Obituary: Grace Prewett Haythorne

Grace Haythorne
Grace Haythorne(WTAP)
Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 3:02 PM EDT
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Amazing Grace to friends and family, competitive bridge player, avid golfer, successful business owner, diehard West Virginia Mountaineer fan, bestower of champagne at celebrations, renowned St. Patrick’s Day party hostess and a staunch believer in handwritten thank you notes, left this world at 1:00AM, Saturday, June 5, 2021.  She said, " I’m 108 years old.  No one should live this long.  I’m going to die”...and she did.  Grace lived her entire life in the Mid-Ohio Valley.  She loved Parkersburg, especially Market Street.

Grace Kinder Prewett was born in a large white farmhouse located between Belpre and Constitution, Ohio.  Her father, George McClellan Prewett was a farmer and expert horseman.  Her mother, Sophia Louise Kinder Prewett was a teacher from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, who believed Ohio did not live up to The Show-Me State.  Grace was the second of four children: Georgia, Grace, Glynda and Max.  All were exceptionally good looking.  Only the eldest, Georgia, appeared to be aware of that.

Like most of the families in Southeastern Ohio during the 1920s, the Prewetts struggled to survive, but they lived in a cleaner world.  In the summer, they enjoyed picnics on the banks of the Ohio River and swimming in the clear water that was only disturbed by the occasional paddle wheeler.  All the Prewett siblings were excellent swimmers, and Grace loved to swim over to Neal Island and back.  In the winter, they hitched their horse, Jim Dandy, up to a sleigh with jingle bells and they rode across the snowy fields accompanied by their two black and white shepherd dogs, Pepper and Pride.

Grace’s fondest memory of growing up on the farm happened the summer of 1926.  Bonnie Bledsoe, a Ziegfeld Follies Showgirl and distant cousin of Sophia, was on a work break because Flo Ziegfeld had shut the Follies down for a few months.  Bonnie taught Grace and Glynda chorus girl high kicks. Grace remembered Bonnie with her short auburn ringlets and legs that went on forever standing on the staircase landing shouting “Hit it, Sophie.”  The children were used to their mother playing church hymns, not ragtime.  Grace and Glynda held a sheet for a curtain, and when Bonnie turned, winked, and whispered “Showtime!”, the girls dropped the sheet. Bonnie step-kicked down the stairs while Sophie pounded out Maple Leaf Rag.  Those three weeks were magical for Grace.  She loved the way Bonnie Bledsoe was her own woman.  Then “Ziggy” called and Bonnie got on the train for New York.  Grace went back to farm chores, but she never forgot Bonnie Bledsoe.

She attended Belpre High School and excelled in girl’s basketball and math.  When her math instructor, Mr. Lightfritz, presented the class with what he called an “unsolvable” problem, Grace accepted the challenge.  She couldn’t wait to get to school the next day to show her favorite teacher her achievement. Mr. Lightfritz indicated the problem on the board and said, “I don’t suppose any of you...” Grace’s hand shot up.  He was surprised because Grace was his best student, but always very shy.  “Miss Prewett,” he chuckled. “Show us.”  When Grace finished at the board, Mr. Lightfritz was not smiling.  “Turn to page 27,” he said. “Is it " “Yes, it’s right, and we can’t waste any more time,” he said.  Grace would later tell her daughter Patty and granddaughter Laurie, “You can never be smarter than The Man.” How unfortunate she believed she needed to hide her talent.

After graduating with the class of 1931, Grace attended Mountain State Business College in Parkersburg where she studied women’s basic business skills: typing, shorthand, bookkeeping and accounting.  Every Friday after 5:00pm, Grace and Glynda traded in their steno pads for dance cards.  At the Coliseum’s largest dance floor in West Virginia, Grace and Glynda enjoyed dancing to the famous Big Bands of the day like Guy Lombardo and the popular Ozzy Nelson.  Grace once told her

niece, Susan Slane Lyken, “When the Prewett girls walked into the Coliseum, heads turned.”  A new man slipped onto her dance card, James Haythorne, who had just moved to Parkersburg as District Manager for Metropolitan Life Insurance.  Grace declined his invitations and couldn’t believe that “Jim” wasn’t bothered by her rejections.  He was not like any of her other suitors who actively adored her.  Jim was not tall, handsome, or the best dancer.  But he was ambitious.  His goal was to leave the corporate world and start his own business.  It was 1940 and Grace had worked her way up to executive secretary for Mr. Crawford, President of the Rigg and Reel Company.  This was the plum position for a woman who had started in the secretarial pool.  It was not enough for Grace.  She knew with her business smarts she could run a successful business... if she had the opportunity.

In August 1942, James Haythorne and Grace Prewett were married, and they moved into the Virginia Apartments that James co­owned and managed.  Despite being 43, Jim got drafted into World War II and Grace was left with her Rigg and Reel job which was more stressful because of the war effort and managing the apartments which were now rented by single working girls who paid $37.00 per month rent.

When the war ended, Jim knew it was time to get the financial backing to start their own business.  They took a second mortgage on the apartments, and sold Prewett farmland.  In 1947, they opened the doors to the newly built Lawnsdale Hotel on Route 7 between Belpre and Marietta.  It included a bar, a banquet hall, a restaurant and 26 rooms really 25 rooms because there was no Room 13.  Turned out Grace was a natural manager with a good eye for detail.  She set the rules, hired, trained and encouraged the staff.  Business grew quickly and the Lawnsdale was ahead of Grace’s schedule for success.

Disaster came in February 1951 when the Parkersburg-Belpre Bridge had to be closed for repairs.  Everyone had to ride the ferry.  75% of the hotel business came from Parkersburg.  Now it was gone.  Jim realized there was an untapped market in Dunham Township.  Grace typed up flyers and designed coupons for a Friday and Saturday night buffet and square dance.  They drove back into the hills and distributed them.  Turned out to be a windfall!  Grace went back to her manual Underwood and started typing over 100 words per minute writing letters to Marietta College fraternities and sororities for their dances.  Jim and Grace went from “Swing Your Partners Do-Si-Do to white sport coats and layers of chiffon.”

In 1953 the Union Carbide Plant opened on Route 7, and Grace typed up welcoming letters to department supervisors.  Pretty soon the Lawnsdale Hotel banquet schedule was full with Union Carbide dinner meetings and the bar became a “Cheers Bar” for Union Carbide workers.  Grace combined supervising the banquet servings with listening to the WVU Mountaineers on her transistor radio.

The unforgettable summer of 1960, precisely Friday, July 15th at 8:00pm, Grace’s hero, Jerry West along with Rod Thorn and the Charleston All Stars coached by Fred Schaus played Buzzy Davis, Don Marks, Larry Fore, Dick Tredway and the Belpre All Stars at Belpre Civitan Park.  Donation: 50 cents.  The local boys played hard, but Charleston won the game...91-83 in overtime!  Grace always insisted this was the greatest night in Belpre’s history. (She could be right)

After 19 mostly good years, the Lawnsdale Hotel was sold to the state and torn down to expand Route 7.  Grace found herself well-off and jobless.  She approached some Marietta businesses to apply for office manager openings.  This time it wasn’t gender, but age discrimination.  No one was hiring a woman who was 50.  She decided to take a night class at Marietta College and went to the Ban Johnson Field House to sign up for a Finance Class.  The line was too long so she went to the next table and signed up for French.  Since it wasn’t math, she struggled and managed to receive a B.  At the end of the last class, Grace pulled a bottle of champagne out of her tote bag and the class toasted each other with bubbly in paper cups.  After all, it was a night class!  Their instructor, Assistant Professor Daniel, told them what a great group they were and he was honored to teach them French 101.  “Unfortunately this is probably my last class,” he said.  Daniel told them he did not think he would get tenure.  Grace went home, dusted off her old Underwood and composed a letter to the modem languages department.  When the department chairman read Grace’s persuasive message, he must have thought Daniel “could skip on water.”  Tenure was granted!

Jim and Grace had lived on the “Ohio side” for 25 years and now it was time to go home.  They bought a house on Market Street, just a block away from the Virginia Apartments where they first started.  Now they could spend lots of time with old friends.  Jim had lived with cancer since 1962 and by 1977 he was bedridden.  Grace was his devoted caregiver until he died in 1978.  She had no idea she would live at 1354 Market Street for 52 years.

As a mother she was focused on running a business, but now her proudest moments were as “Sportie” the ultimate grandmother.  Her granddaughter, Laurie, was a PHS cheerleader and “Sportie” never missed a game.  With golf, bridge, and “Sportie” duties, Grace lived a full life...well, almost.  In 1986, Grace started seeing the widower, Paul Matheny, who became her best friend.  Paul admired her business acumen and sports knowledge...and at 73, Grace was still a beauty.  They enjoyed short trips, dinners at the Point of View, martinis at the Country Club and watching Cincinnati Reds games.  When they were out with friends, Paul loved to show her off by asking Grace questions like “What were the years the Big Red Machine won back to back World Series?” Grace would say, “1975-76, too easy.” “Or who was the Reds winningest manager?” “Sparky Anderson, everybody knows that.”  Grace would then suppress a yawn. “Awwww!”  Their yearly plans were interrupted in 1990 by a doctor’s report.  Paul had cancer.  He died in October, 1991.  Grace was devastated.

Part of her amazingness was her ability to reinvent herself more times than Madonna.  In her later years she became the “Grand Dame of Market Street”.  She would sit in her porch swing which became a good way to get to know her neighbors who became her good friends.  Cast of: dear friend John Towner, who kept her informed of the neighborhood daily news, Sam Lamba, who delighted her with his “Walter Mitty” type escapades, Bonnie Taylor, local photographer and historian who arranged an interview between Grace and Professor Phillip Sturm of the Wood County Historical and Preservation Society....she pretended to have nothing important to say, but she relished the opportunity.. .and charmed Professor Sturm.  Other supporting cast members: Jerry and Betsy McWilliams, her caring neighbors who hailed from Boston, Beverly Badgett, her favorite bridge partner and daughter figure, Jim McGinnis, a former Market Street-er, confidante and “son” to her, and Chad Bloss, her idea of the All American boy who shared her love of baseball and horses.  Her holidays were shared with her Athens friend, Marcia Key and her sons.  They would always dine at the Blennerhassett Hotel for their Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations.

At 107, Grace’s sight had deteriorated to the point of almost total blindness.  Bonnie Taylor introduced her to Ruthie Drennen Siber who agreed to act as Grace’s eyes: helping her with meals, paying bills, writing letters, and setting the TV to play the WVU Mountaineers and the Cincinnati Reds.  Over that last year and a half, Grace learned that you’re never too old to make a new best friend. Ruthie learned Grace’s Life Tips: use a new word everyday, always walk, (it’s best with a dog) eat a Mediterranean diet, say au revoir for goodbye, and if you drink... drink Jack Daniel’s.

She died surrounded by three women: her daughter, Patricia Pell, her granddaughter, Laurie Grigsby, and her caretaker, Ruthie Drennen Siber, all telling her, “Let your spirit go!”  Her many friends and family loved her.  She will be missed.  Grace Prewett Haythorne was her own woman.  Bonnie Bledsoe would be proud.  Let’s raise a glass of bubbly.. .or a shot of Jack.  Au revoir!

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