BY KARIN DAVIS-THOMPSON, Staff Writer
PETERSBURG — At 80 years old, Mary Stephens has experienced a lot. She worked to educate children for nearly 40 years; she joined a sorority, earned a master’s degree and got to meet Ray Charles. But she said none of it was as exciting as her recent 80th birthday party!
“I just felt like a queen,” Stephens said. “It made me feel so good to be among friends and see them enjoying my birthday party.”
Guests had an opportunity to tell Stephens what she meant to them during the Nov. 10 celebration held at the historic Manhattan Casino.
“We thought it was a great place to have the party because it is a place that means a lot to her,” said William Walker, Stephens’ great nephew. “She got the chance to see a lot of great performers there when she was younger.”
Stephens agreed and said the Manhattan Casino was the place to visit growing up.
“It was popping when I was coming up,” she said. “They had Tuesday night dances in the summer, and we would dance the night away.”
The biggest names in entertainment graced the stage at the Manhattan, and Stephens had the chance to see Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and James Brown.
“They had a lot of security for James Brown, but I found a way to get over to him and give him a big old hug,” she said.
Stephens said it was a wonderful time in her life.
“It was just good clean fun,” she said. “We could walk home late at night with nothing to worry about.”
She said coming back to the casino for her birthday not only brought back a lot of memories but gave her the chance to make new ones.
“With everyone there, wishing me a happy birthday, I felt like my picture should be up there on the wall next to Ray Charles,” Stephens said.
During the celebration, Walker served as the master of ceremony and told everyone his great-aunt treated him and his siblings as though they were her children.
“Every time we would see her car coming up the driveway, we got so excited,” he said. “She would always come with gifts for us, and we loved it.”
Walker said they had a chant when they would see her: “Auntie, Auntie! Ya, Ya, Ya!”
As Stephens made her way up to the front of the room to sit in her chair fit for a queen, the room started repeating Walker’s childhood chant: “Auntie, Auntie! Ya, Ya, Ya!”
Stephens, a graduate of Florida A&M University, said since she never had children of her own, her nieces and nephews were very dear to her. She is proud of how well they are doing and how much they give back to her daily.
“I don’t have to worry about anything,” she said. “They make sure I have what I need, and I really appreciate them for that.
Stephens said her family has already told her to get ready for what her 85th birthday party is going to bring.
“They said I hadn’t seen anything yet,” Stephens exclaimed. “So I am waiting for 85 to see how they can top this. I am in tune with God and just waiting to see what is going to happen.”
To reach Karin Davis-Thompson, email firstname.lastname@example.org