DACULA — Years ago, Harriet Coffee used to worry about her age as a number. But that was decades ago; now she sees it as an honor.
With a significant milestone birthday to celebrate on Friday, Coffee is looking forward to lemon pepper trout with all the trimmings from Cracker Barrel. That’s Coffee’s way of celebrating her 100th birthday.
“In the 80s and all, I wouldn’t tell my age,” Coffee said. “But as it moved on, I’m proud to be 100. God has been good to me. I have followed his teachings, and so he has rewarded me.”
She celebrated on Sunday with family and friends when one of her daughters brought a cake that another daughter described as something that, “could feed 150” people.
The East Point native was a teacher at Lawrenceville Elementary School for 15 years before her retirement in 1982. She now lives with her daughter, Sandra, and enjoys watching television shows like “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Waltons.”
When Coffee told her parents she wanted to pursue a career in education, they were glad to hear that. Her mother was a teacher, and her father was a principal and a teacher.
“I just wanted to be with children,” she said. “(My parents) were thrilled that I made that decision.”
A fifth-grade teacher also influenced Coffee because learning was fun in her classroom.
At Lawrenceville Elementary, Coffee said she taught second-grade students about writing in journals and poetry. She remembers working with Principal J.N. Timms, who was the first principal of Lawrenceville Elementary when the school opened with first and second grades in 12 classrooms. He served from 1962-80.
Coffee remembers putting a lot of effort in planning the annual Thanksgiving feast and play. Parents would bring in food, and students would dress as pilgrims and Indians.
Jane Going met Coffee when they both taught at Lawrenceville Elementary, but said that time was just a short window into what’s become a 41-year friendship.
“Some people are for a reason, some people are for a season, but for a lifetime, that’s Harriet,” Going said.
Going said she remembers Coffee having a gift of discernment in the classroom, and she set a tone for children that Going couldn’t find in a textbook or college class.
“She had a calm nature about her which allowed children to be themselves,” said Going, who added that that calm nature is likely why she’s lived to be 100.
Coffee is a part of Going’s Christian testimony, and she was someone who also helped friends through tough-to-navigate family situations.
“You do it by example and she was the queen,” Going said. “It didn’t get any better than what she was able to do in her calm, calm presence was just who she was. … You don’t find a lot of people like that now. She is the most significant person in my life other than my own family; she is like a mother.”
Also at Lawrenceville Elementary, Coffee supervised student teachers from North Georgia College and the University of Georgia.
A long-time member of Prospect United Methodist Church, Coffee was a delegate to the annual Methodist conference for a decade.
When asked if she has any friends who are 100, Coffee simply laughs. She makes regular doctor visits and has largely avoided any health issues.
“The Lord has seen us through each one,” her daughter, Sandra, said.
Coffee’s teaching career began at 19 years old when she spent two years in Pike County from 1935-37 in what turned out to be a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class of 50 students. Her uncle talked her into teaching to fill a shortage.
Coffee moved to the Atlanta area in 1938 to marry her husband, Frank, and to be near her parents in College Park. The former Harriet Hearn attended Cox College in College Park and Georgia Evening College, which is now Georgia State University. And she finished her degree at the University of Georgia. Her husband worked for Armour Fertilizer and they built a home in Decatur. Four years later, they moved to East Point.
They had four children: Sandra, Joel, David and Jane.
In retirement, Coffee tutored students, and also traveled around the world. She went on several cruises — visiting England, Scandinavia, Canada, Italy and Austria. She traveled with another retired Gwinnett teacher, Carmen Morgan.