Mary Leigh Collins is 85 years old, but you won’t often find her resting at home.
You’re more likely to find her preparing meals for those who can’t provide them for themselves or providing company and care for others that are bedridden.
Collins, a lifetime resident of Yadkin County, was raised on a tobacco farm with her three siblings.
“We would get up at 2 a.m. and start emptying barns and then be in the field by daylight,” Collins said. “We’d start priming and it would be 11 p.m. before we’d have it all strung and hung and in the barn. I enjoyed it while I was young and able to do it.”
Even then, Collins said she would travel to the farms of her neighbors and help them finish their crops if her family finished early.
Collins continued to work on the farm for 36 years, marrying in 1946 and raising two daughters before she finally decided to venture out into the world of public service work.
Collins took a job as a nurse assistant at Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital in Elkin in 1960.
Collins said that her decision to go into the medical field came after she accompanied her father to a veteran’s hospital in Tennessee after he suffered his second heart attack.
“I went with him in the ambulance back to Tennessee and stayed with him for six weeks and I came back with him here in the hearse and that’s when I made up my mind that I was going into the medical field,” Collins said. “Watching the tender care that the nurses and doctors gave my father while he was there made me want to work in the medical field.”
Collins was moved around to whatever area she was needed while she was at Hugh Chatham but she said her favorite area to work was obstetrics.
Her most memorable patient was hospitalized after falling off a ladder while she was working on her house. The fall caused her to break her back.
“I had been off for three or four days and came back and they told me that I would be taking care of her and they said she would hate me,” Collins said. “It was just pouring down rain outside and I went in her room and she had all the blinds pulled and it was dark and she was lying in there crying.
I jerked the shades up and told her to look at the beautiful liquid sunshine outside. She started laughing and I thought she would never quit. From then on she was so special to me. She was precious.”
After her husband fell ill in the mid 1980s, Collins left her job at the hospital to care for him full-time. When he passed, she vowed to herself that she would not close herself up in her home.
Collins went into volunteering full force. She became a regular at the Jonesville Senior Center where she took craft classes like basket weaving and she joined the Yadkin Valley Quilters.
“I started making my first quilt when I was 9 years old,” Collins said. “My mother used to make them, and I aggravated her to give me one of her scrap pieces of fabric and let me try it. I have made some beautiful quilts over the years and I have made some to auction for breast cancer research.”
Collins is also no stranger to traveling. She has been to 48 of the 50 states, only missing California and Hawaii. She says her favorite traveling experiences were seeing Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and Alaska.
While in Alaska, Collins said she took a small plane from Anchorage to Fort Barron to see the area where Eskimos still live in igloos. Her tour group was also in Alaska during the night in the summer when the sun never sets.
“There were 32 of us on the bus, and when we got to hotel we couldn’t sleep because the sun was still shining,” Collins said. “So we went down and got everybody up and we all went behind the hotel and sang and joked around until 4 or 5 in the morning.”
Collins said that she likes to share her stories with other people her age and older to remind them that they need to keep moving and get out and do things.
“I give them encouragement,” Collins said. “I tell them they need to get out and get involved in more volunteer work and keep themselves busy and not staying at home.”
Collins says that she doesn’t regret anything she’s done in her life and that she feels she’s led a full life that she’s proud of.
“I’ve been around, but I’ve behaved myself,” Collins said. “I want to stay around and aggravate everyone that I can for as long as I can.”
Reach Lindsay Craven at 679-2341 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.