Saltwater Portrait

Curiosity is key to Esther Friend's long life

Even at 91, Lewes resident is active in community theater
Esther Friend looks over her lines for the play, "I Hate Hamlet," being presented by Possum Point Players this coming weekend in Georgetown. BY RON MACARTHUR
January 24, 2012

Esther Friend was once told she's what the insurance industry calls an actuarial loss. Her mother and father both lived well in their 90s, and she had plans to live to be 100 more than three decades ago.

Being a “loss” doesn't bother Friend, who is 91 years young and still plans to live to be at least 100 years old. Having a lifelong love for the theater, Friend is still active on stage and has a small part in the current Possum Point Player's production of “I Hate Hamlet.”

Sitting in her comfortable Huling Cove apartment in Lewes, Friend says she loves the applause and loves to make people laugh. “It allows me a different kind of life than I live day to day,” she said.

Friend has been an entertainer most of her life. At the age of 3 growing up in Massachusetts, her family looked to her for entertainment. She had an uncanny ability to memorize stories and retell them verbatim. But, she had to put all of that on hold when she went to work and raised a family.

After a long hiatus, when she moved to Sussex County about 20 years ago, she was quick to get back into community theater taking part in productions of Possum Point Players, 2nd Street Players and Clear Space Productions. She has performed, worked backstage and even directed over the past two decades. “But don't ask me how many plays I've been in because I lost count many years ago,” she said.

Her husband, Donald, passed away in 1978, and she has two sons, Doug and Larry, who both live in the area. She and Doug share of love for the theater and have worked together on numerous productions. “I love it when we work together, but I can't ever remember being on stage with him,” she said. Her first production was “My Fair Lady” two decades ago.

Growing up during the Great Depression

Growing up in Plainville, Mass., she said her childhood was idyllic even though she grew up during the Great Depression. “Everyone was in the same boat because we were all poor and didn't even know it,” she said.

There was no television and her father built the first radio in the town.

Friend was a high school English and reading teacher and counselor for 23 years before relocating to Vermont to take care of her parents. She says she eventually got sick of snow and looked to move south.

She received a bachelor's degree from Oberlin University in Ohio and a master's degree in education from Temple University. “I taught to pay the bills,” she said. She says she wasn't a great teacher because she had a hard time disciplining mischief makers. “They made me laugh too much,” she said. She thought she was much more effective as a school counselor.

Her love of working with kids and learning did not fade; she was a mentor at Shields Elementary School through the Help One Student To Succeed mentoring program. She has also been active in the Academy of Lifelong Learning.

Living for more than 90 years, Friend has witnessed firsts of many things we all take for granted and has had a seat to watch some of the most significant occurrences in history.

“It was a big deal when we got our first electric refrigerator,” she said. “And whenever we heard an airplane, everything stopped, and we all ran outside to see it.”

While attending college during World War II, she would hold her breath when casualty lists were published and she lost several friends. She was working at the college dining hall when she heard the news the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

After college, she got a job working at a factory in Newton Upper Falls, Mass. While walking to work each day, she saw trucks passing her with soldiers inside who never failed to smile and wave to her. “They were German prisoners of war going to work at another factory; it took me about two weeks before I would wave back to them,” she said.

Friend has never stopped learning

What is Friend's secret to a long life? “It's not said that much, but I think curiosity is a big help to a fruitful life,” she said.

She worked as a title searcher for awhile in Georgetown and that sparked her interest in Sussex County history. While researching one deed she came across a person who has infatuated her. Thalia Frame came from a prominent Sussex family that had a sawmill and farm near Millsboro. She died in the early 1900s with no heirs. Her family had claims to the land dating back to 1722. “Sussex County was all trees then. I try to imagine what it would have been like and think about living miles from your nearest neighbor,” Friend said.

“In her will, she had instructions for the executor of the estate to bury her in a white satin dress with satin lace and white shoes. Why didn't she just take care of this herself?” she asked.

Friend said the family had slaves who worked on their farm, and Frame would have been looking to marry around the time of the Civil War. “She never married; maybe it's because her man was killed,” Friend said.

Friend said Frame witnessed sailing and steam ships on the Delaware Bay, rode on trains to big cities, talked on the first telephones and was mystified by electricity and photography.

“This was all in one lifetime in Sussex County where people think nothing happens,” she said.

When her commitment to Possums is over next weekend, she plans to begin her research once again. “It's all about being curious,” she says.

“I also take life as it comes. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about big things. I tend to go with the grain of the universe.”