Odile Clark Washington reached the age of 111 on June 24, 2020 which makes her a “super-centenarian.” Although it has not yet been verified, she is thought to be the oldest person in Louisiana and is in the top 40 of those 110 or older in the nation. Source.
While writing the Gretna community news for The Times Picayune and nola.com, I met Ms. Odile in 2013. She was 104 and she became my hero.
She was feisty, but so sweet and told the most wonderful stories about her life experiences that were full of New Orleans history. Since then I have attended her birthday party every year at Belle Vie Living Center in Gretna where she resides.
Odile Washington is a lady to be greatly admired and honored for her strong work ethic and her contribution to the City of New Orleans for over eight decades.
Born in 1909 in Napoleanville, she lived in New Orleans for more than 80 years before moving to Belle Vie where she has resided since she broke her hip in 2008, went there for rehab, liked it a lot and stayed.
She was the oldest in the family with three brothers and three sisters. She told me previously that she “helped out when my mother died when I was a young girl.”
“Aunt Odile never had children, but raised me from the time I was two in 1939 and my sister Willie Mae Griffin, now deceased was seven. As we grew up we worked around the business. She is very strong, strong-minded and strong-willed, one of the best cooks in the city of New Orleans. She was healthy all of her life and I never knew her to be sick. She just believed in hard work and it’s all she ever did,” her now deceased nephew, Willie Clark said in 2013.
He was her most constant caregiver over the years, often taking her on a trip to the casino, her favorite thing to do as a centenarian.
In the 1920’s, she married Lonnie Washington from Donaldsonville and they owned Starlight Café and Hotel at 7731 Forshey St. in Gert Town, a business that thrived for over 80 years.
The couple worked together in the business until the 1980’s when Lonnie died and she continued the operations herself. When the business closed, the building stayed empty for decades and vandals moved in. It was deemed that squatters started a fire that resulted in a total destruction of the old place.
Miss Odile reminisced in 2017 just before her 108th birthday party when she was a little clearer and more physically able than today at 111.
“Gert Town was a nice place to live back then,” she said. “Not with all the crime today. People could come to rest and sit down and eat in peace, with nobody to disturb you.”
“The things people liked the most that I cooked was red beans, lots of beef stew and chicken stew. I cooked mustard greens and cabbage and my biggest dessert was bread pudding.
“We were open 7 days a week and served breakfast, dinner and supper. I had nice people who worked for me. Two girls worked in the hotel and I had three waitresses in the café. I worked hard and maybe that’s why I lived to be so old!” she said.
Miss Odile had lots of stories that day. She said she taught “the boys to cook.” She meant young soldiers who had served in WWII and stayed at the Starlight Hotel “until they could find a job and get a place to stay.”
“They loved my cooking and asked me to show them how to cook and I did. I also taught them how to serve. Many of the boys got jobs in the big hotels and restaurants and went off and got places of their own.”
“The federal government came and asked me to teach the soldiers (veterans) to cook and I did. It was only black soldiers. I was proud when they got good jobs after. I think the federal government paid me but I just don’t remember for sure,” she said.
That little lapse of memory at 108 was slight, but she was very alert as we ended our visit and she laughingly said, “I used to go regular to the casino and I was good on the slots, but I haven’t gone in a while. I do enjoy listening to music. I really like Jazz.”
There was a nice looking group in uniform at the 111th celebration who turned out to be the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Dept. Public Affairs Division. Fans of Miss Odile, officers including Lt. Bill Stravinsky, Sgt. Damon Johnson, Sgt. Devon White, as well as Deputies Turner Barran, Stacy Bennett, Charlie Haislip, Steve Higgerson and Anthony Canatella presented her with a beautiful arrangement of flowers and three “111” pink balloons.
Miss Odile’s brother and the youngest in the family, Rev. Louis Clark, pastor of St. John Baptist Church in Napoleonville, some of her nieces and other family attended the party. Although they were sad that they were unable to give her a hug, waves fluttered with gusto.
In an interview at Miss Odile’s 109 celebration, Rev. Clark really added to her story when he talked about how well known the Starlight Café and Hotel was back in the day.
“Back before integration, big stars like B. B. King, Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Ivory Joe Hunter and others could perform at the Roosevelt (Hotel,) but they couldn’t sleep there. They stayed at the Starlight,” he said.
“There was a “Blue Room” at the Starlight with a stage and bar and the big musicians rehearsed there on Thursdays before their weekend performances.
“New Orleans musicians would join them at the Starlight and they would all play together. Ike and Tina Turner, Bobby Marchand and Smilin’ Lewis were all there at some time. Ernie K-Doe ate there every day.
“In the Starlight Café, my sister never let anyone go hungry. People ate on the book. No other restaurant did that. If someone didn’t have money, she would find some little job for them to earn a meal,” Rev. Clark said.
Everyone, staff and residents at Belle Vie love and admire Miss Odile. Longtime Activity Coordinator Regina Thomas said, “Until she was 107, she was one of our story-time readers. She doesn’t read now, but she does still enjoy listening to her favorite music, Gospel and Jazz.”
“Miss Odile still helps dress herself and still feeds herself.” That was witnessed at the party as the guests watched while she ate and enjoyed her birthday cake! In fact, she cut her own cake!
Admired and honored she was, at a birthday party this year with a very different slant. Due to the Covid-19 restrictions, family and guests were not allowed inside of Belle Vie Living Center. New Orleans WDSU-TV Channel 6 was on hand to capture the moment. It was a stormy day, but everyone stood sheltered near the entrance, watched with wonder as she ate her cake and waved at the mesmerizing 111 year-old Ms. Odile through the glass!
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