Originally published on the EMU website April 2006.
She doesn’t play tennis anymore, but Sara G. Herr of Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community in Harrisonburg still likes to talk about her enjoyment of the game as one aspect of the full life she’s had.
Sara turned 98 on April 13. She also happens to be Eastern Mennonite University’s oldest living alumna, a member of the class of 1926.
The Martinsburg, Pa., native seemed surprised at first when told she holds this distinction, then quipped, “I’m ancient,” adding: “Well, I think of some of my fellow classmates and remember that they’re gone now.”
Sara is nearly blind, but her mind is keen and her physical appearance belies her age. She’s able to leave her cozy apartment to visit other residents, to get her meals and to participate in certain planned activities at VMRC.
EMU President Loren Swartzendruber visited Sara in her Crestwood Apartment unit to wish her a happy 98th birthday and to give her a flower arrangement on behalf of the university.
Sara recalls visiting the Park View community with her father, the late C.W. Graybill, who was involved with site exploration for the first campus building – there was much debate on whether to locate it on the hillside or in the lower Park Woods area. Sara remembers seeing the materials stacked up that went in to the original cement block building, completed in early 1920 and quickly labeled “the crackerbox.”
“Just about everything happened in that building,” Sara said. “Classrooms, administrative and faculty offices and dining area were all located there. That was pretty much the campus.”
A significant social outlet for Sara was playing tennis on the makeshift tennis court near the main building – a dirt surface, of course. “We had to mark off the boundary lines with lime, and any rainfall gave us the opportunity to smooth over the playing area again,” she said. Sara pursued the sport until she got into her 50’s.
Sara and her future husband, E. Grant Herr from Hanover, Pa. – “an excellent tennis and ball player,” she noted – met for the first time in the old crackerbox in 1925.
A ceremony to remember
Their first date consisted of a stroll up the hill overlooking the campus, “but you had to have a chaperone,” she smiled. “You could walk up the hill to a certain point but you better not go over the top.”
Sara and Grant were married by her father on June 11, 1927, an outdoor ceremony in Martinsburg. A vivid memory of for Sara was the moment they were pronounced husband and wife. At that moment, 11 a.m., the bells from seven churches in town started pealing.
“At the time, I thought, ‘what a nice way for the larger community to recognize our marriage,'” Sara said. She later found out that the “ceremony” was in honor of aviator Charles A. Lindbergh’s return to the U.S. following his successful solo, non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris.
Grant was a teacher and then a supervising principal in Pennsylvania public schools for 37 years before the family moved to Harrisonburg in 1963 for Grant to become business manager. He held that position for six years, then was purchasing agent and supervised student teachers before retiring in 1987 after 61 years devoted to education.
Building a life at home
Sara did substitute schoolteaching early on but primarily was a homemaker, enjoying doing service projects and hosting guests in their home.
The Herrs were married for 77 years; Grant died in 2005.
Sara and Grant’s children, Lowell G. Herr, a 1959 EMU graduate from Portland, Ore., and Kenneth D. Herr of Westlake Village, Calif., while geographically separated, keep in touch with their mother. The Herr families established an endowed scholarship in 1989 to assist education majors, with priority given to those entering supervised teaching assignments.
“The two best things that ever happened to me were being raised in a Christian home and meeting Grant,” she said. “It’s been a good life. I’ve much to be thankful for.”