Billie Estes sold bulls to go to college, won swing dancing competitions, helped run disaster relief programs with the Red Cross and witnessed the moon landing live on TV.
She’s also turning 101 in May, and she’s sure she doesn’t want a birthday party.
Billie isn’t one to get overly excited about much, she says, including when she turned 100 last year.
“I felt just like I did at 99, or any other age,” she says. “I don’t realize that I’m that old.”
These days, Billie reads around one book a day. She watches football on the television. She also tells stories about her life, such as what it was like growing up on a cotton farm. Or when she got married at 2 a.m. Or the time she filled her house with Democratic Party posters as a joke the night her husband held a Republican Party meeting at their home.
Picked, chopped and plowed
Swing music plays on Billie’s television in the background the day I visit her house. Dallas Cowboys games, The University of Oklahoma football games and the news are the only other shows ever displayed on the television.
On the opposite wall, a wreath of cotton stalks hangs high above our heads, overlooking the living room—a gift from Billie’s niece and a constant reminder of her origins on a farm in Oklahoma that her mother homesteaded. When she received it, Billie told her, “I’ve picked it, I’ve chopped it, I’ve plowed it, I hate the damn stuff.”
The youngest of four sisters, by 11 years, Billie spent most of her school days, and days on the farm, as a virtual only child. The field work of three elder sisters fell to Billie and her father, but that didn’t keep her from feeling the effect of sisterhood.
“This is during the depression,” she says. “We were having to wear dresses made out of flour sacks, and I was having to wear hand-me-downs from all my three sisters. By the time it got down to the fourth one, it was kind of worn.”
Billie took the dress’ tight necks, unfitted waists and long lengths as good enough reason to learn to sew at the age of 12 so that she could wear her clothes the way she liked them. To this day, she hems her own clothes.
It wasn’t the last time she would solve her own problems.
In high school, Billie knew she wanted to go to college. The 4-H club, a 1902-established youth development organization, led classes at her school. The girls would get help with sewing while the boys would learn to farm and raise cattle.
“Instead of doing stuff that the girls were doing, I raised cattle,” Billie says. “And I would keep the heifers and sell the bulls, then save that money. And I hid it out for myself even at home. Because that was going to help me pay my tuition at school.”
She also picked up a hairdressing job at the age of 15, which also helped pay for tuition at the University of Oklahoma to study social work.
It might have been the hope of getting off the farm or the articles Billie had read growing up about a settlement house on the border that led her to social work. But it was also the fact that each of her three older sisters were teachers.
“I was not going to be the fourth carbon copy,” she says.
The same can be said for the needlepoint hanging in her home. The threaded landscapes feature trees and lakes against cream walls.
Needlepointing came naturally after learning to sew, but with Billie’s own flair. She’d order a package with a needlepoint pattern complete with a colored template and matching yarn, but quickly make her own decisions.
“Of course, the first thing I did was look at the picture, look at the yarn, throw out half the yarn and go buy some other colors,” she says.
Her husband, Don, would always attest that Billie would never be able to follow a recipe or pattern without changing something.
Marriage, master’s and meeting Thelma
She’d met Don her final year at college. They had planned on waiting a bit to get married, but decided to tie the knot late one night on a whim. After waiting on the doorstep of the county clerk secretary’s house until around midnight for a marriage license, a friend’s minister made it official.
“My parents, I think they were more relieved than anything else because they never knew what I was going to do next,” Billie says. “But anyway. It worked out fine.”
A week after graduating college, she found a job with the State Department of Public Welfare for four years.
Her husband would serve in the military as World War II continued. When he was stationed at the Las Vegas air force base, Billie found a job with the American Red Cross offices in the area. After her husband left the airforce, he returned to college. Billie did, too, receiving her masters degree in Social Work. At first, she continued working with the Red Cross during the day and attending school part time.
Her work with the Red Cross would continue in Oklahoma City and then Dallas. At the Dallas offices, the organization provided child-raising training for young mothers and job training for women who hadn’t finished high school.
“So many of them were young and getting married as teenagers, getting pregnant right away, didn’t know beans about raising babies,” Billie says.
It was also at the Dallas offices where Billie met Thelma.
Thelma had been around the Red Cross offices for a while. She’d been forced into sex work at a young age and hadn’t had a chance in life. The other workers didn’t like her.
“And I did,” Billie says. “I don’t know why, but I did like her.”
From helping the woman bear her husband’s incarceration to receiving her homemade crafts as gifts, their connection turned into a 20-year friendship. When the client was in the hospital and didn’t have nightgowns from home to wear, Billie went to a nearby shop and bought her two.
“She didn’t say a word, she just started crying,” Billie says. “Later she called me up and she said ‘I’ve never had a nightgown before in my life,’ and said ‘These are the most beautiful things I ever saw.’”
When Billie became a supervisor, she remained solely responsible for Thelma. Eventually, the woman came to love her so much that Bille feared letting her down.
“I was just scared to death that she was going to find something that I couldn’t do for her that she thought I could,” Billie says, “because she thought I could do anything in the world.”
Co-workers told Billie she had a unique way of solving problems. Billie says she isn’t sure what they meant by that. She just crossed her fingers and did what she thought made sense.
Testaments to history
Today, Billie shares her stories from a chair in the living room. The house she’s currently in hosts neighbors and friends, but it also holds testaments to her history.
The cedar chest her family used when moving from Alabama to Texas around 1878 still contains a dress her grandmother sewed. She also has a pair of her grandmother’s glasses. She hopes to give them to a museum.
“I’ve lived a good life,” she says. “And I still feel good.”
When she had the batteries replaced in her pacemaker in January, the doctor told her that at her age, she didn’t have to go through with the operation. Then he asked what she thought.
“I thought about it a minute and I said, ‘Well, I think I want to watch a few more Cowboys games. So let’s go ahead.”