Princeton is not Jean Riddle’s hometown by birth, but she and her late husband made the town their home by choice.
With her son, Keith, back home for a visit and her 82nd birthday on Friday, her daughter, Susan, living in California, had suggested a drive-by celebration in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
As friends put the finishing touches on a sign in front of the house, the guest of honor was escorted out on to the front porch, providing the festivities with her own soundtrack.
“How was I to know there was a party goin’ on,” she crooned lyrics from Bobby Darin’s 1958 hit song, “Splish Splash.”
“I didn’t know about the party until a few minutes ago,” she told a visitor. “Listen, honey, I’ve got tears in my eyes.”
A few car horn honks later, she recalled, “I grew up in a little town in Tennessee — Madisonville — and I went to school there. I was going to join the Army and my (future) husband came to my high school graduation with his brother, who was my Army recruiter.”
She had been selected to give a speech at the commencement. Ten days later, instead of entering the Army, she married the recruiter’s brother. Explaining the situation these decades later, she said, “It must have been a heck of a speech I gave.”
Like his brother, her new husband also was serving in the Army and the newlyweds “lived all over the world.
“We lived in Germany for three years; at Fort Hood, Texas; at Fort Benning, Georgia,” she said.
When her husband’s tour of duty ended, they came to Princeton and he got a job working at the penitentiary in Eddyville.
“The warden interviewed him, when he heard of his Army record,” she said. “He said, ‘Hire this man and start him ASAP.’
“I loved Princeton. We drove down Main Street and I started crying. My husband said, ‘What the heck’s wrong with you?’ I said, ‘This is where I want to live.’ (Princeton) just spoke to my heart.”
“She’s just a very grand lady,” said Paul Bachi, who helped arrange the party. A deacon at Princeton’s St. Paul Catholic Church, he visits to serve fellow church member Jean Riddle communion, and the two have become friends through the years.
“Miss Jean was active in Girls State, the American Legion, doing a lot of things — worked at several stores downtown, just a wonderful soul,” he said. “She has a great zest for life and is a very, very good person. This celebration is a great thing to be a part of.”
“I love life,” Riddle said. “That’s what’s kept me going.”