When her daughter, Lottie Ryans, workforce development director for the First Tennessee Development District, speaks to students about work ethic, she shows them a photo of her mother at work on her 94th birthday and tells them if they looked up work ethic in a dictionary, this is the picture they would find.
Eula, who not only continues working but also drives herself to work, to church and to do her own shopping, said simply she prefers work to doing nothing. And she suspects it’s her job that keeps her sharp.
“I realize I’m getting older, but I don’t feel like I’m 95,” she said. “I just feel like if I didn’t work, I’d be sitting here doing nothing. My mind wouldn’t be as good and I need to keep moving.”
Looking back over a work history that spans eight decades, she recalled taking her first job when she was a young teen, doing laundry once a week for a family that owned a store in the rural mountain community of Castlewood, Virginia, where she was raised.
“Those clothes were washed outside in tubs on a washboard and they were hung on lines to dry,” she said. “It must have been summer because I don’t remember what they did in wintertime.”
Her next gainful employment was more regular, bottling milk at a neighboring dairy farm with a three- or four-gallon contraption that injected the milk into glass quarts.
At age 19, she married and at 21 she had the first of six children. Soon afterward, she and husband moved to Johnson City to give their children the opportunity to attend school they would not have had in Castlewood.
“I didn’t go school at all. There weren’t any schools for us, black, even in Castlewood.” Instead, Eula’s father paid a young a woman to teach the oldest of his children in her home.
They later attended classes in a chapel where church services were held irregularly. But Eula said she never considered the chapel a school because their lessons there were limited to reading, spelling and arithmetic.
“I got to go a little bit,” she said, unlike her younger siblings, who were taken to school in a neighboring community where her brother distinguished himself as valedictorian of his class.
In Johnson City, her own children attended grade school at Dunbar and high school at Langston during the segregation era and later North Side Elementary, North Junior High and Science Hill.
When members of the city’s black community filed the federal lawsuit that forced Johnson City schools to step up their sluggish efforts to integrate, her husband was among the plaintiffs.
He worked as a janitor and, as when their children begin school, Eula went to work cleaning at Johnson City’s former Memorial Hospital. “They called it maintenance but I called it maid,” she said.
At night the two of them cleaned buildings together. And while holding down two and sometimes three jobs, Eula also managed to keep a home for their large family, to prepare hot meals for them daily and, in her spare time, to become an accomplished seamstress.
After a number of years at the hospital, Eula went to work for East Tennessee State University, cleaning Brooks Gym. Eventually she transferred to Shelbridge, home of the university’s presidents, where she did “a little bit of everything.” She began work at ETSU during the tenure of President Burgin Dossett, and retired under President Ron Beller after more than 20 years at ETSU.
Along the way, she and her husband were also active in the launch of the Washington County affiliate of the National Association for Retarded Citizens. Their youngest child and only son had developmental disabilities and before his death as a young adult, and benefited from the umbrella of services ARC brought to the area.
Their five daughters did well in school and in their careers. And like Lottie, they give much of the credit for their individual successes to their parents’ work ethic and the value they placed on education.
Lottie, the youngest girl, retired as vice-president and general manager of CenturyLink Tennessee/Western North Carolina before taking the lead of the FTDD’s Workforce and Literacy Initiatives. The other girls include an economic and community development director for the city of Austin, a payroll administrator retired from Siemens, a lab technician and a retired staffer with the Missouri Department of Labor.
Eula revels in the benefits of all of the above, including the “girl trips” the Fields sisters treat her to each October in celebration of her birthday. They like to explore the nation’s great cities, and in the past have taken her to visit New York, Boston and San Francisco. This year, they’ll be traveling to Austin, Texas, where she’s eager to see her daughter Joy’s new home.
And then there are Eula’s eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, who likewise hold her in great esteem and like the fact that they can often find at the mall and that many of their friends know her too, because of her job at Charley’s.