Devane, daughter of slave, Civil War soldier, dies at 111

By: Rodd Baxley - The Robesonian

ST. PAULS — The youngest daughter of Civil War veteran Henry Johnson has died.

Maggie Devane, who lived independently until just recently, was 111 years old.

Devane, who was born Nov. 17, 1905, in Rex, was one of 13 of Johnson’s children and grew up with 17 siblings. She lived for 94 years at her residence on Martin Luther King Street in St. Pauls.

Gene Devane, Maggie’s 82-year-old son who lives in Bloomington, Ind., said his mother got the most out of her 111 years.

“She had a good life,” Gene said. “She lived to the fullest. … She was my favorite person.

“I learned from her to take every day in a positive way and just think in terms of what good you can do. My life has been great because of her. I’ve had opportunities because (my parents) helped me prepare myself to meet whatever challenge comes along and take advantage of it. That led to a very successful life for me.”

A pilot for 35 years, Gene said the motivation to pursue his dreams came from his mother — who lived through the Great Depression, both world wars, the Civil Rights movement, and 20 U.S. presidents.

“She instilled in me to go after my dream,” he said. “As a little kid, I had always dreamed of wanting to fly. I got my opportunity. I’ve traveled all over the world.

“She never told me once to not seek my dream. If you prepare yourself, the opportunities will come. That was one of the things she taught me.”

Doris Bonds, a great-niece to Maggie, said her aunt leaves an important lesson for all.

“Aunt Maggie strongly believed in treating people the way she wanted to be treated,” Bonds said. “She had a warm heart. She had a tough spot, too, not letting people walk over her.”

Bonds said she’ll remember her “girl talks” with Maggie above all else, but also her aunt’s ability to bring their family together.

“We would talk at least once a week and have our girl talks. Her mind was as sharp as a whip and it was until the end,” Bonds said. “She was the center of the family and everyone went to visit her. In her later years, we became closer and closer. She connected us as a family.”

Maggie’s father was born a slave in Jackson, Miss., in 1848 and fought in the Civil War for the Union army. He was discharged from the service of the United States in 1865 in Louisville, Kentucky. Maggie was born to Johnson and his third wife, Nannie Bell Montgomery.

“Just talking to her was like connecting history. She was the last living connection to our great-grandfather,” Bonds said. “We would spend hours just talking. She had a better memory than I did. She would recall different things, getting to different parts of history.”

Maggie celebrated her 111th birthday this past November surrounded by dozens of family members at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, outside of St. Pauls.

Her sister Inez Womack, of St. Pauls, lived to be 106 before passing away in 2014. In February 2009, the town of St. Pauls honored Womack and Devane as Centennial Queens during the town’s 100-year anniversary.

“At one point, a few years ago, when her sister died at 106, Aunt Maggie said, ‘God forgot about me,’” Bonds recalls. “We just said that God wasn’t done with her. She had more work to do.”

Maggie was married for 25 years to Junious Devane before his death in 1991. She is survived by Gene, and three grandsons, Glenn, Garrick and Geno. She taught third grade at what is now St. Pauls Elementary for a number of years, and served as secretary for First Baptist Church in St. Pauls until she retired.

She died as the 10th oldest person in the United States and 52nd in the world, according to Gerontology Research Group.

On Friday, 117-year-old Violet Mosse Brown, the oldest person in the world, passed away, leaving the title to Nabi Tajima of Japan, who also is 117. Delphine Gibson of Pennsylvania, 114, currently is the oldest living American. She celebrated her 114th birthday in August.

But Gene and Bonds aren’t focusing on the number of years Maggie lived, just how she used those years to touch the lives of the people around her.

“She always had a smile. She always knew everybody in town. I just liked the way she didn’t focus on herself,” Bonds said. “She always wanted you to treat people the right way and be respectful.”

Gene added: “She always talked about being truthful and honest. Even when mom would speak her mind, it was about being honest. That was the legacy I’ll remember from her.

“I just think she was a wonderful person. … I respected her highly. No matter how old I got, I was still her son.”

Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.

Rodd Baxley

The Robesonian