Local elders share life experiences

Last Friday, when a four-door sedan pulled up to a curb in Chester, a suited Mr. Howard H. Boisseau Sr., 87, quickened the pep in his walk just in time to help Mrs. Louise P. Friend, 96, as she exited the car. The two then quickly greeted each other in a warm, gentle embrace, before going their separate ways that sunny afternoon.

Friends for years, the long-time Chester residents remain the oldest surviving members of their respective families, but between them are commonalities beyond merely age and familial status. As each made Chester their home and their sanctuary, strength gained from faith, family and hard work, they said, has kept them so healthy during their lifetimes.

Born Dec. 15, 1914 near the intersection of Happy Hill Road and Harrowgate Road in Chester, Mrs. Friend recalls growing up in a non-segregated neighborhood. Her home was only a rock’s throw from white neighbors and remembers casually greeting them in public after many years apart.

“We just hugged and everything. I never will forget because they didn’t expect that from us black and white persons here,” she said because the rare custom caught the eye of several onlookers.

At her home on Kingsdale Road, built by her late husband, James B. Friend, once a prominent builder, landowner and contractor in the area, Mrs. Friend never misses out on an opportunity to tell a story. In her living room, which contains a museum’s worth of photographs of loved ones, Mrs. Friend is reminded of all the people she once touched in her life.

Often called “GG” for great-grandmother, Friend is known to many as a nurturer both within her family and in the community. For her many efforts in both her church and in the community of Chester, she has received numerous awards and certificates. To this day, she remains a member of the First Baptist Church of Centralia.

 “When I got married, I was home by myself and so much needed to be done, so that’s what I did—worked back at home and in the community. And I was like a mother to all those children in the community,” she ends with a deep chuckle.

In the 1940’s and 1950’s when Mrs. Friend managed and co-owned what was once the Chesterfield Motel and Restaurant, located on Jefferson Davis Highway in Chester, she was a mother to five children but still made time to finish her education – something of essential importance in the Friend family. During this time, Friend received her Associate’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from John Tyler and intermittently attended VSU.

She then spent several years as a substitute teacher and 11 years as a teacher’s aide in the Chesterfield County Public School system, retiring in 1980. At another time in her life, Friend also worked as a classifier for what was then the Bellwood General Defense Supply Agency.

Sitting with a lively energy, unique to someone her age, Friend would clearly rather be outside working in her flower and vegetable gardens; and with weather so inviting lately, long-time family friend Sarah Gregory, said, “It’s hard to keep her from that yard. A day like today was hard for her to be in here.”

Even at 96, Mrs. Friend refuses to stop, refuses to sit too long because too much has to be done. She is even considering starting another business.

“I’m old but I can still think. I’ve never been a sitting person. I’d rather be in the garden,” she said looking out the window like an eager child on a snow day.

Just down the street from Friend lives Mr. Boisseau, in a pleasant home where he has lived most of his life; a home acquired many years ago from Robert Friend, cousin to James Friend – Mrs. Friend’s late husband.

Like Friend, Boisseau Sr. is held dear and reverently by all the people close to him. When his son, Howard H. Boisseau Jr., talks about his father, his face lights up and his eyes widen, explains that with being the family patriarch, his father gets top-notch respect.

“He has been the beacon from which we model all our behaviors. All our relationships and everything have been modeled off of this man,” he said. “He has been the ruler, the king, and with me doing what I do for him on a daily basis, I look at it as my job now as being in the service to the king, and blessed to do so.”

On March 12, 1923, Howard H. Boisseau Sr. was born not far from the railroad tracks on Thurston Road near the intersection off Hopkins Road in Chesterfield.

In 87 years there isn’t much that Mr. Boisseau doesn’t remember. Able to recite elaborate passages and stories in the bible, his memory, he firmly believes, is his special gift.

“That was my gift, I believe, and all of us are blessed with something special, but sometimes it takes us a while to find out what that is,” he said. “I’m thankful that I was blessed with that type of memory because that memory has been used to bless somebody else, to share some of my own experiences.”

The fourth of nine children, Mr. Boisseau quit his formal education in the seventh grade to provide for his younger siblings, yet to this day remains an avid reader, consuming books in his personal library, including his favorite, the Bible.

“There are lots of things you don’t know if you don’t read,” said Mr. Boisseau Sr. with the same kind of unlikely energy matching that of Mrs. Friend.

Of the self-learned knowledge in his working memory, most is theological and biblical. His faith remains one of the most important aspects of his life and, if he had finished his education, he said, he most likely would have been a pastor.

For Mr. Boisseau, there was nothing easy about growing up in poverty-ridden circumstances. He sometimes walked to school at Drewry’s Bluff Elementary without shoes and, at times, without sufficient clothing for warmth. But despite growing up in these circumstances, he feels that today, all his needs are met.

“My father came from a family of nine children; they were poor. He will tell you the story that he has more than ever dreamed of,” said his son.

Married to the late Mary Elizabeth Anderson for 58 years, Mr. Boisseau is also a great-grandfather. He retired after 31 years of dedicated service to Allied Chemical Corporation (now Honeywell Inc.). He like Mrs. Friend, has been a lifelong member at the First Baptist Church of Centralia.

As part of project to venerate the lives of African-Americans in Chesterfield, the oral histories of these two elders from Chester are presently displayed at an exhibit at the Chesterfield County Museum through March.

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