Tampa Bay Times

At 82, she dresses to the nines for virtual church, and her selfies are legendary

- BY CATHY FREE

It’s been more than a year now that churchgoer­s have been watching virtual streaming Sunday services on their cellphones and computers during the pandemic. Many have made a habit of tuning in while wearing cozy sweatpants or pajamas.

Then there’s La Verne Ford Wimberly of Tulsa, Okla.

The 82-year-old retired educator decks herself out head to toe every Sunday, then — to the delight of fellow parishione­rs at Metropolit­an Baptist Church — posts a selfie on Facebook after the service.

Since March 29, 2020, she has taken photos of herself from her living room in 53 different color-coordinate­d outfits — each one carefully selected from the burgeoning closets, jewelry boxes and neatly stacked hat boxes that have satisfied her love of making a grand entrance since she was a young schoolteac­her in the 1960s.

She hadn’t decided what she would wear for Easter Sunday, but those who know Wimberly said the odds were good that she’d make a big splash.

“She never skips a beat with the hats, the clothes and all that beautiful jewelry,” said Robin Watkins, 54, the church’s executive office assistant.

“If anyone is feeling downtrodde­n, they just look at her [Facebook] page and immediatel­y feel uplifted,” she said. “Her heart is as beautiful as each outfit she has shared with us.”

Parishione­rs often call Wimberly “Doctor.” She has a PhD in education and the years she spent as a school principal and superinten­dent after she’d moved on from teaching, Watkins said.

She was already known at her church for the head-turning outfits she wore every Sunday, so when the pandemic hit last year and in-person services were canceled, Wimberly decided to up her game.

“In the 20 years I’ve been going to church there, I’ve always had my little routine that I learned from my mother as a girl,” she said. “I’d pick out a nice outfit and hat and lay it out the night before, so that I could be prepared and look presentabl­e.”

When she learned last year that Metropolit­an’s service would be streamed on March 29 due to the coronaviru­s threat, Wimberly said she couldn’t imagine wearing her bathrobe and slippers while tuning in from her living room, even if she was by herself.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t sit here looking slouchy in my robe,’ ” she said. “I didn’t want to sit around alone and feel sorry for myself, so I decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to dress up anyway.’ ”

Wimberly got up early to style her hair and put on some lipstick, then she slipped into a favorite white dress trimmed with eyelet, a sheer white ruffled hat, matching shoes and a beaded turquoise and gold necklace.

After she posted the photo and a Bible scripture for her friends, she was inundated with positive responses, she said.

“For years, everyone had known to look for me in the last row, section two, dressed to the nines,” Wimberly said. “People always looked forward to seeing what I was wearing. So when I posted that photo, everyone told me it boosted their spirits.”

The following Sunday, she decided to do it again, this time selecting a bright blue ensemble with silver and white jewelry. And the week after that, on Easter Sunday, Wimberly chose a pink skirt and beaded sweater jacket, and a matching hat decorated with pink and yellow lilies.

She soon decided to write down what she wore each week on a calendar so that she wouldn’t commit the faux pas of wearing the same outfit twice.

“It’s safe to say that 50 is a good number for the hats,” she confessed. “But the clothes? I’d better not go there. Let’s just say I’m now refusing to look at any catalogues.”

When she was growing up, Wimberly said she cared more about climbing the tallest tree with the neighbor boys than trying on the latest frilly arrivals at fashion stores in downtown Tulsa.

It wasn’t until she became a teenager and noticed that one of her junior high teachers wore a different beautiful outfit to school each day that she gradually developed an appreciati­on for fashion, she said.

After she graduated from the University of Tulsa and was hired in 1963 as a firstgrade teacher in Chicago, Wimberly said she decided to emulate that teacher’s example and dress up for the kids.

“They’d rub my arm and say, ‘Oh, Miss Ford [her maiden name], you look so pretty,’ ” she recalled. “Pretty soon, I had so many clothes that I started a rotation and color-coding system, so I could keep surprising the kids with my outfits.”

When she moved back to Tulsa and pursued a career as a principal and administra­tor, she decided to continue that tradition at work and at church, said Wimberly, who has lived on her own since husband James Oliver Wimberly died in 2009.

She never anticipate­d that anyone outside her congregati­on would find out about her selfie Sundays, she said. But then, on March 22, a local television reporter who attends Wimberly’s church decided to do a story about her colorful outfits.

“I started hearing from people everywhere who said my photos made them smile,” said Wimberly. “The whole point was to inspire people and make them feel good, so I’m happy that’s working.”

Her pastor, Ray Owens, said he’s not at all surprised that Wimberly’s vogue outfits are a hit.

“Dr. Wimberly’s impressive hat collection is merely an outer expression of her inner wisdom, wit and grace,” he said. “We look forward to the day she again graces our church sanctuary with her impeccable style.”

Wimberly is hopeful that she’ll be back in her pew by late spring or early summer, she said.

Of course, she’ll then face a dilemma.

“What will I wear? That will be determined by the season and the weather,” said Wimberly. “Maybe something purple with black and white. You can’t go wrong there.”

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