If you ask Mildred Neal how she’s lived to be 102, she always gives the same answer.
“I grew up with eight brothers and I had to keep them working in the field and then I had to help my mama at the house. Then, I’ve never been a big eater. Not eating was the only thing my mama ever fussed at me about.”
Born the second oldest of Beatrice and Grover Hall’s 10 children, she spent the first 32 years of her life in the Mount Olive community of Stokes County. Her father was a tenant farmer so there were tobacco crops, gardens and livestock that had to be tended. Being the second oldest in the family, there were always babies and toddlers that needed her care as well. She learned to cook and change diapers at an early age and that led her to a lifelong passion for being a caregiver.
Neal had always wanted to be a nurse, but her father knew he needed her more at home. At 32, she eloped with the man she had dated for nearly 10 years. When she moved from Stokes County to Belews Creek as Virgil Neal’s wife she took on the responsibility for his home and his mother – as well as his sister, brother-in-law, brother’s ex-wife and his niece. A year later, she and Virgil has a daughter of their own. Throughout their 16 years of marriage, they never spent a night with just the two of them.
When her husband died at 54, Neal was left with an almost 16-year-old daughter, a house, a car and very little else. She had dropped out of school and had never worked outside of home. But, she saw this challenge as an opportunity. Mildred took the GED exam, passed it and signed up for classes at Forsyth Technical Community College to become a licensed nurse.
She loved being an LPN because it gave her the opportunity to help others. She worked on the obstetrics and gynecology floor for 15 years and retired on her 65th birthday. Known to everyone she dealt with at the hospital as “Little Neal” because she’s barely five feet tall, it was “Little Neal” that her coworkers knew they could depend on for help when needed.
In retirement, she became more active in her community. She made chicken pies for her church, volunteered with the Belews Creek Fire Department’s Women’s Auxiliary and was a member of the community Homemakers Club. Even in her late 80s she would spend Sunday afternoons visiting with the “old people”, many of whom were younger than herself.
For the last 10 years, she has lived in Winston-Salem with her daughter. She meets her remaining sister and two brothers for breakfast in King every Saturday morning.
Through her 102 years, she has always held family, both blood and those she has brought into the fold, as the most important thing in her life and has extended her love to so many people who love her right back.