Club for women with a 1917 birthday still going strong

Friday, September 27, 2013 | 12:27 p.m. CDT

ST. JOSEPH — In the year Audrey Eaton was born, a loaf of bread cost 9 cents.

Woodrow Wilson was president, and 18 percent of women were in the workforce. The average annual income was $906, and a three-bedroom home cost an average of $3,200.

The year was 1917, which also was marked by the births of hundreds of baby girls who would one day belong to The Jolly 17ers — a club begun by an Iowa woman in 1968 that celebrated its 45th anniversary with a gathering this month in St. Joseph, the St. Joseph News-Press reported.

"We all kind of grew up through the Depression. We had that in common," says Eaton, who made the trip from Duluth, Minn. "We aren't worldly like people are now."

But the world did open up to them through their club. Barbara Long, the daughter of 17ers founder Doris Morrison, notes that losing a child and being nearly deaf prompted her mother to begin the club after reading about a similar one for women born in 1912. The 17ers started out with only a few members who wrote letters to one another but in the course of just a few years grew to number in the hundreds (including quite a few "twins" who happened to have been born on the same day). The group drew members from Amish communities and from as far away as Australia.

"It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me because we didn't go (away from home) a lot," says Garnet Leedy, a native of Barnard who now lives in St. Joseph. "To get a letter was something."

Leedy and Eaton were two of the four 17ers scheduled to come to the annual meeting at the Ramada Inn. The women, all 96 years old, live in four different Midwest states and since 2011 have gathered once a year in St. Joseph, given its status as a convenient central location. But in their younger years, the group traveled across the country — holding reunions in Denver; Anaheim, Calif.; Bird-In-Hand, Pa.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Williamsburg, Va., to name just a few.

In the past decade, as many of the 17ers have become unable to travel alone, their daughters have become not only their transportation but also associate members of the group. And it hasn't been unheard of for other relatives of the women to take an interest, too.

"Even some of the husbands whose wives were members like to get our newsletters," says Joyce Glessing, who has continued to attend 17ers reunions even after the passing of her mother, Irene Wittkop.

Although they're not up for some of the group activities they enjoyed in the past, such as touring museums, the 17ers still had a full itinerary for their gathering — including games, musical entertainment and time to visit and reminisce.

Among the memories shared was one of Morrison ending up covered in ink whenever she used a mimeograph to produce the club's 20-page newsletters. The 17ers' founder died in 1999 — a year shy of her goal of living until 2000 but with plenty else accomplished.

"Because she couldn't hear, she'd work on that (17ers) newspaper practically every day," Long says. "That was her life."

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