A feisty teacher who faced off with a Maine judge, educated children Down East and in Winthrop, and described a Washington County beach as the prettiest beach she has ever seen celebrated her birthday on 10/20/12.
The date held particular significance for Irene Estelle (Crocker) Hibbs; she was born on 10/20/10 — 102 years ago, two years before an iceberg bagged the Titanic and four years before European countries started a shooting war on The Continent.
A six-year resident of Sunbury Village in Bangor, Hibbs “was born in Machias at my grandmother’s” on Thursday, Oct. 20, 1910. Her parents were Austin Elmer Crocker from Machiasport and Nellie Mae Crocker, who had grown up in Machias.
Hibbs also grew up in Machias in a neighborhood where “I was the only girl.” An older cousin, Morrill Armstrong, taught her to dance; “he was a beautiful ballroom dancer,” she recalled, and “I became a dancing doll.” Her grandmother would watch from her rocking chair as Armstrong instructed Hibbs to organ music provided by Nellie Mae Crocker.
In her mid-teens, not long before her planned graduation from Machias High School, Hibbs contracted “red measles.” After a house call, a doctor told her mother that the measles “are dangerous for this child,” so Hibbs spent two months recovering at home, laying in bed in the daytime with towels covering her eyes so she would not go blind.
“It was tiresome, staying at home. I’d rather be in school,” Hibbs said.
She later graduated from Machias High, briefly studied nursing in Massachusetts and Bangor, and ultimately earned a teaching degree from Washington County Normal School, the forerunner of the University of Maine at Machias. Her first teaching position took her to Edmunds, where “they’d had six teachers hired and fired,” Hibbs recalled. “I went there and was very successful.”
Later Hibbs went to a rural school in the Kennebec District of Machias, “five miles out of town. They had a very good classroom for the upper grades.” Hibbs taught four years in the school, and during that time she came to know Roque Bluffs Beach very well.
“It is the most beautiful beach I have ever seen,” she said.
After teaching in Lubec, Hibbs moved to Winthrop and taught there. “My salary was pretty good, so I bought a car — a [two-door] Chevrolet, not a Ford, thank you,” she emphasized.
Her family owned “a cottage” at Hadley Lake in East Machias; Hibbs liked to spend time there, and she enjoyed visiting with her family in Machias. So “I tried to drive home … every other weekend,” she said.
Typically leaving Winthrop on a Friday night, Hibbs sped east with admittedly little regard for the posted speed limit, at least in places. Often between Ellsworth and Machias, and especially along the Blacks Woods Road (today’s Route 182) between Franklin and Cherryfield, police officers frequently pulled her over for speeding.
Obvious despite her dark glasses, a mischievous look came over Hibbs’ face as she let slip her tendency to reach 60 miles per hour through Blacks Woods. The police consistently ticketed her, and one day Hibbs stood before a district court judge. Remembering the moment some 60 years later, she estimated that she had accrued about a dozen speeding tickets.
Gazing down from the bench, the judge asked her, “Do you know what you are here for?”
Drawing herself up straight, Hibbs replied, “If you don’t know, I’m not telling you.”
Having met his match, the flustered judge dismissed the tickets. Hibbs later heard that the judge spread the word around town that he had “met his match” in her.
In Portland on July 19, 1947, Irene Estelle Crocker married Wesley Hibbs, a dental surgeon who was “a very bright man, very intellectual.” She possesses a beautiful black-and-white wedding photo that depicts her with the handsome Wesley.
“He fitted right in with my family, beautifully,” Irene Hibbs recalled. “My mother loved him.”
But Wesley died three months later, and his death devastated his bride. She never remarried.
Over the years, Irene Hibbs taught many Winthrop students, including a nephew and niece of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, whom Hibbs came to know. “I was interested in lawmaking,” Hibbs recalled. She asked Smith to speak at a Winthrop parent-teacher group’s meeting, and “I was her escort when she was awarded the Freedom Award in Kentucky,” Hibbs said.
She retired from teaching in 1975, then spent time representing a business and professional women’s club. Hibbs met Richard Nixon, who “was very good to me, I’ll tell you.”
Over the years Hibbs traveled to Europe — she mentioned France, Germany, and Great Britain — and to every American state except Hawaii. She moved to Machias, became involved there for a while with the Daughters of the American Revolution, and spent as much time as possible at the Hadley Lake cottage.
“It was just like a house, only it didn’t have any insulation,” Hibbs said.
She has never hesitated to express her opinion about different topics, particularly politics. “I shoot straight from the hip or the shoulder, as you have probably figured out,” Hibbs said. She expressed “great admiration” for the current Sunbury Village managers and “the City of Bangor.”
Hibbs arrived at Sunbury Village on Oct. 2, 2006, a date that maintained her close connection with the 10th month of the year. She mingles easily with other residents, and when Sunbury Village celebrated her 102nd birthday with a big bash on this past Oct. 20, many attended the festivities.
So did friends from Machias, nephews and nieces, and former Winthrop students. The crowd was estimated at 70-100 people, and Hibbs enjoyed seeing every one of them.
The party featured an appropriately decorated (and delicious) cake and piano music provided by Bill Trowell, “my favorite musician,” Hibbs said. “The music was absolutely wonderful. I had a darn good supper.”
As to what she would credit for 102 years of life, Hibbs replied, “Faith in God. I went to the Holy Land and was baptized there.”
But “I get bored with preachers,” she commented.