Bonnie said she learned how to play the guitar by watching her older brother, Filmer, and begging him to let her try to play his guitar.

“He wouldn’t let me play, but I watched while he played and played until he was worn out and put the guitar down,” she said. “Then I picked it up, and I was able to play exactly what he had been playing.”

Even though she still loves music, she hasn’t played much in recent years and sold her guitar not long ago.

The Kilby musical gene is still alive in the next generations of the family. Bonnie’s daughter, Linda Robison of Columbus, N.C., plays the piano and sings in the choir at her church.

When a nephew from Georgia, Jim Nixon, visits Bonnie in Columbia, he always brings his guitar and plays a few songs as he did at her birthday party Saturday, August 21, when she celebrated her 100th birthday surrounded by family and friends. Nixon’s son, Tom, owns a music store in Clayton where he teaches music and has established a foundation to teach music to underprivileged children.

“Nobody urged us to play,” said Bonnie, who has lived in Columbia for 68 years. “We just all loved music and everybody except Geneva wound up with an instrument they loved.”

Bonnie was the baby in their large family where the names of all the sons started with an F and the names of all the daughters started with a G.

Bonnie’s brothers are Ferd, Famous, Farish and Filmer, and Bonnie’s sisters are Gladys, Gertrude, Genus, and Geneva. Bonnie, the baby of the family, is the only daughter who went through life without being called by a name that starts with G because, even though her middle name is Gay, she has always been called Bonnie.

“I don’t know why my parents only gave us names that started with an F or a G,” Bonnie said, “but I guess it does make it easier to remember.”

The pandemic has brought back sad memories for Bonnie because her oldest sister, Zona, died at the age of two during a flu epidemic in 1913 that was killing mostly children during the early years before the Spanish Flu became a global epidemic.

“My parents mourned for her all their lives,” Bonnie said. “I think someone came by to visit, and that’s how she caught it. But my parents always remembered her and always mourned for her.”

When Bonnie was 17 years old, she married the love of her life, Claude Lee. They had been married 66 years when he passed away in 2006. Claude worked most of his life for Hardaway Contracting Company on Taylor Street.

They had three children: an infant daughter who died at birth, Linda Robison of Columbus, N.C., and Ken Lee, who passed away in 2009, leaving his daughters Susan Moore and Catherine Sims.

Linda married Joe Robison, who was the boy next door, and they had a son, Joe IV, of Columbus, N.C., who passed away in 2009.

“I’m so happy to have the family we have,” Bonnie said. “We had three children, three grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, two great-great grandchildren, and many loving nieces and nephews.”

Most of them, along with friends Bonnie and Claude met after they moved to Columbia in 1953, were among those celebrating Bonnie’s 100th birthday Saturday.

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