Their life story is unique. But as triplets Paul Reaves, Felicia McLemore and Valecia Rowsey prepare to turn 70 on Saturday, they don’t see the day as being any more special than any other day.
“It’s just another day, just another number,” Paul said. “Our mom would always tell us that age is just another number. She would tell us that it doesn’t matter if you’re 29 or 59, but if at all possible, always try to surround with people that are younger than you.”
Looking back over 70 years as siblings, the three said it’s hard to tell people what it’s been like, because they can’t imagine life without each other. While they’ve each built their own separate lives, they all still live in the Wichita area, and they meet up to volunteer at Paul’s church and go out to eat every week. They also call each other every day.
“We’ve got this little thing that when you call, you have to walk,” Valecia said. “When you talk, you’ve got to walk. You’d be surprised, because we can talk 45 minutes or so, and I know that I’ve got my 45-minute walk in.”
The two women still square dance together. That’s how Valecia met her husband Mike Rowsey and how Felicia met her husband Van McLemore.
“Both husbands knew that when they married, they were marrying the family, and the family would always be close,” their older sister Patricia Knight said.
Their parents were only children, so without cousins, aunts or uncles, the word “family” had a small, but strong, meaning to them. Occasionally, people will tease the two sisters for still dressing the same, but they said they love taking every opportunity to show off their close bond.
“We have that God-given blessing to be triplets that other people don’t have, so why not enjoy it?” Valecia said. “Not everyone has that unique thing, so we enjoy our family.”
A study from the Centers for Disease Control shows that triplet births have declined in recent years, but triplets, quadruplets and higher-order births surged in the 1980s and 1990s with an increase in the average maternal age and the rise of in vitro fertilization techniques.
Before that though, triplet births were rarer, and the three siblings made history 70 years ago when they were the first set of triplets born at Wesley Hospital on Aug. 11, 1948.
Their mother, Gladys Reaves, could not have known what was coming that August day. Ultrasound technology had not been invented, and while Reaves — standing at 5-foot-2 and less than 100 pounds — gained 40 pounds over her pregnancy, she and her husband B. F. Reaves only expected a single baby.
According to Eagle archives, Reaves had given birth to babies Paul and Felicia when the delivering doctor started to wash up. A nurse called him back, though, when she realized that there was another baby on the way. At only 3 pounds, 6 ounces, Valecia, the third triplet, needed to be kept in an incubator for the first few days of her life.
Their older sister Patricia was 5 when her father came home with the news that she now had not one, but three baby sisters and brother. She said that when her father first told her the news, she told him they only wanted one, so they needed to take two babies back. She grew to love them and help her mother take care of the three babies, but Paul said when they were older, the triplets would tease her whenever they’d have small arguments, asking her which two triplets she wanted to take back.
With three babies instead of one and an older daughter, life must have been harder for the triplets’ parents, but the three siblings said their parents worked tirelessly to make sure they always had what they needed and that each child received the same amount of attention.
“Mom, if she couldn’t do something for all of us, she wouldn’t do it for just one of us,” Felicia said. “She never wanted to show partiality. When we were little babies, she’d even get down on the floor so she could play with all of us. She always tried to treat all of us the same.”
During their childhood, their father had several hernia operations, so to help out with the cost, the triplets said they pushed their friends around the neighborhood on a go-kart their father had built, charging them a penny per ride.
“I think we finally came up with 32 cents,” Felicia said. “We thought this would really help pay for the operation.”
“We gave it to daddy and we were so proud,” Valecia said. “He didn’t say a word. He just accepted it graciously. He didn’t even tell us that it wouldn’t even pay for one pill.”
Beyond a single principal-sanctioned prank in high school on a teacher who had always wanted to teach a set of triplets, the trio said they never really made a habit of tricking people maliciously, since they were “raised better than that.” Sometimes the confusion was inevitable, as the two sisters worked as secretaries at local schools.
“When Val was the secretary at Brooks, Felicia was the secretary at Heights,” Paul said. “You would have students and parents come in to pay their fees, so they’d come to Brooks, and they might have an older brother or sister who would go to Heights. So they’d come to Brooks first, then go to the office up at Heights, and Felicia would have the same exact thing, and they’d wonder how the secretary beat them there.”
Occasionally, strangers will wave hello to one of the sisters because they mistake her for the other, and they’ll wave back and pretend to know the stranger so as to not hurt their feelings or confuse them.
In adulthood, the triplets returned their parents’ care by staying with them until their mother died in 1976. The two women continued to care for their father until he died in 1983. Valecia still lives at the same property.
The hardest part about life as a triplet is yet to come, the trio said.
“When the first person dies, that’s going to be hard,” Felicia said.
For now, though, the three siblings and their older sister take life day by day. They said they’ve come to rely on each other for support in every matter, a practice they said was instilled into them by their parents.
“When things get down or pretty rough, family is who you have left to count on or bail you out,” Paul said.