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A True Tale of Tall and Old…
Wednesday, December 10, 2008 • Posted December 10, 2008

Folks at the Guinness Book of World Records may want to consider adding a new category. How about one for convalescent centers with the most residents listed in the revered book?

Were there such a category, Heritage House Convalescent Center of rural Shelbyville, IN, would claim the honors.

For three decades, it was much like thousands of other care centers across the land. “Business as usual” changed, though, when Edna Parker became a resident a dozen years ago, then Sandy Allen seven years later. The pair created media frenzy. Press reps have thronged from around the globe with their cameras, lights and microphones. Sandy and Edna both were Guinness record holders. The former, you see, stood a quarter-inch over 7-7, and the latter was 115 years of age….

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For almost a year, the two notable residents held records simultaneously. Sandy was heralded as the world’s tallest woman for 32 years. Edna held the age distinction when her predecessor died last year.

That’s when the media crescendo peaked. The native Indianans graciously received numerous press guests and dignitaries, patiently discussing their respective lives. They described how they managed to “fit in” with their 90 or so care center brethren, whose backgrounds varied greatly from their own.

Bill Pierce, Heritage House administrator, says day-to-day activities have quieted greatly since their passing. Sandy died at age 53 on August 13. Edna passed away on November 27, just five months shy of her 116th birthday. Pierce says that residents miss the “buzz” created by the two women who were visited by the governor, Guinness reps and media guests from every continent—guests who Pierce describes as being “cooperative, well-intentioned and courteous.”…

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Now, only memories remain. But what precious memories!

Pierce recalls Edna’s annual birthday parties, replete with gifts, well-wishes, cards and a host of visitors.

They came from all around, including nearby Franklin College. That’s where Edna completed her two-year program in teacher education back in 1911. For many years, she was oldest graduate of the 174-year-old college, Indiana’s first co-educational institution….

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Education was one of Mrs. Parker’s passions. She taught in one-room schools for several years before marrying her farmer husband, who died 69 years ago. Though she had no use for alcohol or tobacco, she credited education as the key to her long life. She reflected warmly on her beloved alma mater, always hammering home the importance of continuing to learn.

Though she needed assistance to move about in her final months, Edna is remembered for her independence and determination to assist her fellow care center residents during most of her time there. One friend prizes vivid mental pictures of the little lady pushing others’ wheelchairs down the hall. Edna outlived her two sons and maintained her farm home into her 99th year.

“She brightened many moments,” Pierce said. “We marveled at her recitation of lengthy poems from memory. Many times when I arrived at work around 6:30 a.m., Edna was already up and about, encouraging others with poems.”…

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Sandy dealt far longer with her problematic state than Edna did with old-age issues. With a pituitary gland tumor that triggered excessive growth, she was more than seven feet tall upon entering Shelbyville High School. Despite numerous illnesses that caused her to shoot skyward and weight that reached well over 400 pounds, she endured life with good humor and dogged resolve, particularly after Guinness recognition. She wrote a book, Cast a Giant Shadow, and was featured in movies and documentaries. Sandy was forever visiting schools, sharing her strong beliefs that “it’s okay to be different.”

One day while admiring a friend’s wedding gown, Sandy joked that she’d likely never wear one. “Your ‘Prince Charming’ may yet ride in on a white horse,” the bride said. Sandy joked that it was just as likely to be an “eight-foot guy straddling an elephant!”…

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At Sandy’s memorial service, friends spoke of heaven’s many unknowns.

“But we know who the tallest angel is,” one beamed.

She was interred in her hometown cemetery in a custom-made coffin centered in four grave plots….

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As Christmas approaches, Heritage House is now more like others throughout the country. It is arrayed with strings of garland, a Christmas tree and a crackling fire. Soft Christmas music softens the air. Residents are playing games of Skip-bo, taking meals and medications on schedule and enjoying friendly conversations, just like always.

In their rooms, they’re looking again at pictures of loved ones—after they find their glasses. They’ll spend more time than the rest of us reading—and re-reading—Christmas cards, waiting until January, or later, to add them to their small collection of “things” in the top drawer.

Big in their minds are gigantic memories of two departed friends from Heritage House who brought celebrity to residents’ lives, one by being very tall, and the other, very old. And neither one permitted their situations to outlive their usefulness….

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Dr. Newbury is a speaker and writer in the Metroplex. He welcomes inquiries and comments. Email: Phone: 817-447-3872. Website:

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