by Crissy Neville | Photography by Morgan Masson
The soft-spoken grandmother of four is known for her fried chicken and coconut cakes. Having raised three daughters on country garden vegetables, hard work and the Christian faith, Mary Lou Allen of Lumberton, at first glance, seems
the epitome of the traditional southern woman. Putting Sunday dinners on the table, caring for sick loved ones, and working on the family farm alongside her husband of 55 years, Allen has inspired many in the family and community in her 89 years.
But it’s the second look that raises eyebrows. Allen, with her gentle manners, southern drawl, and humble demeanor, is a lot more than meets the eye. She has, she admits, with a twinkle in her eye, an adventurous side. And according to daughters Wanda Walters and Pam Townsend, it is one that would make Allen’s late husband, Harvey Charles, shake his head in disbelief.
“Daddy would be shocked,” Walters quipped.
“Oh, Harvey would have never let me do it,” Allen agreed, speaking of her decision to go skydiving at the age of 75, and then again at 80. “He would have said why would you want to go and do something like jump out of a perfectly good plane? But it is just one thing I always wanted to do.”
One might say that is surprising given the fact Allen had only been in an airplane once prior to her skydives, that being a jaunt up to New York City for a ladies’ shopping one-day trip in the 1980s.
She shared her husband would have had the same sentiments towards her more recent interest in hunting and fishing.
“But back when Harvey was living,” she continued, “there was always work on the farm to do, and the children to raise. There just wasn’t time.”
These days, Allen strikes a balance between home and hobbies, scoffing at the idea that she is unique or special for her out-of-door, age-defying pursuits. OutreachNC’s Crissy Neville visited with Allen and her family in her Robeson County home recently to share pictures and tales of her trips into the wide, blue yonder, and beyond.
Crissy Neville: You were celebrating your 75th birthday
the first time you went skydiving. The local newspaper dubbed you The Skydiving Senior. Can you tell me about that experience?
Mary Lou Allen: Well, the first time we went to a place called Skydive Parkton and it was July 11, 2004. That place is closed now. Yes, it was my 75th birthday. I told my daughters that was what I wanted for my birthday and of course, they said, “What? No, really, mama what do you want?” But I told them I was serious. They couldn’t believe it but they arranged everything and paid for it all.
CN: Did they try to talk you out of it? Did anyone?
MLA: No, they did not really try to talk me out of it but they worried plenty. They told all the family and our church about it so on the day of my jump about 50 people came out to watch. My daughter Pam said I was a hot item on the Zions Tabernacle Baptist Church’s prayer chain. Even my pastor came out to pray, and watch.
CN: Tell me about the jump. Were you scared?
MLA: It was a tandem jump. I was hooked into my instructor and we shared a parachute. We went up 14,000 feet. There were others in the plane jumping too, and the instructor told us all not to touch the sides of the plane or anything like that.
If you were having second thoughts they wouldn’t let you go. But I jumped out when it was my turn without any problems.
We were just falling and falling and then suddenly, the chute opened with a jerk, and then we floated on down, and actually slid in. I was surprised at how cool it was up there.
I wasn’t nervous or scared; I was excited to get to do something just for me.
It was a lot of fun.
CN: Did you feel like there were many years you did not get to do things just for yourself?
MLA: I wouldn’t trade the years for the world but in earlier years, I was always taking care of my family and the farm. I was the bookkeeper for the farm and the cook. We had 175 acres of tobacco, corn, and beans and we farmed it ourselves. I was also raising my girls. I had my two oldest daughters that you’ve met today, Wanda and Pam, but I also had my youngest daughter, Charlene, who was born with Down’s syndrome. She died at age 31 in 1995. I was always needed at home to look after her. And then like I said before, my husband would not have liked it. We did other things together with our friends and family, like travel and go to church. I’m also an avid reader; I read the Bible to Charlene every day.
CN: So would you say skydiving was the most fun thing you ever did?
MLA: It was the most spectacular but deer hunting is actually the most fun to me. Skydiving was exhilarating, like driving in a fast car. I’d like to drive a race car one day, too. I did like it (skydiving) enough to do it again when I was 80, that time in Raeford. It was exciting when we came in for a landing on that second time because we landed so close to where the family was standing. They all just started running towards me and cheering.
I knew I was in good hands because my instructor, Michael Elliott, was the same tandem instructor for President George Bush who also jumped at age 80.
I asked Mr. Elliott if I had done just as good as the President and he said, “Better!” Now I know he was only joking!
CN: You are incredible! That is an amazing story! Now tell me about your deer hunting hobby. That is certainly a novelty, too.
MLA: I started deer hunting about 2007 and have gotten 10 deer to date. Wanda’s husband Bruce started hunting and we decided we would too. Me and my niece Dianne, that is. She has lived with me ever since Harvey’s passing.
I have my own deer stand in our woods and my own .243 rifle.
Dr. Bruce Walters– Can I insert a story here? Let me tell you about a morning I will never forget. One morning I got a call from Mary Lou and she said are you up? I said no, and she said, well get up and come help me load these three deer I just got.
She shot and killed three deer that morning before 8 am.
Who does that?
MLA: I was lucky but also am a pretty good shot too, I guess. But we eat it, that’s for sure. I like to clean and cook the deer meat; we love deer hash, venison steak and gravy, all of it. We put it up in the freezer and share it.
CN: You are certainly an outdoor person. Did you have other adventurous people in your family that you perhaps took after?
MLA: My daddy was a big hunter. I did not hunt with him but I learned an appreciation for it from him. I like to shoot, too, and I got my conceal and carry license about 7 years ago. My daddy also liked to go fishing. I now fish with Bruce and Dianne for bass, crappie, and brim. Then we have big fish fries afterward and invite family and friends to come. I did fish with my dad some too right before he died. I have some good memories of doing that with him. My biggest catch I had mounted and it was a 7 ¾ lb. bass.
CN: I understand you were also a big gardener, cook and baker.
MLA: Yes, I always had a big garden. We all had full freezers. We ate from that garden and gave it to friends. We grew peas, potatoes, string beans, corn, and tomatoes, all of it.
Wanda Walters: Let me jump in here. Mama would work your socks off. She put us girls down lots of gardening days. We’d start at 6 in the morning and finish up about 6 in the evening, but by noon, Pam and I would be stretched out on the floor somewhere and she would say, now ya’ll go lay down, I will finish all of this. She would say that while she was also fixing us a sandwich to eat. (laughing)
CN: You sure were a hard worker, Mrs. Allen, and you still are. Did you love to cook that bounty too? What were your favorite recipes?
MLA: Fried chicken, fresh butterbeans, fresh corn, fried cabbage, fried squash – the family liked it all. There was always chicken and pastry, and dressing too. I also love to bake cakes and take them to people in the community.
I make a lot of fresh coconut cakes, red velvet, and pound cakes. I still love to do this though I have slowed down for sure.
CN: Have you slowed down enough to say you are through with the skydiving? Will there be more adventures for The Skydiving Senior?
MLA: Well, I will tell you like I tell everyone else, I will go again when I turn 100, so stay tuned. (smiling)