A happy hundredth
Velma Davidson celebrated her birthday this year in low-key fashion, talking to family over the phone before taking a short nap. After 100 years, she’s earned it.
Davidson, of Eagle River, reached the century mark Jan. 10 surrounded by a throng of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren at the home of her caretaker Lydia Guerrero.
“She’s put a lot of miles on her feet,” Guerrero said as Davidson put her feet up in a nearby recliner.
Davidson grew up in northern Oklahoma, where she was one of 12 children. Family was always a big part of her life, said daughter Melodee Monson.
“We’re close, but not too close,” Monson joked.
Close, but far from conventional. The Davidson family first arrived in Alaska in 1963, left for a year, then returned to settle permanently in Hope in 1965. Velma’s son, Robert, joked the family had good reason to skip 1964.
“We knew the earthquake was coming,” he said with a laugh.
Daughter DMay Binkley said she believes her parents decided on the rural Kenai Peninsula community because they both had adventuresome spirits.
“I think they just liked the more laid back attitude,” Binkley said.
After arriving in Hope, Velma and Frank ran a café and bar while their brood of seven children explored the wilds around Hope. Binkley said her parents were fair but tough.
“They didn’t take any prisoners raising us,” she said.
After a fire burned the café, the family rebuilt and turned the business into a general store and liquor store. Eventually, the business became a gas station as well. Although Frank passed away some three decades ago, Velma continued to run the station — even pumping gas for customers — until she was 94.
“Apparently you can’t keep a good woman down,” Binkley said.
Several members of Velma’s family marveled at their matriarch’s longevity. Grandson Erik Davidson, who now lives in Finland, said he’s amazed at the amount of changes his grandmother has witnessed over the years.
“It’s a window into another time,” he said.
Erik said he spent his youth tagging along behind his grandmother while she worked at the gas station. He remembers her as a determined, dedicated woman beloved by the entire town.
“I guess courageous is how I’d describe her,” he said.
Binkley agreed with that assessment. She said her parents were a strong-willed duo who took a big risk by moving their large family to Alaska.
“It was a huge leap of faith,” she said.
Leaps of faith were nothing new for Velma, who chose Frank as her life’s love after the dashing youngster made a rather clumsy first impression.
“His horse stepped on her foot,” Binkley said.
From that moment on, the pair was inseparable, she said. The couple moved to California, where Velma was a teacher, before their final move to the Last Frontier.
In Hope, the Davidson family became a huge part of the small community, hosting smorgasbord-style community dinners at their café.
“Those were really cool,” said Binkley.
College-educated and with a pulse on her community like no one else, Velma became the unofficial voice of Hope, writing a column in the Cheechako News, an early Kenai Peninsula paper.
Velma’s granddaughter Emilee Monson, a biologist who flew from Portland for the party, said life at her grandma’s house in the woods of Hope was an ideal setting for a curious youngster to grow up.
“We could go anywhere we wanted,” she said.
Velma’s grandson Dennis now runs the family gas station. A few years ago, Velma moved to Eagle River, where she’s lived with Guerrero since. Health problems have kept her inside much of the time recently. But up until last year, Guerrero said, Velma was a regular fixture at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center.
“She’s a real sweetheart,” Guerrero said.
About a dozen family members from across Alaska and Outside gathered for the big birthday party, a testament to the birthday girl’s abilities as an Alaska pioneer and strong-willed mother. Raising her kids right, said Melodee Monson, is something her mother always took pride in.
“She was interviewed once by a newspaper and asked what her biggest accomplishment was,” Monson recalled. “She said, ‘I raised seven children, and none of them are on welfare.’”
As her family gathered around her to offer birthday wishes, Velma sat up in her recliner and offered a wide, proud smile to the generations gathered before her.
“It is a pretty tight-knit family,” Monson said.