They sat in wingback chairs at the front of the fellowship hall at Derbyshire Baptist Church on Sunday afternoon — Louise Diggs Kopcho in pink and her twin sister, Lucille Diggs Andrews, in green — looking like a million dollars and feeling pretty much the same, considering they were celebrating their 100th birthdays.
How does it feel to turn 100 alongside your sister?
“Wonderful,” Louise said. “Getting a lot of attention.”
Added Lucille, “Life is good at 100. Old age is really exciting.”
The sisters are on sort of a birthday tour, having celebrated the previous weekend at Little River Baptist Church in Louisa County, where Lucille attends, and then again on Sunday in Henrico County at Derbyshire, where Louise attends, sandwiched around their actual birthdays last Wednesday.
Family and friends filled the hall Sunday, coming from places as far-flung as Atlanta and Hawaii, to stand in line to hug them and shake their hands and share stories about how the sisters have enhanced their lives — or how they’ve mistaken one for the other over the years in encounters at stores or restaurants. Often, the twins played along, not minding at all getting a hug or a peck on the cheek from someone they didn’t know.
Before the place got crowded, I had a chance to meet them and talk for a few minutes. I asked Lucille what sorts of things she still likes to do.
“I just enjoy getting up in the mornings, being in my own house, fixing my own breakfast,” she said, at which point, naturally, I asked what’s typically on the menu. “First of all, I make myself oatmeal and raisins. Then I have my dessert, which is bacon and eggs or something like that, hot biscuits.
“I enjoy life to the fullest. I really do.”
The twins were born a century ago on Aug. 14, 1919, on the family farm in the Louisa community of Buckner, a name largely lost to the outside world once its post office went away decades ago. The area is generally known as Bumpass nowadays.
Their earliest clothes were made by their mother, Missie — often out of flour sacks, though one was on display Sunday that their mother made out of drapery material. There was no indoor plumbing or electricity. As the girls grew, their daily chores included milking cows before school and in the evening. They attended Buckner School and Apple Grove High School in 1937 and made a big leap after graduation by moving to the big city of Richmond to live with an uncle and aunt and attend Smithdeal-Massey Business College.
Lucille worked at her uncle’s automobile business — Phelps-Bowles-Cocke Motor Co. — and then for C&P Telephone before marrying Sturgis Andrews, also from Louisa, who was in the Navy at the time. They lived in Northern Virginia until moving back to Buckner around 1948. The couple had two children, Jimmy and Dottie. Lucille eventually became a schoolteacher, whom her students remember as soft-spoken and very kind.
Meanwhile, Louise stayed in Richmond, working first at Kaufmann’s Department Store and at Southern States and then C&P, where she became a supervisor in accounting. She married Howard Kopcho in 1947, and they made their home in Richmond, eventually settling in Henrico. They also had two children, Craig and Sue.
Both twins have long been widowed, and Louise has been slowed by a stroke in recent times. Both possess keen senses of humor, and both are good cooks: Lucille still makes the best rolls, her son says, and Louise’s daughter, Sue Kopcho Bailey, directed me to the ham rolls on the food table at Sunday’s party.
“I used the recipe my mom used to make them,” she said.
Both also have always been encouragers, Bailey said. “They both are so positive, always encouraging people no matter the situation. They have provided encouragement to those who are different and less popular through the years, taking them under their wings,” she said.
Added Lucille’s son, Jim Andrews: “Both my mom and my aunt have always looked for the best in people.”
Both are women of strong faith, their children say, and both have been active in their churches: Lucille at Louisa’s Little River Baptist, where she worked with youths, and Louise at Westhampton Baptist, where she was the first woman to serve as superintendent of the Sunday school, among other jobs.
Louise started an English as a Second Language program at Westhampton, which became a model for other churches, her daughter said, and which was a natural outgrowth of her interest in helping others, particularly those from other countries. She has traveled all over the world.
“Mom never knew a stranger,” Bailey said. “She was always very welcoming.”
Louise was featured in a 2001 story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about her friendship with Amin M. Merchant, who is from Pakistan.
They met in what they consider a most providential way. She was gathering information for a talk about Islam that she was to give at Westhampton Baptist (whose congregation moved to Derbyshire in 2015) and took her material to read while she waited at a car repair shop.
When she left, she forgot the folder, and when she returned to retrieve it, Merchant was sitting there. They started talking, and Louise invited him to her house the next day.
“I told him about my faith and my belief, and then I listened as he told me about his. He knelt where I was sitting and told me all about the Muslim religion,” she said in 2001. “He was living with his aunt, and I think he wanted a little more freedom. He asked if I had a room I would rent him.”
Merchant rented from Kopcho for about five years.
“We are like family,” Merchant said in 2001, noting that he visited her church a few times. “I don’t see Christian or Muslim. I just see a very good person.”
Later, Merchant invited Louise to open a gift shop rent-free in the corner of his restaurant, Stuffy’s, on West Broad Street. She did, and, in her 80s, sent all the proceeds to fight world hunger, particularly in Pakistan and India.
Merchant and his family were among the well-wishers at Sunday’s party.
So was Betty Appler Pritchett, who was only 6 years old when she started attending Westhampton Baptist and met Louise.
“From the moment I met her, she was like my grandmother,” said Pritchett, crediting Louise with leading her to a life of faith. “She’s a lovely, lovely woman. A lovely family.”