Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2013 | Features

The Big 100

By Kathryn Howe
A UI alumna celebrates a century of living with grit, love, and laughter.

Mila Lewis Banks

"Never in this world did I believe I'd live to see this day," says Mila Lewis Banks.

Comparatively few people do, although the U.S. claims the greatest number of centenarians worldwide, with more than 53,000 according to the latest census figures. Beyond that, the numbers show a growing legion of "super-centenarians" who have surpassed 105—and still feel pretty good.

A person sees a lot in a century, and Mila has experienced her share of triumph, tragedy, and change. She's endured the personal loss of family, has ridden the turbulent tides of a nation's history, and watched in amazement as technological advancements transformed the world.

So, what does it feel like to be a centenarian? According to Mila, "I feel most grateful that I've been permitted to live this long and feel as well as I do. 'Life is interesting' is one of my favorite and regular phrases—and no one feels better than I do when I'm sitting down."

Eighty percent of U.S. centenarians are women, and many of those who reach 100 share extroverted personalities, close ties to family and friends, an education, and resilience in the face of trauma and stress. Mila benefits from all of these factors.

Mila Lewis Banks turned 100 years old on Oct. 28. She's got the congratulatory birthday greeting from President Obama to prove it. Living in the same downtown Kansas City condominium that she's called home the last 21 years, she marvels at how a person can age. Still, her spirit feels as fresh and young as during her girlhood in southwest Missouri—and she believes she's made it this far on luck, faith, love, and a sense of humor. Other than low-level anemia (she is trying to eat more green vegetables) and the aches and pains of arthritis, she can't complain. She tires easily and so limits her outings to "must-dos": the bank, assisted trips to the grocery store, the neighborhood deli, and the car wash. She still gets to these places driving her 1995 black Park Avenue Buick and carrying a cane to steady her stride.

Most Sundays, she drives to Bethel Baptist Church at Bethel Boulevard and 25th Street and lunches afterward with friends from the congregation. Women in their late 60s, these "youngsters" give Mila a social occasion to look forward to almost every week. They drive away the loneliness that might visit a person who has lost so many loved ones, including her husband, only son, and eight siblings.

Turning 100 makes Mila count her blessings that she's still here, let alone enjoying relatively good health and excellent memory, and an ability to make friends everywhere she goes with her warmth and grace. "Someone once told me, 'Your smile radiates so much friendliness,'" Mila says proudly.

When she's not lunching with the ladies or occasionally playing bridge, Mila spends her time reading the Kansas City Star and watching the national news, often sending newspaper clippings to friends and family—particularly from the sports section. She's a devoted sports fan and has followed the Kansas City Chiefs football team for decades. On Sundays and Mondays, Mila often skips her usual nap to watch NFL football.

"Dwayne Bowe [the Chiefs' star wide receiver] is my boy," she often says. Mila has even attended Kansas City's Annual Salute to Professional Football (the 101 Awards Gala) with Chiefs upper management and once received a hug from Peyton Manning.

Mila was born in 1913—the fifth of the nine Lewis children—in Mount Vernon, Mo., noted at the time for its tuberculosis sanatorium. The city is now known for its "Apple Butter Makin' Days." Mila's mother was only 45 years old when she died—just 12 days before Mila's 16th birthday and leaving her daughter with these influential words: "Mila, go to school. Mila, go to school."

After graduating high school from Springfield, Mo., Mila honored her mother's dreams for further education and enrolled at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.—a school founded in 1866 for the special benefit of freed African-Americans. Studying English and education, she worked odd jobs for a family in Springfield who recognized her loyalty and hard work by offering to pay tuition when she couldn't. A year after she received her bachelor's degree in 1939, she married her campus sweetheart Isaiah Banks in St. Louis. Then, she worked as a business secretary for the Paseo branch YWCA for a few years. Only in 1944, with most men off fighting in World War II, did the Kansas City school system accept married women into teaching positions for the first time.

Isaiah was soon called to register for the war, but his age was above the cutoff. By the later 1940s, he decided to pursue his master's degree. He initially sent his transcripts to a nearby Big Eight school, which denied him entry, despite his pristine credentials. The University of Iowa accepted him, and Mila decided she should earn a UI degree, too. They spent the next several summers in Iowa City, living in the home of Chester and Estelle Ferguson. Although considered one of the more racially progressive schools at the time, the UI still didn't allow blacks to live in campus dormitories.

Isaiah, 49MA, studied with national leaders in his field of physical education, while Mila, 50MA, worked under UI College of Education legends like James B. Stroud and testing pioneer Al Hieronymous. At Mama Ferguson's house, they met new friends like Philip Hubbard—who went on to become, at Iowa, the first African-American administrative vice president in the Big Ten—and Eddie Robinson, who became the famed head football coach at Grambling State University.

Mila and Isaiah returned to Kansas City to continue their teaching careers and raise their son, Reginald. The years clipped along quickly as they tend to do, and while Mila poured her heart into her family and her students, some of the nation's major historical milestones occurred during her lifetime: wars, the civil rights movement, and the assassination of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. "I've lived during fascinating, yet turbulent, periods of our country," Mila says. "When MLK was killed, I remember a very dear lady who taught speech and drama. Oh, how she wept. I recall moments like these so vividly."

If she had to summarize her life philosophy, one word she'd choose is "forward." Thanks particularly to her religious faith, Mila is not one to look back or dwell on disappointment or sorrow. In 1984, she battled breast cancer—and won. The same day she went into the hospital for surgery, Isaiah died at age 74. He'd been in a nursing home due to declining health. Reggie came home from Los Angeles where he'd been working as a dentist to attend his father's funeral. In 1991, Mila found herself back at grief's doorstep when Reginald died and she faced the terrible task of burying her son. Once again, she picked herself up and moved forward.

"Centenarians are not quitters," says Lynn Peters Adler, founder of the Centenarian Project, the nation's first nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating the lives of America's oldest citizens. "Active centenarians are our role models for living long and aging well. They are the role models for the future of aging."

Mila says she's still learning every day. Last year, Lincoln University bestowed upon her the Lifetime Achievement Award in education. It was an emotional and powerful honor because students represent perhaps Mila's biggest legacy. From her 33 years as an English teacher in the Kansas City school district, she remembers some more than others. She chuckles while describing one young lady who had a locker near her boyfriend's right outside Mila's classroom: "I'd hear her chirp 'honey, honey' and I'd poke my head around the door and ask, 'Are you speaking to me?' A sense of humor always helped in teaching—and in life. You must have some fun."

The mind often remembers whatever touches the heart, which is why Mila also recalls one particular girl who wore the same dress to school every day. Mila wanted to do something special for her but knew the girl was proud and would feel embarrassed to accept help from her teacher. So, she got one of her other students to make a simple dress and give it to the girl—without mentioning Mila's involvement.

"Only through help and the grace of God have I been able to do what I've done," Mila says. "I've found that people recognize sincere efforts and will help others who are trying. If I can extend a hand along the way, then that's what I'll do."

Her generous spirit, as well as the excellence and respect she demanded in her classroom, left such a lasting impression on her students that many traveled from Texas, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania to celebrate Mila's 100th birthday bash at the Kansas City Marriott Country Club Plaza. Students, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, colleagues from Lincoln University and the University of Iowa, friends from her Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and even the mayor of Kansas City gathered to toast an incredible 100 Years of Mila.

Reflecting on her life, this English teacher sums up her guiding philosophies in quotes from literature, specifically Shakespeare and the Bible:

To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

It's love that Mila's counting on to carry her through the years that remain.

Mila Lewis Banks —100 Years of History


OCT. 28, 1913—
Mila Lewis Banks born in Mount Vernon, Mo.

1914—World War I begins.

1920—Women gain voting rights.

1929—Stock market crashes on "Black Tuesday."

1930—The Great Depression worsens

1935—The Dust Bowl devastates the American Plains.

1941—Japan bombs Pearl Harbor; U.S. joins World War II.

1945—Jackie Robinson breaks Major League Baseball's color barrier.

1952—Polio vaccine created.

1954—Brown v. Board of Education desegregates public schools; Vietnam War begins.

1961—Russia puts first man in space.

1963—March on Washington takes place.

1963—JFK assassinated in Dallas.

1964—Civil Rights Act passes.

1968—Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in Memphis.

1969—American Neil Armstrong becomes first man to walk on the moon.

1972—Watergate scandal breaks.

1973—Roe v. Wade passes.

1975—Microsoft founded.

1977—Introduction of first mass-produced personal computers; Elvis dies.

1981—AIDS epidemic identified.

1985—First use of DNA fingerprinting

1986—Challenger and Chernobyl disasters occur.

1989—Fall of Berlin Wall; Exxon Valdez oil spill.

1990—Gulf War begins.

1995—Federal building bombed in Oklahoma City.

1999—Fear of Y2K bug escalates; Columbine High School tragedy makes headlines.

2001—Terror attacks on World Trade Center; invasion of Afghanistan.

2003—War in Iraq begins.

2005—Hurricane Katrina devastates the Gulf Coast.

2007—Introduction of the iPhone

2008—Barack Obama is elected president of the U.S.

2010—iPad introduced.

2013—Defense of Marriage Act ruled unconstitutional.