At 102 years old, the diminutive Vashti “Tish” McMichael takes her daily 100 laps around the kitchen and living room at her home in Mountainair. The grooves from her walker etched into the brick give testament to her diligence. To a number of her grandchildren she is affectionately known as Wonder Woman.

Born in Winfield, Texas on Jan. 16, 1918, McMichael and her three siblings were raised by a strict mother who towered over her children. “Big Mama,” being highly ambitious had a degree and taught school, where she set down the rules early for her children.

An example: “Before you get married you need to get a degree and have a job,” McMichael said.

Tish McMichael celebrated her 102nd birthday Jan. 16, 2020. Photo by Ira Jay Flushman.

She recalls winning a piano contest at 16, playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp minor. The result was a scholarship to Lou Morris Methodist Junior College, where she earned a credential teaching public school music choruses for elementary children.

Then she went on to Texas State College for Women in Denton, Texas. Needing to pay off her $75 tuition, she worked as a waitress in the dormitory and during her final year she taught music. Her parents sent $1 a week for spending money, which was a real sacrifice.

Asked what advice she would give to younger generations, McMichael said, “Having good family relationships is most important. Apply your heart to wisdom. Try to improve the world we live in by being faithful and hardworking for the good of all.” She added, “Love God and country and family.”

As a child, she loved visiting Grannie. One day they were on their way to church and Tish fell out of the horse drawn wagon and was run over by one of the back wheels. She got up, brushed herself off, climbed back in the wagon—and off they went.

McMichael said she is now legally blind from macular degeneration. “I haven’t been able to read since the early nineties. I now receive Library Books for the Blind which I listen to about three hours a night. Once a year I also listen to the Bible all the way through.”

Asked what she attributes her long life to, she answered, “The most important thing is eating good food, not necessarily delicious, but healthy and lots of yogurt. Also it’s important to be interested in everything. I always tell my grandkids and great-grandkids to learn something new every day.”

McMichael lost her first husband, Joe Irvin, after 31 years to pancreatic cancer. He was 54 years old and the love of her life. As a widow for three years she did a lot of traveling around the world, but soon enough another suitor from high school, Jim McMichael, a widower himself, came calling.

Later, he received an offer to become president of a small independent bank that drew the family to El Paso, Texas. Since it was the smallest bank in town it was very important for Tish to participate in women’s community activities and civic work. That won her Mother of the Year honors which she is quite proud of.

The move to New Mexico happened after her daughter Elaine had started to settle on her husband’s family farm in Mountainair. By 1985 dwellings were built on the land to house the McMichaels and Big Mama. Presently there are four generations and five houses on the property.

Her husband got interested in the Senior Olympics, but Tish wasn’t too thrilled with it. In spite of that, “I did pretty well. I held the record in race walking in my age group for the State of New Mexico. Jim and I walked 3 to 4 miles per day. I played shuffleboard, table tennis, badminton. I shot the pistol and soccer kicked.” All this she did in her eighties.

She has nine grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. One of her strengths after losing her parents, two brothers and a sister, two husbands, a daughter, a great-grandson and two sons-in-law: “When there is sadness we go on, we carry on. We have to.”

The matriarch of about 45 direct descendants and spouses McMichael said, “By the grace of God, we come from good stock and have a wonderful family.” Continuing to live independently at the Mountainair family compound her two daughters say she is an inspiration to the whole family.

Leota Harriman
Leota Harriman

Leota started working for The Independent in 2006, working her way up through the ranks. An employee buyout in 2010 led to her ownership of the newspaper. Leota has served on the board of the N.M. Press Association, and is currently its First Vice President. She is passionate about health and wellness, especially mental health, and loves making art. She can be reached at news.ind.editor@gmail.com.