When the omnipresent-in-TV-ads GEICO insurance company celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2011, planners invited longtime Arlingtonian Nellie Grant as their oldest living policyholder.
She was chauffeured to the Chevy Chase headquarters to appear on stage at the employee celebration with the chief executive officer. The company donated $7,500 to the American Cancer Society in her name and showered her with toy GEICO geckos. The CEO continued to call her annually.
Set to mark her own 102nd birthday next month, Grant recently shared with this columnist recollections tracking her life from her Gloucester, Va., childhood to her move to her home in our Yorktown neighborhood just after World War II.
Born July 11, 1921, in Gloucester, Va., Nellie Grant “came from a very poor family,” she says. They raised chickens and vegetables and picked up their mail at a general store. She knew the proprietor and once, when making her delivery of fresh eggs, tried to trade the eggs for candy rather than cash. No sale.
At age 18 she planned to go to nursing school in Newport News. Visiting relatives in Chevy Chase, in the late 1930s, she met an auto mechanic whom she thought she might marry. But she needed her father’s permission, and a cousin beat her to it. In the nearby Navy shipyards, however, was her true future husband, South Carolina-born Charles Grant, who worked in government finance. Her plan to spend three years in nursing school was preempted. She accompanied him to Washington for his career with the National Weather Service and the Agriculture Department. He was “gifted in finances but was sometimes willing to go into things deeper than was necessary,” she jokes from her living room lined with a grandfather clock, an antique mirror and an old-fashioned writing desk.
The couple settled on 40th Street NW, and two daughters were born at Sibley Hospital. But the suburbs lured them to a small home at N. 22nd and Nottingham streets. Her son was born at Arlington Hospital, which opened in 1944. She now enjoys five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. “I didn’t have the privilege of going to college, so I wanted to make sure they did,” Grant said.
The need for greater space brought them to her current home of some 70 years on N. 27th in the subdivision-in-progress near the earlier Livingstone Heights neighborhood. They picked a two-thirds-acre empty lot on the unpaved street. You had to walk to the Post Office at Glebe Road and what is today Langston Blvd to pick up mail. Neighbors included Helen and Charlie Kettler (the family that would endow the Iceplex at Ballston Quarter). Another was famed Army Gen. Lucius Clay, who during and after World War II was a top administrator and later campaign manager for Dwight Eisenhower.
Her son worked at the Glebe Radio and Appliance (still going), while Nellie shopped regularly at Safeway and Preston’s Pharmacy and patronized the old Glebe Theatre. In the 1950s, she helped run the nursery at Westover Baptist Church.
Health, for this 102-year-old whose husband died in 1973, is good. “I don’t need to go to the doctor for anything.” The only time I was in the hospital was to have babies,” she boasts.
The secret for this centenarian who still makes toffee for guests: “I grew up when we had good healthy food and fish came out of good water. They don’t have that today.”
If you’re familiar with Arlington’s share of the 40 boundary stones laid down in 1791-92 to demarcate the District of Columbia (some now deteriorated), you’ll appreciate the recent addition at East Falls Church’s Benjamin Banneker Park.
Next to the refurbished playground is a unique artist’s representation of the original stone (it’s still in a protective cage at the corner of N. Van Buren and 18th sts.).
“Jurisdiction of the United States; 1792, Benjamin Banneker Park,” reads the stone carved in 2020, next to a sign profiling Banneker as a surveyor and astronomer. It lists actual coordinates of the playground, I’m told by Parks and Recreation Department spokesman Jerusalem Solomon.