Everyone has a story to tell. The man you pass on the street. The barista serving lattés at the coffee shop. And so, too, does Sugar Land resident Julia Faye Gerbens (née Holstead). Julia, a 102-year-old “spitfire” has a contagious smile and an independent spirit. Her secret to living a long life is simple and straightforward—
”Get up every morning and do what you’ve got to do, regardless of what it is.”
The first threads of Julia’s amazing life tapestry began when a loaf of bread cost a whopping seven cents, the average hourly wage in the U.S. was 22 cents, and when a baby born in a rural area wouldn’t always get a birth certificate right away. The exact date of Julia’s birth, February 15, 1917, was only recorded in her mother’s Bible. When her parents, John and Eula Holstead, got around to applying for her birth certificate, the government decided to make Julia a year younger, documenting 1918 as her birth year.
Raised in the farming community of Pioneer, Louisiana with seven siblings, Julia’s family grew cotton and vegetables. She helped out on the farm, but her sharp intellect and natural curiosity sparked a passion for learning. The two-mile walk to school didn’t daunt her, but she was grateful on cold days when her daddy would hitch the mules to the wagon and take his children to school. The family also walked over a mile to church, where her mother played piano and the children were involved in youth activities. Julia fondly recalls attending church dinners and going to revivals.
At age 16, Julia proudly graduated from high school as class valedictorian. It was a time when only around 50 percent of women in the U.S. earned a high school degree. With an insatiable quest for knowledge and a desire to help others, Julia was ready to continue on to college, but her folks couldn’t afford the tuition. Determined to fulfill her destiny, at 18 she enrolled in the Shreveport Charity Hospital School of Nursing and became a registered nurse. She also attended Peabody College in Nashville to take classes in home health.
Julia welcomed her first daughter, Patsy, into the world after nursing school, but after her marriage failed, she moved to Texas to start afresh. While working as a school nurse in Nederland, she met the love of her life, Harry Benjamin Gerbens. The “blended” family, which included Patsy and Harry’s daughter, Judy, grew with the addition of two more children, Linda and Robert.
Julia stayed busy with her children and their school and extracurricular activities, becoming involved with the Camp Fire Girls, Garden Club, Lakeview Methodist Church, and other service organizations. An avid gardener, she became enamored with African violets, which she still grows in her apartment today.
After her husband’s passing, Julia moved to Sugar Land to be closer to family. Here she joined Christ United Methodist Church and enjoyed the fellowship of the Jubilee Class. She and several church friends met regularly to play dominoes (Mexican Train) and the ladies traveled together locally and out-of-state.
Julia has enjoyed travel both in the US and abroad. Her first international trip was a cruise to St. Thomas. During a Baltic Sea cruise, she explored St. Petersburg, Russia and Scandinavian countries. She also took an “incredibly beautiful” Greek Isles cruise. Her journeys included exploring Santa Fe, New Mexico, Sedona, Arizona, Natchez, Mississippi, and Branson, Missouri, and Florida. During her travels she would collect unique items, each with a story all its own.
As time marched on, Julia’s spark remained bright. Into her 80’s she continued to volunteer, with Meals on Wheels and her church Food Pantry, and didn’t stop planting and weeding her garden beds and lifting 40-pound bags of dirt until she was in her 90’s.
At 98 years young, Julia moved to Atria Assisted Living in Sugar Land, and her intellect is sharp as ever. She is keenly interested in a wide range of subjects, especially the stock market. When watching TV, she tunes in to CNBC.
Julia’s legacy and source of joy is her family. Revered as the grand matriarch, she has six grandchildren, 14 great grandchildren, 18 nieces and nephews, and their children and grandchildren. The family celebrated Julia’s birthdays according to her birth certificate, but at her “100th” in 2018, they decided to acknowledge her true birth year, 1917. This year, Julia and her family celebrated her 102nd birthday, and anticipate many more to come as her life tapestry continues to weave its remarkable story. Her family says she used to jokingly tell people, “The good die young, so you’ll live to be a ripe old age,” an expression they lovingly throw back at her today at age 102.