CINCINNATI -- John Harshaw was preparing to write a book on the history of the West End when he met Thelma McCray, a "great lady" who had experienced much of it firsthand.
"She fixed me a meal and we chit-chatted about her life," he recalled. "We had that bond immediately, like, 'This is another mother.'"
McCray, who died April 17 at 106 years of age, was born in July 1911 to one of the first black families in Cincinnati's Westwood neighborhood. She met her husband, Oscar McCray, after he returned from military service in World War I and became an insurance salesman. The pair married Feb. 1, 1935.
She was a devout Baptist who attended Peace Baptist Church and sang in the choir for more than 50 years; those who knew her came to call her "Mother McCray" because of her cheerful, caring personality.
"She was always upbeat," Harshaw recalled. "Never woe-is-me. She just loved life."
Her extraordinarily long life led to recognition from Cincinnati Mayor Charles Luken, who in 2003 designated April 25 Thelma McCray Day in the city.
According to Harshaw, McCray credited her lifespan to the observance of healthy habits, self-control and involvement in her church.
"No smoking, no drinking to name a few," she once wrote. "Be happy, love your neighbor, obey the Ten Commandments and love God, who is our savior and our salvation."
"Mother McCray" never had children of her own, but Harshaw said she left behind a community of people who had been touched by her maternal kindness.
"I'll miss her for sure," he said.
McCray's funeral service will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday at Thomson, Hall and Jordan Funeral Home.