Calhoun County

Calhoun Centenarian: Weekends at Grandma's started off with breakfast and dancing to 'Soul Train'

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series. As part of our regular coverage of all things Battle Creek and Calhoun County, in coming weeks On the Ground will be highlighting the centenarian stories on our website and social media platforms.

Bessie “Madear” Havard was born the same year the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted, marking the beginning of Prohibition. She grew up in Vicksburg, Miss., with her sister and four brothers. Her mother was a midwife and her father a sharecropper.

Bessie attended a one-room schoolhouse along with her siblings and helped around the family home until she began working for local families. Many of Bessie’s family moved north from Mississippi as part of the Great Migration to find work, though she still has family in Mississippi to this day.

Bessie was married twice, first to Eddie Lewis, a union which only lasted a short time, and then to George Sweezer, who died in 1984. Between her two marriages, she raised four daughters and four sons, who in turn gave her multiple grandkids, who she also helped raise.

She spent many years with an Italian family that would give her hand-me-down clothes for her own children and brought her along on their travels as a nanny.

Weekends at Bessie’s house always started off the same way for her grandkids: eating a good home-cooked breakfast and then dancing to their favorite songs on Soul Train. At the end of the weekend, when the grandkids would get picked up, Bessie would stand on the hill next to the driveway, where her grandson would yell for her to do “Hammer Time” and she would start dancing to "Can’t Touch This" by MC Hammer. 

For many years, Bessie walked to work as she was unable to afford a car. The Caccaros, a family she worked for, eventually helped her purchase a vehicle, but all those years of walking became a habit and most days you could see her walking down the side of the road wearing a big straw hat.

Bessie got the nickname “Madear” because, as she put it, the kids could not say “mother dear”, so Madear just stuck. She was an outgoing woman with a good sense of humor who used to love to dance. Recognized for her kindness and hard work, she always made ends meet. Putting her children and grandchildren first, they always ate before she did.

She enjoys listening to Jazz and Gospel music on the radio and if things get worrisome, she sings her favorite song, "The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow" by Tommy Dorsey. Bessie never really had time for hobbies, but she does like to watch television. She has developed a love for basketball because she enjoys watching her grandson play.

When Bessie was no longer able to live on her own, she moved to Albion to live with her daughter, Marjorie. Her family looks up to the 101-year-old Bessie as a shining example of someone who has worked hard without complaining, always putting others before herself.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.