Most people grow older each year — and then there’s Mildred DeBell. Although technically she did gain another year on Saturday, you’d never know it by the way she looks or acts.
On March 16, the longtime Centreville resident turned 95. But she’s as lively and full of mischief as ever and looks 20 years younger than she is. And Saturday afternoon, some 85-90 people gathered to celebrate her birthday with her.
“This is just wonderful,” said DeBell. “I’m having such a good time seeing and visiting with everyone.”
Her son and daughter-in-law, John and Connie DeBell, hosted the party at their home in Catharpin. And nearly every room was filled with food, plus guests ranging in age from babies to Mildred DeBell’s cousin Iris who’s six months older than her.
The DeBell name has been entwined with Centreville’s history for some 140 years. In the 1870s, Mildred’s future father-in-law’s father, John Daniel DeBell, bought Sunnyside — 500 acres total, on both sides of Route 29 from near Centreville’s midpoint, past Rocky Run. Later, the DeBells ran Sunnyside as a dairy farm until the late 1950s.
A Centreville resident for 75 years now, Mildred moved here in 1938 to teach first grade in the old, wooden, Centreville Elementary School. Eventually, she met and married Stuart DeBell and had three children, John, Stephen and Stuart. The family now includes nine grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
In 1950, Mildred was one of the charter members of the Rocky Run Garden Club, along with Ellanor C. Lawrence, in whose name the Centreville park was preserved. And beginning in 1952, Stuart served 16 years on Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors, including two terms as chairman.
Also active in business, the DeBell family ran a Centreville landmark, the Newgate Inn (in the Newgate Shopping Center), for 26 years until 1995. Meanwhile, Mildred became a noted Centreville historian and valued member of the community and, in 2003, Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) named her Sully District’s honorary Lady Fairfax.
She’s belonged to St. John’s Episcopal Church since 1938 and used to direct its choir and play the organ there. And on Saturday, the Rev. Howard Kempsell and his wife were among the guests at her birthday party.
DeBell still enjoys gardening and writing poetry and, during her party, she read one of her poems to the crowd. She included stories about her youth, growing up in Fishers Hill, near Winchester. Unlike today’s students, she walked 2 1/2 miles to her high school in Strasburg. There were just 48 people in her senior class when she graduated in 1934, but DeBell was the valedictorian.
When asked the secret to her longevity, she replied, “I just have so much to do. I take care of my house, cook meals and work on my scrapbooks of my family’s history. I’m always busy.”