106 CANDLES

WORDS Marla Cantrell
IMAGES courtesy Marguerite Carney and Cindy Clark

Apr 1, 2024 | Featured, People

One-hundred-six-year-old Marguerite Carney sits in her easy chair inside the Fort Smith, Arkansas house she’s owned for seventy-five years. Her white hair is in a ponytail, and she’s wearing an emerald-green jogging suit. She is a tiny, blue-eyed woman with good posture, a result of a lifetime of dancing.

She points toward her front yard, where there’s a missing section of brick along the driveway’s edge. “My last boyfriend knocked that over,” Marguerite says. “Ran right over it in the dark of night.”

Marguerite is what you’d call a hoot. There is a series of pictures of her that show her dressed as Rosie the Riveter, Betsy Ross, the Easter Bunny. Her friend, Cindy Clark, came up with the idea to commemorate holidays, and Marguerite signed on.

She no longer drives, but it wasn’t that long ago she totaled her Mustang convertible when she hit a patch of black ice. Her daughter Donna was riding shotgun. Marguerite is smiling while Donna tells the story, her youngest daughter Debbie sitting nearby. When Debbie realizes Donna was in the car, she asks, “Why was Mom driving?” Donna shrugs. “You try telling her no.” If their sister Margot were here, she’d probably agree.

Marguerite’s parents likely had the same problem. She was born in Fort Smith on March 20, 1918, the baby of seven, to a mother who had emigrated from Austria. Her father, whose surname was Brun, was the great-nephew of Albert Lebrun, who would become France’s president in 1932.

Nineteen-eighteen found Arkansas reeling from the Spanish flu pandemic. World War I would end, but not until November. Women didn’t have the right to vote, although a measure on that year’s ballot in Arkansas made provisions for women’s suffrage. The measure did not pass.

A total eclipse of the sun took place on June 8. Airmail began, as did Daylight Saving Time. Nine days after Marguerite was born, Walmart founder Sam Walton took his first breath 229 miles away, in Kingfisher, Oklahoma.

Marguerite’s father owned a confectionery shop on Garrison Avenue that adjoined the Boston Store. Marguerite remembers chocolate sodas selling for a nickel. She dated the captain of the St. Anne’s Academy football team, was homecoming queen, and was training to become a ballerina.

She was a young woman when soldiers came to Fort Chaffee to train for World War II. She and nine of her friends raised enough money to buy a multi-seat vehicle for the Red Cross Motor Corps. The women learned to change tires and oil and chauffeured soldiers, often showing them the local sights. “Raising money wasn’t hard,” Marguerite says. “Everybody in town wanted to do something for the war.” In 1958, she’d return to Chaffee to watch inductee Elvis Presley get his long hair shorn. “He was a good-looking guy. Very good-looking,” she says.

In 1942, Marguerite married George Carney, a pilot in the Navy. She was at a party in Fort Smith when she learned World War II had ended. “My brother came and told us the war was over.” And what did she do? “I took another drink, of course!”

After the war, the couple built a house in Fort Smith, and George took over for his father at the Harding Glass Plant. Eventually, George started Carney Properties, a real estate company, and Marguerite’s life revolved around her three daughters, volunteering, and her work in the Catholic church.

A cross-country vacation took the family through Las Vegas. George, a golfer, wanted to play at one of the big resorts, but they were scrambling to find a parking space. When one finally opened, Marguerite jumped out, raced over, and stood in the middle of it.

“Well, here comes Dean Martin.” Marguerite waves her hand as if to dismiss the star. ”And I said, ‘No, I’m saving this for my husband.’ He said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I know who you are. And I’m still saving this spot for my husband.’”

Laughing, she adds, “He was nice about it. Later, he gave the girls an autographed cocktail napkin and gave us tickets to his show.”

The Carneys’ marriage lasted until George’s death in 1980. He died suddenly at Central Mall from a heart attack. Marguerite was sixty-two. She’d never worked outside the home, but George had been teaching her how he ran the company. She never dreamed she’d need to know.

Marguerite took over Carney Properties and still holds a position there today. One of her acquisitions was Williamsburg Square Shopping Center, that she later sold. The only experience she’d had had been raising money for the Red Cross and serving as president of the St. Edward Women’s Guild. Turns out, she was a natural at business.

When George died, Dr. Marlin Hoge and his wife showed up at the hospital. The two couples were longtime friends and had a standing date on Wednesday nights at the Red Barn restaurant. He was also George’s doctor. “Fort Smith was a much smaller town when I grew up. We all knew each other’s family. It just came natural that after Marlin’s wife died, our friendship grew.”

The two dated until Dr. Hoge’s death in 2017, when he was 103. He’s the boyfriend who ran through her driveway late one night, after he’d dropped her off.

When Marguerite tells her story, it’s happy. Although, that’s not quite accurate. She’s lost a lot in more than a century, and she’s survived four bouts of cancer. Nothing compares to the 2011 murder in Tulsa of her twenty-six-year-old grandson, Randolph Ney. “We just clicked. He’d come pick me up in his car and turn up the radio. He’d say, ‘Grandma, I know you like this music as much as I do.’” Marguerite’s lovely face stills. “I pray for him every day,” she says.

“I have a deep faith in God. That Man up above guides me and takes me over.” She points to her heart. “It’s just buried so deep in here, I can’t express it.”

So much has gone to dust. The Harding Glass Plant is a distant memory, St. Anne’s Academy shut down in 1973. The Red Barn burned to the ground in 2014, and the Boston Store ended its reign in 1984. In 2023, Newton’s Jewelers on Garrison Avenue shuttered. The shop stood for 109 years, and Marguerite was their oldest customer. “In the last fifteen minutes they were open, I was outside sitting in the car.” She touches her throat, where a chain studded with aquamarine stones catches the light. “The Newton girls came out and gave me this.”

In 106 years, she can only think of one regret. She returns to the teenage summer when her dance teacher, Miss Madden, took her to see the New York Ballet Company. “I can see that ballerina now,” Marguerite says. “She was beautiful. She was a wonderful dancer. People back home told me I was wonderful, but seeing her, I knew I didn’t compare. I knew my future wasn’t on the stage.”

Marguerite came home and created a life filled with a different happiness, and later, she taught her girls to dance.

In her lifetime, she’s seen a man walk on the moon and the first woman on the Supreme Court. She witnessed the Arkansas Razorbacks win the 1964 National Championship. Her daughter Debbie opened a dance studio.

Marguerite still lives in the house her husband built more than seven decades ago. Outside, a section of the driveway’s edge is missing, accidentally taken out by her sweetheart on a moonless night. Every bit of the house, every inch of the driveway, reminds Marguerite of her two great loves. Everything stays as it is; she leaves it all unchanged.

Do South Magazine

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