The nonagenarian, who celebrated her birthday Wednesday, was presented with the Citizenship Award on Tuesday for her family stewardship and community leadership in a statehouse ceremony that included an honorary resolution by Rep. Michael Smith and State Sen. Horacena Tate.
Riley is a Cobb County native.
Her grandson, Stephen George Jr., nominated Riley for the award.
“She was one of the inspirations to push me to pursue higher education,” George, 54, said of his grandmother, with whom he now resides.
George said Riley was born in a log cabin in Mableton in 1924, and has since served as a “superb role model” for her family and community.
But that doesn’t mean she never engaged in youthful mischief.
Riley recalled her special role in her brother Claude’s bootlegging scheme during the days of Prohibition.
“A cousin of mine, he was a barber, he would go out of the way and call the police to come to a certain point away from the way my brother would come in,” she said of Claude’s diversion strategy.
Riley laughed about how she used to sit in the rumble seat of her brother’s car, under which the liquor was stored, during bootlegging runs when she was just 11 years old.
She said the police would never think to check under a little girl’s seat.
George and Riley love to tell an old family anecdote about the time Gen. Douglas MacArthur came for dinner.
In 1939, George estimates, Riley’s mother had a trouble-making rooster among her chickens.
“My husband went in there to get the eggs one day,” Riley recalled, “and MacArthur started hitting him, so (my husband, Roy) killed him.”
“So then we had MacArthur for dinner, as soon as we’d gotten him ready.”
Reaching middle age during the Civil Rights era, Riley expressed sorrow for the way African-Americans were treated in the community.
“White people didn’t treat them right,” she admitted. Riley’s family said she supported equal rights long before the days of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Riley said she met Roy, her husband of nearly 50 years, at a pound party.
A seldom-seen tradition nowadays, pound parties encouraged attendees to bring a pound of food or other gifts to a gathering, usually to be donated to charity.
Riley said Roy was nine years her senior when she married him at the age of 14.
Because she was so young, Riley said an older friend of hers went to Marietta and pretended to be her in order to procure a marriage license.
Riley cited an unusual reason for deciding to marry her husband while still in school.
“I didn’t want to have to take the exam that year,” she explained. “The only way to get out of it was to get married, so I got married.” Riley never returned to her education, and spent the rest of her life caring for her family.
She had the first of two daughters when she was 16. Roy died in 1984.
“Roy was the kindest, most understanding man I ever knew,” Gloria Kimmer-Bonanno, Riley’s niece, recalled of her uncle. “I didn’t know anyone in the family or otherwise that didn’t look up to him and respect him.”
Today, Riley has five grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and seven great-great-grandchildren.
“As far as I’m concerned,” George said, “my granny is the best granny there ever was and ever will be.”
Pam McCurdy, an associate pastor from Riley’s church, read a resolution from the Georgia General Assembly at the ceremony, George said, which was attended by 12 of Riley’s family members from around the country.
Jared Thomas. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s Chief of Staff, presented Riley with the Citizenship Award on behalf of Tate.
Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, and even President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama sent Riley letters congratulating her on her award and wishing her a happy 90th birthday.
Riley’s grandson expressed gratitude for the state’s recognition of his family’s leader.
“A lot of people don’t realize that these kind of services are available to the public,” he said of the nomination process. “The state Capitol is more than just a legislative house; it’s the people’s house as well.”
“This might not mean anything to anyone else, but it meant the world to me and my grandmother.”