Ezra Mae Wild, a centenarian who spent much of her childhood in an orphanage before going on to a long teaching career and years of volunteer work, died Saturday, just shy of her 101st birthday.
One of Mrs. Wild's daughters, Sharon Averitt of Versailles, said her mother kept a card on her refrigerator that said, "Happiness is a choice."
"That got her through a lot of hard things in her life," Averitt said.
Mrs. Wild was born on Feb. 6, 1913, in Louisville. Her father, George Gaul, died of a heart attack when she was 5 years old, and her mother, Easter Cusick Gaul, died three years later.
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Averitt said that because relatives didn't want to split up Ezra Mae and her older sister, Evelyn, they sent the girls to live at the Methodist church's Widows and Orphans Home, now based in Versailles and known as the Kentucky United Methodist Homes for Children and Youth.
Mrs. Wild lived there for 10 years and was mentored by the home's superintendent, Mrs. Jessie Ray Williams.
A family history compiled by Averitt and Mrs. Wild recounts that on the day Evelyn and Ezra Mae were left at the children's home, Ezra Mae cried. Williams took her hand and said, "We don't let little girls cry here."
Mrs. Wild is said to have been the first of the home's residents to graduate from college. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1934, she began a teaching career that spanned four decades.
Her first teaching job was at a one-room school in a coal mining camp in Harlan County. She went on to teach in Kenton and Woodford counties, but the majority of her career was spent at several schools in the Fayette County system. She taught first grade at Glendover Elementary from 1958 until her retirement in 1978.
David Bondurant, 71, was in Mrs. Wild's first-grade class at Little Picadome School.
"She was a very caring teacher," he said. "She knew that we were young kids and very impressionable and very apprehensive of what was going to happen to us in school. ... She tried her best to put those fears aside."
In later years, he and Mrs. Wild reconnected when they attended First United Methodist Church and Faith Fellowship together.
"If ever a woman lived 100 years with dignity and with vitality and with purpose, she did," Bondurant said.
Averitt said her mother enjoyed volunteering at God's Pantry and the Nathaniel Mission.
Just before her 90th birthday, Mrs. Wild and Averitt undertook a project to learn about the family's history.
They went to county clerks' offices and historical societies, and for the first time in her life, Mrs. Wild visited her parents' graves.
"She really didn't know anything at all about her family," Averitt said. "I got this idea that it would be good to give her a family."
Mrs. Wild spent most of her adult life in Lexington but had lived at an assisted living center in Fairborn, Ohio, since 2011.
In notes for the memorial service, Averitt said her mother used to love dancing at Joyland, "was a croquet player with a killer instinct," and "had a reputation for getting speeding tickets."
She was married for 29 years to the late R.W. "Jack" Wild, who was public relations director at the University of Kentucky in the 1940s and '50s and later taught advertising in the UK School of Journalism. The couple divorced in 1964.
In addition to Averitt, Mrs. Wild is survived by a son, David Wild of Charleston, S.C., and a daughter, Rae Cox of Beavercreek, Ohio. She had seven grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren, the second of whom was born Tuesday.
Visitation will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at Milward Funeral Directors on North Broadway. Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at the funeral home.