Successful Aging with Mother Draper

by Wendi Williams

ALABAMA A&M UNIVERSITY, Ala. — At 99 years old, Willie Mae Draper of Madison County, Alabama is about to experience a magical, once-in-a-lifetime moment – she will become a centenarian. Over the years, Draper has been a faithful participant of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Successful Aging Initiative (SAI) Conference. The SAI program and conference help older adults maintain their quality of life as they go through the aging process. Draper has a special connection to the conference. The same conference that she has faithfully attended for years was first started by her own grandson.

Humble Beginnings

Upon entering the room with the help of a walker, Draper still moves faster than some people nearly 20 or 30 years her junior. Although her hearing is not what it used to be, her eyes and mind are clear. While setting up for the interview, she shared some information about her life.

“I grew up in Triana,” Draper said. “There were five of us children – two girls and three boys.”

At the age of 10, Draper developed diphtheria, a serious bacterial infection, and almost succumbed to the disease. Yet, by a miracle, she is still here.

“I really liked school, but my mother did not want me to go to school,” Draper said.

You can still see the longing in her eyes when she said, “I did go back and get my GED, though.”

The role Draper is most proud of is the role of wife and mother. She proudly tells people that she was married to Dave Draper, Senior for 51 years, 7 months and 3 days. Together, they have three children — a daughter and two sons (Betty, Dave Jr. and Jesse).

Like her late husband, Draper is a pillar of the Huntsville community and is affectionately called Mother Draper. Mother is a title given to older women in African-American churches who serve as leaders, educators and mentors to younger women. Even at nearly 100 years old, Draper continues to mentor younger generations.

The SAI Conference  

Draper’s grandson, attorney Kevin Crenshaw, was one of the founders of the SAI Conference. He, along with Alabama Extension family and child development specialists and the late Extension 1890 Administrator, Virginia Caples, launched the conference in Madison County in 2002. The Virginia Caples Lifelong Learning Institute (VCLLI) — named in honor of Caples — was also created out of this initiative.

The VCLLI staff and county Extension agents now coordinate the SAI Conference statewide with support from a program specialist in Calhoun, Lauderdale, Madison, Mobile and Montgomery counties. Both the SAI Conference and the VCLLI are designed to help the older population, their family and caregivers through the aging process.

“You don’t have to reach a certain age to need help,” Draper said. “Sometimes people just need help or need someone to come by and talk to them. When you get older and you think somebody cares about you and thinks about you, it makes you feel better,”

Draper has a live-in caretaker, Brenda Toney, who has taken care of Draper since Draper’s husband passed in 1998. She is responsible for taking notes during the SAI Conference and uses the information to assist in her role as a caregiver. Draper, on the other hand, is there to support the program her grandson began and encourages others to attend the event as well. She said the SAI Conference is an outing she looks forward to every year.

“She (Toney) will take me to help me and to encourage me, and wherever I go, I’m gonna meet a friend,” Draper said.

Discover Alabama Extension

While the SAI Conference has helped Draper in her golden years, she has her own secret to living a long and successful life.

“My mama always taught me, before I got saved, how to treat people,” Draper said. “You treat them right regardless of if they don’t treat you right. I feel like these are some of the things that helped me to live, because I want to treat people just like I want to be treated.”

Draper believes that kindness has added years to her life. On November 25, 2023, Draper will celebrate her 100th birthday.

Supporting older adults to age successfully is just one of the many ways Alabama Extension delivers solutions for life’s everyday challenges. Extension educators are strong community partners, bringing practical ways to support homes, farms, people and communities.