- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

DANA, N.C. (AP) - Bertha Mae Gilliam McCraw is quick, witty and to the point. She’s a hard worker, and dedicated. When she tells you something, she doesn’t beat around the bush.

She turned 90 on May 20 and held a party the next day at the Park at Flat Rock, where more than 100 people came to help her celebrate her nine decades of life. She got more than 60 birthday cards.

Her roots stretch deep through Henderson County and reach far beyond, from Old Dana Road and the Dana Volunteer Fire Department, to dinners with actor Patrick Swayze at the Lake Lure Inn and even to a small fire department in Lake Wales, Florida.

“I think I put my whole life into bettering Dana and every other place I’ve lived,” she said.

Bertha Mae Gilliam was born in the Upward community in 1926.

“I was going to Dana School, and I met this young man named Pierce McCraw, and I said, ‘Oh, if he ain’t the most handsome young man I ever seen,’ ” she recalled last week. “He had a great big wave in his hair, and at 16 we both quit school and got married at 17 and raised seven beautiful children.”

They married in 1943. The next year, Pierce McCraw left for the Army, serving in Okinawa and other theaters during World War II. He wouldn’t return until 1946, about two and a half years later.

“Oh, I cried my eyes out; I got bleeding ulcers,” Bertha Mae McCraw said. “I was afraid I’d never see my sweetheart again.”

“As you can tell by that large picture, he was a handsome man,” she added, pointing to a photo of the pair of them, Pierce McCraw in uniform.

After he came back from the service, work slowed down and they moved to Gary, Indiana, for eight years before returning to Dana in 1958. They built a house on McCraw Hill Drive off Old Dana Road.

“It’s just home, Dana is,” she said.

Bertha Mae and Pierce McCraw were instrumental in forming the Dana Volunteer Fire Department, chartered in 1971.

The McCraws and others in the community raised funds by collecting donations from local businesses and hosting yard sales and bake sales.

She remembers trying to raise the $500 needed for the charter of the department, getting the first two $100 donations from the Dana Café (now the site of the Dana Post Office) and the Dana Service Station.

More donations came from other businesses and from an event at the Suburban Heights Community Building.

Asphalt was donated, as was rock for the structure, and even the land at the corner of Upward Road and Old Dana Road was donated for the department, she said. Pierce McCraw became the first president at Dana Volunteer Fire Department.

But that wasn’t the last fire department Bertha Mae McCraw would help. In 1984, she and Pierce McCraw moved to Lake Wales, Fla., because of a doctor’s orders related to his diabetes.

The small Timberlane Fire Department in Lake Wales, just south of Orlando, was struggling then, and so Mrs. McCraw went back to work, conducting yard sales and helping out by cleaning to “keep the station going.”

Now, she lives seven months a year in Lake Wales and five months in Dana. She’s a lifetime member of Timberlane Volunteer Fire Department.

“That’s what God put us here for is to help one another, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do all my life,” she said.

After the Dana Fire Department was settled, McCraw said, “I went to everybody on Old Dana Road, it was a dirt street, I worked for three and a half weeks walking the street” until she got enough signatures to get the road paved.

When the McCraws moved back to Dana in 1958, Old Dana Road was a dirt road in “terrible” shape, she said.

In 1986, the McCraws learned that “Dirty Dancing” was filming nearby and was in need of some classic cars - something that they had.

McCraw said she called up Tut Melton and his brother Eric, who were in charge of leasing the cars for the film. They were only interested in cars made in 1963 or earlier, before President John F. Kennedy’s death.

She told them of several vehicles the McCraws owned - a 1954 Chevrolet, green with an ivory top, a 1956 Cadillac, a 1955 pickup truck and an Edsel that were available.

Those cars are in the film. The green Chevrolet can be seen in the very first scene, driven by McCraw, though she’s not visible (because she wasn’t a union member, she was told). Pierce McCraw is also in the film, driving the pickup, but the McCraws would do more than lend their cars to the film for $70 a day.

For six weeks, they opened and closed the Lake Lure Inn, with Pierce McCraw buying 20 dozen doughnuts for breakfast for the cast and crew, and Bertha Mae making 100 cups of coffee and 100 cups of hot water for hot chocolate for the kids, as well as a cooler of tea.

They were told not to disturb the actors while they were training, but during meals, they rubbed shoulders. Patrick Swayze, the film’s star, ate often with the McCraws and others working on the set.

“Patrick said, ‘I never fought a line for nothing,’ so he waited till us workers stopped to eat and he ate with us,” McCraw said.

She has a photo of herself and Swayze, torn and creased on the edges from years of “carrying it and showing it,” but she has two more copies, 8-by-10 prints, one in her bedroom and one in her living room.

In one scene in the movie, Patrick Swayze’s character Johnny and Jennifer Grey’s character Baby are balanced on a log.

“I said, ‘this country girl can walk that log and not look back,’ ” McCraw recalled. “And Patrick said, ‘Well, let’s see.’”

“So I get up on that log and I go about halfway out on it, and who goes in the water but Bertha,” she said. “So my husband was upstairs, talking with Baby most of the time, because he was a ladies’ man . so he yelled out, ‘What are you doing in the lake?’ and I said, ‘Just having fun.’ “

She said her dress went up like an umbrella and everyone was dying laughing. There was a photo, she added, but she didn’t get a copy.

“It was just a wonderful time for us, and we never dreamed of doing nothing like that when we collected old cars,” she said.


Information from: Times-News, https://www.blueridgenow.com

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