Kate Gilbert still active and vibrant at 97
by Kenda Nelson
Nov 20, 2011 | 1605 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Kenda Nelson photo
Surrounded by family pictures in her cozy home, Kate Gilbert has worn the gold medal of the Virgin Mary since a nun at the hospital gave it to her when the hospital was brand new and before the first patient was ever admitted.
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REFUGIO — Last Monday, Kate Gilbert of Refugio turned 97.

On Tuesday, she boarded her car and drove to J.C. Penney in Victoria to purchase a new pair of shoes. Miss Kate says she’ll drive herself back next week because she didn’t find a pair she liked.

“I don’t know what I’d do without my car,” she says emphatically.

At 97, Miss Kate walks erect and gets around better than many people half her age.

“I’ve always been full of energy,” she says. “I still like to go and do.”

Born on the McFaddin Ranch on Nov. 7, 1915, the ranch hands affectionately called her “Cowboy.”

“I’d put on my overalls and tie a red bandanna around my neck and ride my Shetland pony to town,” she says.

Her parents, Steven and Dominga Valenzuela Canchola provided a close-knit but hard-working family life.

Her brother Henry broke the Shetlands for $5, so most of the ranch children were mobile.

“When I’d ride to the store, one of the men at the store would holler, ‘Cowboy, come and get you a red soda water or a candy.’”

Miss Kate says she’s never had trouble finding a work.

“When I was a kid, I chopped cotton, picked corn and popped a whip to scare away the birds. I’ve worked all my life.”

Bigger-than-life ranch owners treated hands and families well, she said.

Mrs. Henry Crain took Kate home to live with her family before her school days began.

“Back in those days, Latinos didn’t speak English at home until we went to school,” she said. “When I was about five or six, I stayed with them. They taught me English and I taught Mrs. Crain’s kids Spanish. They treated me like family. Wherever they went, I went, too.”

The Cancholas lived in McFadden until 1927.

“Daddy rented a train box car to move us and our things to Edna,” she said. “Henry went by wagon to take the hogs and chickens. Before I left, Al McFaddin gave me my Shetland pony.”

Riding her pony to school in Edna, she was on top the world.

“My daddy did me wrong,” she said. “He sold my pony.”

In 1929, the family moved to Refugio and her father worked on the John Mitchell Ranch.

“The ranchers found out Daddy raced horses and Mr. John J. O’Brien talked my Daddy into working for him at the Quincy Ranch.”

Her father died in 1933.

“He worked until he got hurt,” she said.

A bull gored her father’s horse and the horse rolled over her father, breaking bones and putting him out of commission.

After her father passed away, she and her mother bought a little tin house on the curve on West Ymbacion for $150.

“We lived there until the storm blew it away in 1942,” she said.

Her brother David and Pete Perez were celebrating their acceptance into the Army the night of the storm. Her mother had gone to Corpus Christi and had taken her young baby son, Jose, with her.

“I was so worried about Momma and Jose in Corpus Christi,” Gilbert said. “Finally my brother and Pete came home. Then the whole window frame blew out onto the bed. I don’t know how but they nailed the window back.”

Soon the whole house blew down, trapping Kate under a chest and the mattress she had crawled under.

Her brother was running down the street for help when he met Binky Heard, who was looking in after the Fox sisters, Kate says.

“Our tin house crushed Mrs. Lillian Adkins’ garden,” she said. “After they got me out, they took me to Mrs. Gilbert’s house and on to the hospital. ”

Her mother arrived home and didn’t know anything about the hurricane.

“It was a bad storm and a lot of people in Austwell and Tivoli lost everything,” she said.

Gilbert has seen good times and bad, but her zest for life has never waned.

“I’ve always loved to dance,” she says. “I even won a Charleston dancing contest.”

Before the Refugio hospital opened its doors for the first patient, Gilbert took a job helping the nuns clean and set up beds. She has worn the medal of the Virgin Mary since one of the sisters gave it to her.

“I wear this and the medal my son gave me every day,” she says.

After he was grown, Jose made the Air Force his career.

“Every time he got stationed somewhere, he’d send for me,” she says. “He was so good to me.”

She also worked for most of the wealthy families in Refugio.

“I remember we used to sleep in the attic of the Rose Lambert house,” she said. “I remember looking out the windows.”

In 1960, she took a job as a taxi driver for Chivi Cisneros.

“I drove people all over Refugio – I took kids to school, picked them up and occasionally drove a family to Corpus Christi.”

But a sadness has crept over Refugio.

“When we came here, the town was booming,” she said. “There were picture shows, dances, and so much to do. Now there’s nothing. I go to the post office and H-E-B and Bingo on Tuesday. I feel sorry for the kids who have nothing to do here.”

Her siblings have all passed away and a few years ago she lost her beloved son. Her daughter-in-law died a few years later.

“I’ve had a good life, thank God, and I’m still here,” she said. “Since I lost my son, it’s been hard on me, very hard.”

If there’s a secret to her longevity, it’s a love of people and faith in the Lord’s plan for her. Her philosophy of life keeps her going.

“We’re put on this earth to die,” she said. “Everything has to die. Until that happens, we have to go on living the best we can.”
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