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Goal for 103-year-old Betty Lockett: register 103 voters

Betty Lockett Hammond is greeted by TinDent League Women Voters during Lockett's 103rd birthday Party Munster Monday afternoon. Lockett only

Betty Lockett of Hammond is greeted by Tina Dent of the League of Women Voters during Lockett's 103rd birthday Party in Munster Monday afternoon. Lockett only birthday wish was for 103 new voters to be registered. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Long and interesting life

Betty Johnson-Lockett was born the grandchild of slaves, the 11th of 12 children born to sharecroppers in tiny Pocahontas, Miss.

Lockett’s father, who raised cotton and peanuts, moonlighted as a butcher and her mother served as the local midwife, a career her daughter later followed.

“It was pretty tough, but not too tough for us,” she remembered. “We didn’t have it too bad because the children started working young and there were 12 of us.”

She attended services at the nearby Cedar Grove Baptist Church three times a week and studied the Bible at home with her father, a deacon.

At 21, Lockett moved to Chicago to be her husband, Andrew Lockett, who had pulled spikes and replaced rail ties for 20 cents an hour until moving to the Windy City to work for the Illinois Central Railroad. After attending nursing school in Chicago, she become a labor and delivery nurse and, like her mother, helped bring hundreds of people in this world.

The couple, who produced one son — South Holland, Ill., truckdriver Andrew Lockett, Jr., 59 — were married 72 years. She’s the grandmother of three and great grandmother of one.

“He was a hard worker and a wonderful husband,” she said.

Her advice for living long is simple: Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and don’t smoke or drink alcohol.

“You eat right and go to bed at night,” she recommended. “Don’t be jumping around in the streets at night.”

That’s easy for her to say: both her paternal grandmother and great aunt lived past 100, so she concedes that genes probably contributed to her longevity.

Lockett has come a long way from Pocahontas. Forget television, space rockets and the Internet: Lockett was born the year Wilbur Wright circled over the Statue of Liberty. When she was 13, Lockett saw her first airplanes buzzing in the sky above the cotton fields her family worked.

“I thought the world was coming to an end,” she recalled. “In those days the only thing you saw when you looked up was the trees. We were all jumping rope and I gathered up all the local children and chased the dogs out from under the house and went there to be safe. It was a frightening thing to see and hear. They kept on thundering, but I could see the sun was shining. I thought this was the Judgment Day.”

She said race relations have improved from the time of her youth. Lockett said the local Ku Klux Klan didn’t come out to rural Pocahontas.

“They didn’t bother us too much because we were out in the swamps, but I remember separate water fountains. And I remember we’d have to call white people Mister and Miss, even if they were only 2 years old. There was a line and you knew not to cross it. Things are better today, but there’s still discrimination.”

After her husband’s death, she returned to Mississippi, where she campaigned for then-Sen. Barack Obama. She returned to live locally with her cousin, Ollie Sherrod of Hammond, several years ago when she began losing her vision due to cataracts.

“I’m lucky,” she said. “I’ve still got my wits about me. Today it’s a different world and it’s changing all the time.”

— correspondent Mark Taylor

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Updated: October 12, 2012 6:15AM



Betty Lockett had one wish for her 103rd birthday Monday.

“For my birthday present I asked to have 103 people register to vote,” said Lockett, a widowed Hammond centenarian, retired nurse and Mississippi native.

“I want people to have that freedom to vote and be counted on Election Day,” said Lockett, who went blind from cataracts three years ago. “The young people especially need that. Voting gives them a boost and wakes them up to see what’s going on.”

So Monday at the Secret’s Loving Care Adult Day Services in Munster where she spends weekdays, the League of Women Voters of the Calumet Area registered voters.

Lockett’s cousins, Peter Smith of East Chicago, her legal guardian, and Ollie Sherrod of Hammond, her health care guardian, arranged the event.

“That’s what she said she wanted,” chuckled Smith, 63, a training coordinator for the United Steelworkers Local 5133 at U.S. Steel in Gary. “So we invited people to come and register to celebrate her birthday wish and her life.”

Voting is like a religion to Lockett now, because for a long time she didn’t vote.

“Where I was raised in Mississippi they mostly didn’t allow us to vote,” she said. “And if they did, they watched you at the polls to make sure what you were doing. Young people need to know that this is their right. They need to exercise their rights. Martin Luther King died for that. We must keep on struggling.”

At Secret’s Loving Care, she sat as elegant as a queen on a white leather Barkalounger throne, bedecked in a tiara and sequined top and holding a scepter. Only the dark sunglasses she wears to hide her blindness are a giveaway.

Lockett said she knows who she will vote for in November. He’s already sent her an autographed photo and letter.

“I plan to vote for President 0bama,” she beamed. “That’s my choice and that’s my right.”

Lockett said her birthday wish was partly inspired by news reports of predicted voter suppression created by 33 state voter identification laws, which impose strict identification and documentation requirements. While Indiana’s law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, similar laws in Florida and Texas have been challenged by civil rights organizations and the U.S. Justice Department.

“I think that’s terrible,” Lockett said. “They’re trying to keep President Obama out. It’s wrong for them to do that by taking away people’s right to vote.”

Smith said the birthday wish was totally his cousin’s idea.

“She’s very politically aware and believes that this is the most important election in our country’s history,” he said. “She’s very adamant that everyone should vote and nobody should be denied that right.”

Her voter registration had lapsed since moving to Northwest Indiana from Mississippi, so Smith helped re-register her.

“That was a problem,” he said. “Because she was born in 1909 and Mississippi didn’t begin giving birth certificates until 1912.”

Anyone registering to vote can send a text, “my vote counts,” to 201-1451 in honor of Betty Lockett or call Albertine Dent of the League of Women Voters of the Calumet Area at 201-1389 for information on registering to vote.



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