LIVING THE LIFE: Briar Hill mayor celebrates 104 years

Published 3:00 am Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Obie Russell pulled a comb out of his pocket, slicked back his hair and blew out the candles on his birthday cake with one quick puff.

Russell celebrated his 104th birthday with a party in his honor at Red’s Little School House Restaurant on Saturday. But his niece Cathy McKinney laughing said she didn’t put 104 candles on the cake for fear the flames would burn the schoolhouse down.”

Russell is Briar Hill’s first and only mayor. He was honorably appointed by the populace of Briar Hill and has held the position admirably.

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“Obie Russell has been ‘Uncle Obie’ to the entire Briar Hill community for most of his 104 years,” said Charlie Turnipseed. “He’s everybody’s uncle, no blood relation required.”

Russell was his usual self at his birthday party, laughing and waving to all those who came to wish him a happy birthday and thank him for being a part of their lives.

“There’s not a single person here whose life has not been better because they knew him,” Turnipseed said. “We all love Uncle Obie and are blessed to have had him a part of our lives.”

And, Russell said he is equally proud to have had so many wonderful people in his life.

“The best thing in life is family and friends,” he said. “My family and friends have made me a rich and happy man.”

Someone asked Russell if this month is time to have his driver’s license renewed.

He attracted a lot of interest when he renewed his license in January 2015 and quipped he’d be back again in four years.

He laughingly said he started driving a mule and wagon when he was about seven years old and drove for about 90 years. He’ll “renew” if only for identification.

Nora Stephens is the oldest of three nieces raised by Obie and Eddie Russell.

“Uncle Obie taught us all how to drive,” Stephens said. “I opened the store during the summers and he was afraid I would eat up his stock. When I was 15, he would let teenagers gather at the store and on the porch. He was so important in my life that we named our son Russell in his honor.”

Liz Register remembers Russell’s amazing tenor voice.

“I loved hearing Uncle Obie and Aunt Eddie singing at church at Homecoming,” she said.

Obie and Eddie Russell ran Russell’s Grocery in Briar Hill. Their grocery was the gathering place in the small community, for people of all ages.

“If Uncle Obie and Aunt Eddie had gotten paid for all the penny candy and cookies they gave away to kids over the years, they would have been rich,” McKinney said. “They were generous almost to a fault.”

McKinney said Russell has always been good-hearted and community-minded.

“He would help anybody in any way he could and at any time,” she said. And Cathy McKinney would know.

When she was seven years old, her mother died following surgery, at age 46.

“Mother had asked Uncle Obie and Aunt Eddie, her sister, if anything happened to her during surgery, would they promise to look after her girls. Daddy was 59 and left with three young daughters to raise. Uncle Obie and Aunt Eddie had no children of their own and they looked after us and Daddy.”

Over the years, McKinney said she had her sisters were the recipients of the love and care of their Uncle Obie and Aunt Eddie. The bond between Obie Russell and his nieces remains strong. And so does his devotion to his community and its people.

Russell has a history of community service. He was president of the Pike County Democratic Committee for 50 years. He worked at the polling place in Briar Hill until it closed and then worked at the polls at Shellhorn and Oak Bowery.

He was a cattleman and is a past-president of the Pike County Cattlemen’s Association.

Russell was on the Pine Level Water Board for 35 years and was instrumental in obtaining grants to get water in the Briar Hill area.

“And, we hauled square bales of hay to just about everybody in the county,” McKinney said. “Uncle Obie helped anybody he could with getting jobs. He would feed folks when they needed it. He’s no blood kin to me but he’s the closest thing to being a father that I know.”

“It’s said a good name is better than riches. Obie Russell has a good name.”