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Illinois’ oldest resident, Ethel Darden, passes away at 111

Ethel Darden oldest persIllinois was 15th oldest U.S. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Ethel Darden, the oldest person in Illinois, was the 15th oldest in the U.S. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:31AM

In a Black History Month interview with the Chicago Sun-Times last year, Ethel Darden fixed lucent brown eyes on a reporter who’d just asked her to take a walk back through America’s race journey.

“I don’t like to look back. It’s hard enough to look front,” Ms. Darden, of Hyde Park, then 110 years old, said, as penciled eyebrows furrowed in annoyance on a chiseled, carefully made-up face.

Then, Ms. Darden, a pioneering educator who in 1946 helped establish the Howalton Day School, Chicago’s first private, nonsectarian school for African Americans, promptly smiled.

“When I think about the past too much, it knocks me down,” she said.

Illinois’ oldest resident died peacefully at her Hyde Park retirement home July 17 at age 111.

A teacher for more than six decades, and assistant principal at the then groundbreaking school founded by her sister Doris Allen-Anderson and two other women at Bronzeville’s historic Rosenwald Apartments, Ms. Darden taught many of Chicago’s black elite, including children of boxer Joe Louis, U.S. Rep. Ralph Metcalfe, historian Timuel Black, Mayor Eugene Sawyer and Judge R. Eugene Pincham.

“I owe part of my success as a physician today to her,” said Dr. Andrea Pincham Benton, a daughter of the late judge, who like many Howalton alumni, would attend Ms. Darden’s annual birthday parties at Hyde Park’s Montgomery Place whenever possible. She flew in from Alabama to attend last year.

“I owed it to her to allow her to see me as the success that she had a part in,” Benton said. “Howalton was a school of strict discipline. We were able only to wear dresses at the time, and lined up in the hallways. A standard of excellence in grades and decorum was always expected. Ms. Darden helped instilled in us a great sense of pride, respect, dignity, accomplishment.”

Ms. Darden was the 15th oldest person in the U.S., and the 50th oldest in the world, according to Guinness World Records’ senior consultant for gerontology, Robert Young.

Yet the supercentenarian still remembered each and every one of her students from Howalton, which according to a 2006 historic accounting in Purdue University Press’ Education and Culture Journal, was founded as an experimental lab school utilizing innovative instruction methods.

“When my mother died in 2005, Ms. Darden came to the house. She said, ‘Now you’re Sandy, right?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She said, ‘And you have two brothers.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ‘And you were the middle child, right?’ She remembered everything,” said Benton. “It was a lifetime bond.”

Born Feb. 17, 1900, in Dallas, Texas, Ms. Darden was one of five daughters of two schoolteachers, Ella Mary Allen and Charles Boswell, and all five daughterss became schoolteachers. She attended Dallas Colored High School and graduated in 1921 from the historically black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas — featured in the 2007 movie “The Great Debaters.” She taught 20 years in Dallas.

In 1942, she married her husband, Lloyd Darden, a successful accountant, and movedto Chicago. Her sister recruited her to teach at the newly formed Howalton, the archives of which Ms. Darden donated to the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection in 1996.

In her 2010 interview, Ms. Darden shared many life insights, including that she didn’t think she’d see the first black American president “so soon, but I felt we’d eventually have a black everything.” Regarding her longevity, she said, “I don’t know why I lived so long. I never thought of it. Just tried to do my work and treat people the right way.”

Having outlived her siblings and husband, Ms. Darden considered longtime Chicago political and civil rights activist Josie Brown Childs the closest thing to family, along with a caretaker, Betty Miller. Childs, who got Ms. Darden’s students and members of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, together to celebrate Ms. Darden for every birthday the last 10 years, says she was simply a joy.

A memorial service will be held at noon Sept. 17 at the Alpha Kappa Alpha community center, 6220 S. Ingleside Ave.

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