By Kim Howard
Mary Hester Brownell , who turns 90 on Sunday, has one piece of advice on living a long and happy life: “Be married to Lincoln.”
She was not referring to Abe Lincoln, with whom she shares a birthday. This Lincoln is her husband of 65 years who gave her two parakeets when she turned 89.
As parakeets Molly and Huck chattered on nearby and the rain pattered on the deck, Jerry, as Mary Hester is called by family and friends, declared with no hint of joking last week that her secret to longevity was “right there,” with a slight nod to her husband.
Born in Mays Landing, N.J., outside of Atlantic City, Brownell started life far from Williston, where she has lived for the last 30 years. After graduating from the University of Tennessee in 1938, she taught high school in Decatur, Tenn., a tiny village.
“It had only one bathroom in the whole county,” Brownell said.
She met Lincoln at a party in New York City in 1941 when Lincoln was a lawyer on Wall Street. Their first date was “sort of” a blind date, she said, at a nightclub called the Stork Club. There was a moment of spontaneity.
“We went dancing on Fifth Avenue,” she said. “Linc had a taxi driver turn up the music on his radio and we danced on Fifth Avenue on the sidewalk.”
“At two in the morning,” Lincoln added.
“I grabbed him off the market very quickly,” Brownell said of her husband, whom she married in 1941. “We were very compatible.”
The couple was separated during World War II – he was a pilot with the National Guard, she was in Washington, D.C., doing research and analysis work on China for the Office of Strategic Services, a loose precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. When the war ended, the couple returned to New York City where they had three sons, two of whom – Peter and Rick — now live in Williston. Before moving to Williston in 1975, the couple lived in Vietnam for 14 years due to a firm Lincoln started up which sold American products in Indo-China.
Lincoln comes from a long line of Vermonters – his parents, grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents all lived here, he said. In 1942 his father and uncles sold nearly all of the family homestead – the land around Imajica horse farm – which had been in the family since 1829. In 1952, they planned to sell the 60 acres they had retained on Brownell Mountain, Lincoln said, so he bought it for $2,000. When Saigon fell in 1975, the Brownells moved back to the U.S. and built a house on the property to retire in.
Brownell said earlier in life she was an avid bridge player. She enjoys the people of Williston and likes the convenience of the shopping developments near Taft Corners. She loves war movies and is a fan of “The West Wing,” a television drama about the White House. Jerry laments this is the show’s last season.
“If you see a lot of crying all around town, that will be it,” she said.
Brownell has no plans for her big day Sunday, nor does she have a long wish list for gifts.
“For my birthday last year I said I wanted a fire place, and that worked out very well, “she said, nodding her head toward a gas-burning fire place nearby in the living room. “But I can’t think of anything except a more comfortable chair.”