FONTANA — The smile on Lela Sharp’s face couldn’t have been bigger as she peered out the glass front door of her Fontana home Thursday, Feb. 11, and watched a long line of vehicles parade down Merrill Street.

Patrol units from the Miami County Sheriff’s Office were flashing lights, an ambulance from Miami County Emergency Medical Services was blaring its siren, and friends and family members in separate vehicles of their own were honking horns, waving and holding up signs.

They all had a good reason to celebrate. After all, it’s not every day the oldest living person in Fontana turns 100.

“That was really nice,” Lela said afterward as she talked with family and friends who stopped by to wish her a happy 100th birthday.

Neighbors Ryan and Sarah Hagemaster helped organize the event, and they were some of the first to arrive Thursday morning for the party. It was an extra special day for Ryan, who was also celebrating his 41st birthday.

“She’s got me by a few years,” Ryan admitted.

Sarah wanted to make Lela’s milestone birthday special, so she reached out to Karen Blanck, who put them in touch with representatives from the Cops for Tots program at the Miami County Sheriff’s Office. Capt. Matt Kelly then took a lead role in organizing the county emergency vehicles for the parade.

Family members told Lela about it the night before so she could be prepared, but they all were overwhelmed by the turnout despite the bitter cold weather.

“My tears are frozen,” grandchild Angel Rice said while standing on the snow-covered front yard and waving at parade participants.

Family members said word about the parade spread quickly on social media and soon it seemed the whole town of Fontana was on board. Most all of the neighbors were well aware of Lela, who has lived in her Fontana home for the past 80 years.

It started as a two-room house built by her late husband, Ralph, and he continued to expand the home as their family grew.

“They used to joke that every time they had a kid they built another room,” grandchild Patty Dowty said.

Lela and Ralph ended up with six children: Carolyn Jenkins, Richard Sharp, Roger Sharp, Peggy Servos, Mary Tennis and Betty Marion.

Lela said she is most proud that all of her children have been married for over 50 years. Lela and Ralph were just a few months from their 65th wedding anniversary when he passed away in 2003.

Lela was born in 1921, the same year Amelia Earhart took her first flying lesson, Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in physics, and Warren G. Harding was inaugurated as the 29th president of the United States.

She said “working hard” is the best advice she could give to someone wondering how to live a long life. She added that it helps to grow a big garden.

Lela always had a big garden next to her Fontana home, and she used it to feed her growing family. Ryan said he has been Lela’s neighbor for about 13 years, and he remembers after they first moved in he was amazed to see Lela out plowing her garden using on old metal plow even though she was in her late 80s.

“I canned 92 quarts of green beans one year,” Lela proudly declared.

“Her green beans are the best,” Patty said.

“No, her chicken and noodles are the best,” another family member chimed in from the kitchen.

Family continues to be a focal point for Lela, and she said she enjoys the fact that many of her children and grandchildren still live nearby.

In fact, Patty visits Lela every Monday.

“She used to make me lunch, and now I cook for her,” Patty said.

All throughout Lela’s home Thursday were signs of how her family worked to make her birthday special. There was a happy birthday sign in the front yard, balloons showing the number 100 in the window and a T-shirt hanging up featuring the words: “Vintage 100, Aged to Perfection, Original Parts.”

There also was a special birthday card illustrating just how many things can happen in 100 years. The card says: “100 years of love and laughter; 36,525 days; 876,600 hours; 52,596,000 minutes; 6 amazing children; 16 beautiful grandchildren; 32 wonderful great grandchildren; many loving great-great grandchildren; 1 blessed family; All because of YOU!”

Patty said she loves her grandmother, and she will always remember the words of wisdom Lela passed on to her and her fellow family members.

“She would always say, ‘it’s a great life, if you don’t weaken,’” Patty said.

The saying comes from a song that was first recorded in 1930 for a musical film by Maurice Chevalier, and it has been covered by multiple artists since.

The lyrics state: “If you don’t lose heart, the hardest part is the first hundred years.”

Senior Managing Editor Brian McCauley can be reached at (913) 294-2311 or brian.mccauley@miconews.com.

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