Retired Conroe educator Jeanette DeFee walked into Gold's Gym along Texas 105 Tuesday ready to hop on the bicycle machine. However, when she entered the door, DeFee was greeted by smiling staff members, a banner and balloons one day before her 99th birthday (Nov. 15).

DeFee had no idea about the celebration or about Conroe Mayor Toby Powell's plans to honor her with a proclamation today.


Staff Photo by Michael Minasi
The staff of the Conroe Gold's Gym surprise their client, Conroe resident Jeanette DeFee, with a banner and balloons to celebrate her 99th birthday on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017

"This is a surprise," said DeFee, who has been hitting the gym to keep her knees in shape. "I started in 1995. My legs gave me a lot of trouble, and I thought I better come and bicycle. It keeps me moving. You have to do things, that's what keeps you going."

She's dedicated, checking in as the oldest member at the Conroe Gold's Gym nearly every day around lunchtime, according to Gold's Gym Operations Manager Julie Baeza.

 

"It's kind of like a breath of fresh air," said Baeza, who said it is uncommon to see members DeFee's age working out. "She doesn't complain, she rides her bike, while some give up. It's admirable. She gives no excuses."

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"I'll say, 'So what's your excuse,'" he said. "She's a wonderful workout partner."

DeFee says her knees are the only thing that make her feel her age, but they don't stop her from still having an active life. Since 1948, she has served the Conroe community starting with her role as a school teacher.

While she planned to be a stay-at home mother when she moved to the area, after teaching in Pasadena in World War II, she answered Principal B.B. Rice's call to teach again when her daughter's Conroe teacher was hospitalized.

 

"People were very patriotic," DeFee said. "People today are not patriotic. You wanted to help in the war effort then."

She remained a substitute and school teacher for 27 years to also serve her family, such as to buy a piano for her daughters to have lessons. Throughout the years, she taught thousands of students, including at Anderson Elementary where she spent most of her career and played an instrumental role in starting the first reading lab, which was an innovative program for students with reading difficulties, according to DeFee and her daughter Beth Ann Blevins who coordinated the birthday surprises for her.

DeFee's late husband, T.J. DeFee, also served as the first principal of Runyan Elementary and once owned a grocery store in Conroe at the time. She and her husband met when he offered her a ride after seeing her walking to church in Pasadena. They were married for 47 years and shared three daughters, Janie, Patsy and Beth Ann; six granddaughters, and 15 great-grandchildren.

"When she arrived in Conroe in 1948, it was a town of 7,000," Blevins wrote to The Courier. "Dirt streets still existed, horses could be seen tied up in front of bars downtown, Houston was a 45-minute drive through the woods on a two-lane highway (Texas 75). Not only has Jeanette seen incredible growth and change in Conroe, she has been a significant contributor to the community."

Upon retiring in 1979, she began traveling around the United States and the world in Europe, Asia and Australia. As Conroe grew throughout the years, she remained involved as a volunteer at the library where she still repairs books every Wednesday afternoon with the Montgomery County Library Friends. She has served the community through involvement with the American Red Cross, the First Presbyterian Church, Girl Scout Troop 3, as president of Pan American Roundtable, Delta Kappa Gamma and Montgomery County Association of Retired School Personnel.

"She has always been my guiding light," said Vicky Christopher, president of the Library Friends of Conroe, who DeFee commends for her service to the library. "I always told her when I grew up I wanted to be Jeanette DeFee. She truly believes she is helping us out and she is. Even repairing two or three books is saving taxpayer money. Sometimes people come into our lives to encourage us to try to be the best that we can be. I'm blessed that Jeanette DeFee has been such an encouraging mentor in my life."

DeFee grew up in Pasadena in a family with nine children, including four older sisters who brought her everywhere. She waited tables to pay for her $20 tuition at the close of the Depression at Sam Houston. She believes her childhood shaped her life.

"All of my life, I would just get up and go and just like to be active," she said. "... Growing up in a family like that, you learned to be independent and you're not afraid to go out and get in front of the public and you learn a lot. Kids who stay home don't learn as much as kids who get up and go places. But I grew up in the (Great) Depression; and that really made a dent on my life. I'm very frugal because I went through the depression where you don't throw anything away, you might need it or you could change it or make it something different."

For many years, DeFee was a seamstress and is proud today of the dresses she made for her daughters, as well as the more than 3,000 custom-design shoes she has made, including for proms, Miss Texas beauty pageants, weddings, festivals and more.

"I have a passion for fashion," she laughed.

During her birthday surprise, she wished the staff members also would have the chance to celebrate their 99th birthday. And for the community, she offered a little advice on what she has learned throughout the years.

"Get up every morning, get dressed and go do something," she said. "I eat right, I don't' smoke, I don't drink, I don't drink coffee. I drink a glass of milk and have no major health issues, just these knees. Get involved, stay involved. Don't sit in the chair all day at home; you get old fast that way."