Photo by Meagan Flynn
When 101-year-old Lois Bright thinks about it, it truly has been “a long time.” And when she has a few girls from the Drake women’s rowing team over for card night and some snacks, it’s more than just ‘Go Fish.’
“You get a little history lesson when you go,” said second-year pharmacy student Brittney Smith, who has been a crew member for three years. “She’s lived through everything.”
Sipping her basil ravioli vegetable soup at Palmer’s Deli Market in Des Moines, she looked sharp as a tack — but even sharper in her chic leather jacket, her tiny pearl studded earrings and her warm smile. The soup was on Smith.
“They are so good to me,” Bright said. “They take me out for dinner, bring me flowers.
“Sometimes I ask them to come to my home to play cards…and they cheat,” she added jokingly.
For almost 17 years, Bright has been one of the Drake crew’s biggest supporters through donations from the Bright Foundation. At 101, she is still the president and director of the foundation, which she and her husband, Dale, founded together in the early 1980s.
“We know how hard it is to get money to go to school,” Bright said. “It was our goal to help young people be able to (do that). We started out with just two employees — my husband and myself.”
Through her donations, the crew team has been able to buy new rowing boats and rowing equipment. All of the boats are named after her and Dale. The Lois Brights are “eights” — the typical eight-rower boat. And there are two “Dalos” — a combination of Dale and Lois’s names. The Dale H. Bright is a four-rower boat.
Apologizing for her aging memory, she can’t quite remember how relations between her foundation and the Drake crew all got started, but she does remember the day when she met with head coach Charlie DiSilvestro and the president of Drake at the time, among others, over lunch in the mid-1990s.
“My husband wasn’t too enthused about girls on a rowing team,” Bright said. “He couldn’t believe girls would get up that early for a row on the water, but he finally decided that we would help them out.”
When Dale died in 1996, Lois Bright became president and director of the foundation, which has supported projects at Grand View University, Des Moines Area Community College, Drake and other establishments around the Des Moines area which all work toward improving the education and learning experiences of young people.
Bright also attends almost every home rowing meet at the Des Moines River, and Smith drives her there. Over the years, she has had the great pleasure of getting to know many of the girls.
“Not as well as I’d like to, though,” Bright said.
“I know the girls that come over — and I know this lady,” she said, pointing to Smith. “She’s my best friend.”
Smith first met Bright three years ago when the team captain asked her to pick up Bright for a team event in the spring. Soon after, they discussed setting up a card night at Bright’s home, and they’ve done it every month since.
“It gives the girls a rest from school, and I just love to have the girls come over to my house to play cards,” Bright said. “I usually serve a little popcorn or cookies.”
Bright said that the card games don’t get too serious.
“They’ll play Uno, Go Fish, Old Maid — it’s real high class,” Bright joked.
Only three or four girls come to play at a time, and Smith said she tries to bring different girls each month. Bright also goes out to dinner with the whole team once a semester.
“She’s very entertaining,” Smith said. “She has a great sense of humor and—”
Bright cut her off before she could finish.
“Don’t tell her that stuff,” Bright said jokingly. “I don’t see how they put up with me — I’m over 100 years old.”
Smith said that she loves Bright’s personality.
“We like to joke all the time,” Smith said. “She’s a nice woman, and she’s friendly — for the most part.
“She can get a little ornery sometime,” Smith joked.
Both she and Bright laughed along.
“I have to crack the whip on ‘em sometimes,” Bright added.
At 101, Bright’s comedic personality is still a part of her repertoire. Her thin-rimmed glasses and camouflaged hearing aids are the only things that show her age. Her rings — perhaps her 1930s wedding band on her left hand — are loose fitting around her nimble fingers, and her hair is stark white. Still, one would probably not guess that she is 101 years old.
Last January, Bright celebrated her 100th birthday with family and friends at three different parties. Her favorite was the one that her nieces and nephews put on for her in the large meeting room at the East Side Library in Des Moines, an establishment to which the Bright Foundation has made many contributions.
“My nieces went all out,” Bright said. “All the family got together for me. That was pretty special.”
Bright doesn’t have any children, but she has five nieces and two nephews. She had been married to her husband for 66 years — they were high school sweethearts.
Bright lights up when she tells the story of how she met her husband. It was the summer of 1928, and Bright’s father would let her drive the old Ford Model T to school. In her small southern Iowa town, driving to school was by no means common, and when other teenagers saw her with the car, they’d gather round to watch her start it up.
Starting the car was not as easy as turning a key. She had to get out of the car to crank the choke lever below the radiator. Sometimes, however, the handle would backfire. On this particular afternoon, while a dozen or so students congregated around her to watch her perform this seemingly complex task, the handle did backfire. It hit her solid in the arm.
She looked up to find a strong, tall boy. His hair was curly and blonde, and he stood a good six-feet tall.
“He said, ‘I’m taking you to the doctor right now,’” Bright recalled. “He did, and I never let him get away.”
Yes, the tall, blonde boy was Dale. Lois Bright graduated in 1929, while Dale was a year ahead of her. The two married in 1930.
“He was very appreciative of me all the time we lived together,” she said. “I was appreciative of him…(there’s) a lot of memories.”
For 25 years, Dale worked as the treasurer and president of Western Tool & Stamping Co., a company that eventually became the country’s largest lawn mower manufacturer. Lois Bright worked at Rollins Hosiery Mill sewing back seams on the stockings. The Bright Foundation was a result of the couple’s smart saving and investing over many years.
“We are very fortunate to have Mrs. Bright be part of our program, and I wouldn’t want to imagine where we would be with out her support,” DiSilvestro said.
Next year, her fifth year studying pharmacy at Drake, will be Smith’s last year as a part of the crew, but she knows it won’t be the last she’ll see of Bright.
“She wants me to be her pharmacist,” Smith said. “So I’ve got to stick around after I graduate.”
Lucky for Bright, sophomore rower Mallory Bonstrom is studying to become a doctor.
“I’ve got my pharmacist and my doctor,” Bright said. “Now I just need somebody to cook for me.”
The two shared another laugh. By now, Bright was finished with her soup, and she had drawn whatever she could from her century-old memory.
One hundred-and-one is a big number, but perhaps for Bright, it’s not that number that matters. It’s easy to count years, but to count the people she’s benefited and supported, whether directly or indirectly, throughout those years is not easy. In fact, it’s a number that may not even be possible to count.
Bright is still the boss of that foundation and still the president. Age? That’s got nothing to do with it.
That immeasurable number, though — wherever it’s at — is going to keep growing.