“Tennessee” Sherfey Leighton’s Surprise Letter on Her 93th Birthday

Paul Gill, a former resident of Johnson City, sent me a package chocked full of documentation about his family history that has numerous links to the city’s past. One story in particular caught my attention; it deals with the 93rdbirthday of Tenna Sherfey Leighton, Paul’s aunt, on August 17, 1957. She was born on August 17, 1864, eight months before the Civil War ended. 

This was a memorable occasion for the 1410 East Unaka Avenue resident. While opening her many congratulatory cards that arrived in the mailbox that week, she was astonished to find one with a return address of “The White House, Washington.” The sender of the correspondence was Mamie Eisenhower, wife of the 34thpresident of the United States. The First Lady penned the letter just prior to her entering a DC hospital.

Mrs. Eisenhower congratulated the elderly citizen on her milestone: “Dear Mrs. Leighton: It is a pleasure for me to extend warm and cordial congratulations on your approaching birthday on August 17. May peace and happiness be yours in abundance in the years to come.”

The president’s wife learned of Tenna’s accomplishment from Sherfey Hodges, a great-nephew of hers and retired Naval officer. He wrote Mrs. Eisenhower and made the request of her. Mrs. Leighton was so delighted with the letter that she took it to her church, the First Church of the Brethren, and showed it to her pastor, the Rev. B.J. Wampler, who, in turn, read it to his congregation.

Not to overlook this act of kindness by Mrs. Eisenhower, Mrs. Leighton sent a “thank you” note to the White House. When asked what she wrote, she responded: “I thanked her and sent her my best wishes and I enclosed a pretty ‘Get Well’ card too.” Tenna, a stanch Republican, always admired Mrs. Eisenhower, a fact she insisted had nothing to do with her political affiliation. “She is a fine woman,” she said, “and I respect her, regardless of politics.”

The elderly lady lived alone in the home that she had occupied since 1940, cooking her own meals, doing the daily cleaning and washing all but heavy articles. She canned tomatoes, peaches, corn, beans, apples and prunes.

The Sherfey family once lived on a farm along what in now Austin Springs Road. Her father named her “Tennessee” because her mother had the privilege of naming their first child, “Virginia,” the home state of the mother.

The family later moved closer to Johnson City. “Tennessee” had many fascinating memories of the days when the city was a village and the population was sparse. She recalled that it a grand occasion to come to town, riding behind her mother on a horse. They brought butter and eggs with them to sell, after which they would use the money to buy groceries before returning home.

During the 1896-97 school year, a grownup Tenna taught third grade at Martha Wilder School on Myrtle Avenue, then considered to be the newest and finest of educational institutions in the area. She married Charles D. Leighton in 1898 and went with him to live on a farm near Lawrenceburg, TN. In 1919, the family relocated to California. They returned to Johnson City after the death of her husband.

“Tennessee” was an avid reader of newspapers and magazines. She commented that her favorite book was the Bible. She kept records in the back of it that showed where she had read it from cover to cover 24 times.  

The 93-year-old’s special birthday came and went with little fanfare, which is the way she wanted it. Her many well wishes extended from as nearby as her household and as far away as Washington, DC. The hardy Johnson Citian lived another 12 years, departing this life at the age of 105.