Lucy Hamm, St. Louis' Beer-Drinking "Sheriff," Turned 108 on Saturday

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Lucy Hamm celebrates her 108th birthday with a pale ale and longtime friend, Betty Ostapowicz. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Lucy Hamm celebrates her 108th birthday with a pale ale and longtime friend, Betty Ostapowicz.

The singer handling master of ceremonies duties for Lucy Hamm’s 108th birthday starts off with the weather. “God gave us a great day to go out and celebrate,” he says.

Hamm fires back, “And bring the bottle with us!”

Everyone laughs.

The beer-drinking matriarch of five generations and badge-wearing “sheriff” of Tower Grove Manor is back in town for the afternoon. Mayor Francis Slay tells her she doesn’t look a day older than she did at last year’s party. Brewery co-founder Tom Schlafly calls her a St. Louis “treasure” on par with the Cardinals and the Arch.

“She loves being the center of attention — in a good way,” says 34-year-old Christina Ahlheim, Hamm's oldest great granddaughter.

Lucy Hamm sees Mayor Francis Slay every year on her birthday. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Lucy Hamm sees Mayor Francis Slay every year on her birthday.

For 14 years, Hamm stormed the halls of Tower Grove Manor, a senior home just north of the growing South Grand restaurant district. Decades older than some of the other residents, she still led the home's walking group until about two years ago. She also looked after her neighbors there — leading to that "sheriff" nickname. She'd wear her silver star badge so often, people would ask if she forgot to take it off.

“She’d tell people she was working undercover that day,” says Sunny Gibbs, executive director of Tower Grove Manor.

Gibbs arranged to have Hamm return to the manor on Friday from her new home, an assisted living facility called Brooking Park in Chesterfield. Hamm moved there in December after her health began to slip. She uses a wheelchair now, which she hates. The residents there don't know her as the sheriff.

Mason Gibson, 19 months, chases balloons during a 108th birthday party for his great, great grandmother, Lucy Hamm. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Mason Gibson, 19 months, chases balloons during a 108th birthday party for his great, great grandmother, Lucy Hamm.

Her birthday is actually on Saturday, but Friday's party at Tower Grove Manor is an opportunity to visit her old stomping grounds. Residents and staff fawn over her in the lobby before she heads back outside for a parade in her honor. She joins a half-dozen other ladies on a bus covered in streamers and hand-lettered signs. “LUCY SHERIFF BADGE NO. 108,” reads one taped onto the back.

The bus circles the streets, rolling slowly along South Grand as a handful of people from the Tower Grove East Neighborhood Association cheer them on. Hamm waves from her window seat, and the driver blares the horn. And when she returns to Tower Grove Manor, it’s as if nothing has changed. She knows every face. Old friends stop to say hello as she moves through the halls.

An upstairs ballroom is decorated in balloons and streamers, and Hamm takes a seat in front of dozens of friends and four generations of her family. The singer croons Neil Diamond, Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra, pausing occasionally to banter with the guest of honor.

“She says she’s 22,” he tells the crowd.

Hamm waves him off.

“No I’m not — I’m 23.”

A bus, decorated in signs and streamers, carried 108-year-old Lucy Hamm along South Grand for her birthday. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • A bus, decorated in signs and streamers, carried 108-year-old Lucy Hamm along South Grand for her birthday.

Family members talk of her life as if recounting a legend. She began working as a teen, sewing funeral shrouds for the a mortuary business her sister operated in Carroll, Illinois. She married, had two kids and was widowed young.

“She raised her kids on her own, which, in that day, didn’t happen very often,” daughter-in-law Janice Hamm, 85, says.

She never seemed to slow, working for decades in St. Louis’ shoe industry. Hamm retired at 72 and kept driving until she was 92. Janice Hamm remembers when her mother-in-law moved into Tower Grove Manor. She had been living alone in a four-person flat, and most of the neighbors she knew had moved on. “She was kind of down,” Janice Hamm recalls.

Lucy Hamm waves to friends during a parade for her 108th birthday. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Lucy Hamm waves to friends during a parade for her 108th birthday.

But then she moved into the senior apartments and started to get involved. She met friends and became the resident celebrity. Slay has become an annual guest at her birthday parties. Schlafly began providing beer when they heard she credited her stunning longevity to regular consumption.

“The last 14 years have honestly been the happiest of her life,” Janice Hamm says.

Which made it extra difficult for her to leave for the assisted living facility in Chesterfield. Just the idea of this superwoman finally starting to slow is a massive shift.

“It’s been hard on her,” Janice Hamm says. “It’s been hard on the family.”

The party winds down about 4 p.m. Tower Grove Manor resident Betty Ostapowicz, 92, is one of the last to leave. She and Hamm have been best friends “for years,” she says.

“I really miss her,” Ostapowicz says. “Every once in awhile someone will drive me out to see her and spend a little time. But it’s kind of hard, because she hates it when I leave.”

Hamm stands with some help and returns to her wheelchair for the trip home. Ostapowicz baby steps over to her side and pulls a sweater over her shoulders. Hamm reaches up to touch her face, and Ostapowicz leans down to kiss her on the cheek.

“Come by any time,” Hamm says.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at doyle.murphy@riverfronttimes.com or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.


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