Into a century of Leona: Beloved Renton woman celebrates 100th birthday

Renton Highlands resident moved to Washington from Texas in the 1940s. “There was no running water and so many bears,” she says of eastern Renton in those days.

For a good many people in Renton — and beyond — this past Juneteenth wasn’t just a commemoration of emancipation, but a 100th birthday celebration of Leona Williams, a woman beloved tenfold.

Well-known for her homemade teacakes, her dedication to the Goodwill Baptist Church in Seattle, her sewing skills and her love of taking care of children, Leona carved herself out a special place in Renton’s community. And even though she can’t drive anymore, she really has nothing to worry about.

“My kids, all of the neighborhood, I can call on any of them and they’ll be here,” Leona said. And she’s not wrong. She’s a phone call away from a friend taking her out for a night out at the casino, and an announcement away from having people come from all over to celebrate her 100 “blessed” years.

Leona was born on June 17, 1923, in eastern Texas in a town called Deweyville, which was right near the border of Louisiana, where her husband Clarence Williams was born.

“He used to ride to her house on his big, white steed,” said Bonita Harrison, Leona’s daughter and oldest child.

The first time Leona met Clarence, it was at a Juneteenth party when she was 13 and he was 16. “He’d come over on his horse and we was all playing, and it started from there,” she said.

Originally from east Texas, Leona was the oldest of her siblings and she fondly remembers her mother making all of them clothes made from colorfully-printed flour sacks, which was common when she was growing up in the 1920s and 1930s. Photo by Bailey Jo Josie/Sound Publishing.

Dating wasn’t even a concept in those days, so the two courted for three years before getting married in 1939. Before Clarence passed away in 2016, the two had been together for a total of 80 years.

“I have nothing to complain about, God has been good to me,” Leona said when reflecting on her life with her husband and their children. Along with Bonita, 83, Leona and Clarence had two sons, Clarence Jr. and Craig, 61. Clarence Jr., who was a year younger than Bonita, passed away at the age of 42.

After World War II, the Williams family moved to Washington state, where Clarence worked as a mechanic for Darigold and, for a time, Leona worked as a riveter for Boeing.

In 1947, the family moved from Bremerton to Renton for their children’s education, something Leona initially wasn’t too keen on.

“My husband said, ‘I got us a place in Renton’ and when I say, ‘I don’t want to come over, I want to stay in the city,’ he said, ‘No, we got to give our children a chance,’” Leona said.

The Williams were able to buy a few acres of property in the Highlands and they raised and helped their children, among many, many others.

What makes Leona so special is her role as a grandmother — she truly has too many grandmother nicknames to keep track of — an auntie and maternal leader in the Renton area.

Leona and her husband Clarence spent eight decades together, with three years of courting and 77 years of marriage. Photo by Bailey Jo Josie/Sound Publishing.

At her 100th birthday celebration, five generations of Williams and countless people she babysat and took care of over the decades came out to Renton to honor her. Some traveled from Maryland, Texas, California and even the U.K.

“I didn’t know that mom got my friend her prom dress,” Bonita said of her mother. “We weren’t raised selfishly. Always giving of [herself] to others, and it was the same way with dad – they both were givers. I learned later what she had done for my friends. Dad always provided, and she nurtured.”

To that, Leona simply said, “We help whenever we can.”

Her 100th birthday party was also a combination Juneteenth party that took place just down the road from her home at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Baptist Church, where an “old-fashion church service” was done for her sake, with the choir singing some of her favorite hymns, like “Heaven’s Grocery Store.”

Looking back on the last century, Leona said, “I’ve enjoyed life. I’ve had some ups and downs but I never had a rough time.”