ST. PETERSBURG – Bethel Community Baptist Church threw a centennial celebration for Church Mother Leatha Reese, née Ferguson, Sat., March 26. As she strutted into the room, church and family members gathered around to wish her a happy 100th birthday.
Born March 30, 1916, to Will and Minnie Ferguson in Lake City, Fla., she moved to St. Pete the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She married Freeman Reese and had one child that died in childbirth. They lived in Jordan Park and were married for many years until his death.
Although she didn’t raise a child of her own, she mothered hundreds of children in her lifetime. One particular rambunctious child she used to keep was there to help her celebrate this milestone.
“Back in the day when we were growing up, they didn’t have latchkey. My mama just dropped us off at people’s house,” said Rev. Wayne Thompson. “We use to spend the summer over to Mrs. Reese house and I was always trying to slip off because she lived close to Wildwood Park.”
Thompson has found memories of Mrs. Reese and her husband, and said he wouldn’t have missed her party for anything.
“Keep on being that wonderful gracious person that you’ve been for all the years of my life,” Thompson said.
Brother and sister Valerie and William Bennett (Dr. Frogue) calls Mrs. Reese their aunt, but she is actually their second cousin. Along with Thompson, they would get dropped off over to her house in the summer.
“We use to go over and steal from the fruit trees in her yard,” said Frogue. “It’s just a blessing to see someone her age and her mind and physical body, so I’m really thankful that God has blessed us.
Rev. Frank Peterman was on hand to show his love Mrs. Reese.
“You surely blessed me and my family. You spoke so many encouraging words into my life. I can still remember your late husband doing the same thing. Both of you were so strong and created a foundation here for a lot of people,” he said.
A faithful servant of God, she has been a loyal member of Bethel Community Baptist Church for decades. She was a longtime choir member, organized the gospel choir and started the Enoch Davis Ushers, a group of young adult ushers. She was missionary, taught Sunday school, was involved in the Women’s Ministry and has always been heavily involved with the youth.
“I never could have made it without the Lord. He has brought me from a mighty long way. If it hadn’t been from him, I would have never made it,” said Mother Reese.
And not only has she made it, she doesn’t look a day over 65. According to Rev. Nathaniel Drayton, she’s always been a looker.
“When I was ministering here I would come up to her—you know I always had something crazy to say—I would say come on over here and let me squeeze you in all your best places…I’m here to tell you she still got some good places over there,” he said to a room full of laughter.
Evidently she was well aware of her “good places” because Elder Barbara Williams spilled the beans on Mrs. Reese.
“I’ve known Mrs. Reese all my life and she has trusted me with some secrets,” Williams said, while letting it slip out that Mother Reese use to parade around the house in hot pants.
Well-wisher after well-wisher got up took to the podium to reflect on the life of Mother Reese. Although Rev. Manuel Sykes was stuck in traffic in Tampa, he wasn’t going to let her special day go by without telling her how much he loves her.
From a video call he said: “I wanted to tell you that I love you and I appreciate all the years I’ve been able to look out and see your face and know that there was somebody out there in my corner.”
He went on to say that she is truly a pillar of their church and not just because of her longevity, but also because of her spirit and personality.
After cake was served, Mother Reese posed for pictures to mark the momentous occasion.