Parade marks drive-in founder's 109th birthday

Ruth Evelyn Harrington (right) and certified nursing assistant Stacie Coleman wave at a birthday parade for Harrington at River’s Bend Retirement Community in Kuttawa. The parade marked Harrington’s 109th birthday, which could not be held in person due to restrictions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

KUTTAWA — In 1911 the world was still three years shy of the Great War and seven years away from the 1918 flu pandemic. The Titanic launched that year, the Nestor Film Company opened the first movie studio in the Hollywood area, and Ruth Evelyn Harrington (then Porter) was born.

Forty-two years later the farm girl from Tennessee and her late husband would found the Calvert Drive In, with Harrington’s culinary skills providing moviegoers with hamburgers whose tasty reputation endures today.

She’s lived through two world wars and the deadliest pandemic in known history, and celebrated her 109th birthday Wednesday with a socially distant parade in the midst of another global health crisis.

“She’s just a strong woman,” said her grandson John Harrington, who runs the drive-in, though his grandmother still serves as CEO.

On Wednesday afternoon, dozens of vehicles, including police and emergency vehicles with lights flashing, threw a surprise birthday party at River’s Bend Retirement Community for the woman believed to be Lyon County’s oldest resident.

Administrator Stacey Bullock said Harrington had been eagerly counting down the days, frequently asking if the calendars were correct.

“She was really excited for this birthday,” Bullock said, noting the restrictions on nursing homes due to coronavirus concerns have taken a toll on Harrington emotionally.

“She hates what’s going on, and really misses her family,” she said.

“Just seeing them in the group and seeing her grandkids … it really surprised her. She really perked up.”

John Harrington lauded his grandmother’s work ethic in helping to run the operations of the Marshall County drive-in theater for more than 60 years — selling tickets well into her 80s and signing the checks until a few years ago.

“Her mother was a hard worker. She followed suit,” he said.

Despite a recent health scare, he said his grandmother continues to display a “steadfastness” that helped her out of hospice care when some had given up hope.

“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” he said with a chuckle.

He said he was impressed with the turnout — estimated at more than 40 vehicles, and thanked the community for its support.

“That was so sweet to have this kind of turnout for Granny,” he said.

As for plans for a 110th birthday party, “she’s probably in there making them right now.”