The Community House’s 90 & Beyond event May 10 honors nonagenarians who’ve contributed to their communities in Metro Detroit. Meet three of the women who will be recognized at the event.
By Mary Meldrum
Photography by Rachel Woolf
Every spring since 2012, The Community House in Birmingham hosts a celebratory luncheon to honor community members who are 90 years and older. Sponsored by Chemical Bank, the event is held on May 10 and will feature a “Then and Now” photo presentation and live entertainment.
As part of the celebration, SEEN interviewed three of the nonagenarians who are being honored at the luncheon. Each of these noteworthy ladies has an impressive portfolio of a lifetime of community work and have contributed considerable time and energy to making a lasting impact in their community.
Involved in a lifetime of community enrichment organizations, Rachel Herbst raised her family in Birmingham and has five children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
“I arrived here from Cleveland, Ohio when I was a 2-year-old toddler in 1929,” she says.
At 91 years old, she is vivacious and still lives in the Hickory Heights neighborhood in Birmingham, where she raised her five children. Herbst commits more time to playing bridge now, but has always enjoyed an active and athletic lifestyle.
“When I belonged to the Village Club, I golfed and bowled — we had a fantastic bowling team,” she says. “We had a lot of fun. I have always liked sports.”
Baptized at St. James at age 3, she has a long history with the Episcopal Church in the center of Birmingham. She grew up as a member in the church community, her mother taught Sunday school there, and later, Herbst herself taught Sunday school there.
Moving from a rental home on Woodland in Birmingham to Kennesaw in the Poppleton Park neighborhood in Birmingham, she attended Adams School (currently part of the Roeper School Campus). Her family then moved across town to Puritan Street, and she finished her Birmingham school years at Baldwin High School. She attended the University of Michigan for two years before meeting her husband and getting married.
Herbst worked for the Birmingham Welcome Wagon — an organization that introduces local businesses to newcomers — for several years and was well acquainted with neighbors and families. A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a lineage-based service organization for women, Herbst dedicated time to the nonprofit group that promotes historic education and preservation.
The greatest contribution to her community, she says, is the years she spent volunteering at local schools as her children were growing up. She also devoted over 14 years to working with hearing-impaired children at Lahser High School, and one of her more notable contributions has been her 28 years working for the Senior Men’s Club of Birmingham.
Virginia Johnston is a peppy 92-year-old with a contagious smile. She is the mother to two boys; she has six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She enjoys golf and bridge and has recently taken up knitting. She met her husband at the University of Illinois, and they married in 1949.
“We moved here from Illinois in 1963 into a townhouse,” Johnston says. “I had checked out the area and chose Birmingham because I was interested in education.”
Shortly after moving to the area, Johnston and her family moved again to a home in the Poppleton Park neighborhood in Birmingham, where she still lives today. Once her youngest child went off to school, she became a volunteer at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Johnston trained to be a docent for the DIA and continued to volunteer her time there for over 40 years. During that time, she was chair of the volunteers and sat on the board of the Founders Society. She had the opportunity to meet celebrities such as Zero Mostel, Ginger Rogers and Vincent Price.
Johnston then worked as the property chair at the Cranbrook House and Gardens, and from there, she was asked to chair Michigan Week in Birmingham. Typically held the week of Memorial Day, Michigan Week includes a parade and the Birmingham Village Fair. Johnston was chair the same year George Bush Sr. was running for president, and he served as the grand marshal of the parade.
Adding to her community volunteer resume, Johnston then became the chair of the St. James Episcopal Church antique show for about seven years. She tutored at Franklin School in Pontiac and served as an election clerk for local elections.
Johnston continues to volunteer at the DIA when she can; she serves on the Vestry at St. James Episcopal Church, and volunteers for the Philanthropic Education Organization, known as the P.E.O.
At 91 years old, Louise Simpson— who goes by “Lou” — is poised and charming. She is the mother of two children and grandchildren.
She has a long history with St. James Episcopal Church in Birmingham, where she served on the Vestry, the governing body of the church. As the senior warden of the Vestry, Simpson was responsible for administration and governance of the parish, and the care and maintenance of church facilities. She continues to contribute to church events and activities.
Simpson is the historian for the Village Club in Bloomfield Hills and has held that position for 14 years. She also served as president of the club from 1992 to 1994. Incorporated in 1956 as the Village Women’s Club, the private club has remained a venue for entertaining, networking and celebrations.
Simpson is also active in the Philanthropic Education Organization, known as the P.E.O Sisterhood. An international organization with over 230,000 members, P.E.O focuses on providing educational opportunities for female students worldwide through scholarships, grants and loans.
Attending Denison University in Granville, Ohio, in the fall of 1945, Simpson was active in the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and still participates in their alumni group. Because of World War II, men were just getting out of the service when Simpson began her university career, so there were far more women at that time on campus. By the spring of 1946, the men returned to campus, and the student population ballooned. Graduating with a degree in chemistry and biology, Simpson then trained as a medical technologist and worked at Harper Hospital in Detroit for eight years.
She now lives in Birmingham, where she’s resided with her husband since 1957.
Full of upbeat optimism, these three spirited and cheerful nonagenarians all hold remarkable resumes, and yet are quite modest about their body of community work. And even more remarkable is that they are still lively contributors to the well-being of their community. Join them as they reminisce about days gone by on May 10.
90 & Beyond Celebration Luncheon
Thursday, May 10
11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
The Community House
380 South Bates St., Birmingham
The public is welcome to attend the luncheon honoring people in the community who are 90 years and older. Tickets are $35. Click here to purchase tickets.