A Century of Knowledge
The Loves, Labors and Lessons of Living 100 Years
Naturally, the question centenarians get asked the most is, “Did you expect to live this long?” The answer is almost always, “No.” Then, they might mischievously add, “Not in a million years.” But who really thinks they will see 100 years pass before their eyes?
Reaching triple digits in the age bracket remains a rare feat but, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it’s happening more in recent years as life expectancy rates continue to climb. About .02 percent of the U.S. population is made up of centenarians with a large majority (81 percent) being female. (Sorry about that, guys.)
With 10 decades of knowledge, what life lessons can centenarians pass down to the young folks? Frederick Magazine sought out some local 100-year-olds (and those nearing the landmark birthday) to ask them about their lives and perhaps offer some insight to the under-100 crowd who seek happier, healthier lives.
Mary Reynolds, who will mark 100 years in early January, grew up on a small dairy farm in Massachusetts. “I always did a lot of walking because that’s the only way we could get downtown was to walk,” she says. “There were no buses in our area when I was growing up. If we had to go somewhere, we walked.” She would spend her summers swimming and her winters skiing, sledding and ice skating. She has been active her entire life and was recently attending exercise classes until health issues sidelined her. Reynolds can still get around very well with the aid of a walker.
Olga Warren turned 100 in early May and regularly walks the halls of Country Meadows Retirement Community where she lives. “Sometimes I walk just for the sake of walking,” she says. Growing up in New York, she remembers taking public transportation to high school. “I know when the weather got nice in the spring we would walk home and it would take about an hour,” she says. “It was a challenge after sitting all day in school. By the time you got home, you were pretty tired.”
When it comes to eating, Warren says people should “just follow general health rules. Eat balanced meals. Not a lot of sweet snacks in between. Snacks like an ice cream cone after dinner are OK—candy occasionally when the occasion permits.”
Both Warren and Reynolds remember buying penny candy at general stores and being very selective about which ones they picked. Some chocolate cream candies would have nuts in them, Warren says. If you found one, you got a free chance to find one without the nut. “Candy was a treat for us,” Reynolds says. “It wasn’t something you had all the time. …We sure didn’t have soda.” Warren adds, “Soda was not on the regular menu—it was a treat.”
Just as World War II was ending, Warren met her husband, Henry, while she was working as a secretary for the U.S. Veterans Administration (now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs). Henry served with the U.S. Air Force in China, Burma and India and upon his return home was interviewed by Warren. “I learned his whole life history right then and there on the application,” she says. “He asked if we could go to lunch someday. Not right away, you know, after the interview was done. Like the next day or so.” Warren starts to laugh. “I think it sounds so silly now [but] I knew from the interview that he sounded quite interesting. I said, ‘Oh, maybe it could be arranged.’” The two would marry seven months later. Henry is now deceased, but his union with Olga resulted in three children, 10 grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren.
Reynolds went to a card party with her mother and was keeping score of the games when her future husband Edward would see her for the first time. “I don’t even remember seeing him,” she says. The next day, a friend who lived nearby told her Edward wanted to meet her. She had a boyfriend at the time, so she didn’t want to go. “My mother said, ‘Well, why don’t you just meet him and tell him why you can’t go with him, that you are going out with someone else.” She went with another couple and was introduced to him. “Today I wouldn’t do that in a hundred million years. It was different back then.”
She would go back to the business school she was attending at the time and later graduate and then move back home because she felt her parents needed her. “To my great surprise, the phone rang one night,” Reynolds remembers. It was Edward. “He said, ‘Do you remember me?’ I said, ‘I vaguely remember who you are.’ He said, ‘I would like to meet you.’” She had broken up with her boyfriend and the two started dating. They would marry soon after and have a son.
Tragedy would strike just six months after their child was born. Edward, a principal at a grade school, died in his early 30s as the result of medical malpractice, leaving Reynolds to raise their child alone. “I had to work all my life,” including 24 years doing office work at a chemical plant and more than a decade at a college. “I never remarried,” Reynolds says, gently touching a ring on her left hand. “There was something about my husband. He was not a run-of-the-mill person. He was an exceptional person.”
“Is that your wedding ring?” a visitor asks. “You still wear it after all these years?”
“Yes,” she answers. “I’ll never take it off.”
Today, many people might find themselves in financial debt thanks to mortgages, credit cards and sometimes a carefree manner with money. But centenarians, hardened by the Great Depression, learned their painful financial lesson a long time ago.
Hilda Smith, who was born Nov. 23, 1914, has lived in Frederick County her entire life. Her granddaughter, Karin Kidd, recalls her always paying cash for everything. “They had money hidden all over the house,” including inside books, Kidd says. “When we cleaned out her house, we found money everywhere. Not in big amounts, but money everywhere.” Living through the Depression, “they always dispersed their money,” Kidd says. “They’d have some in CDs” as well.
Warren believes people need to learn to save early in life. “If you got 50 cents for an allowance, you can’t spend it all,” she says. “You had to save some of it.” She recalls her father would give her and her nine siblings a nickel each on his pay days. “That was a big deal,” Warren says. “We would get an ice cream cone and it was wonderful. It was really great.”
Reynolds lives by the rule: “You can’t spend it until you’ve earned it … and [people today] don’t believe that anymore. If they want something, they go out and buy it and owe $50 or $1,000. It doesn’t mean much anymore. I never had anything until I had the money to spend for it whether it was a pair of shoes or an ice cream cone.”
Dorothy ‘Dot’ Norris, who turned 100 on Oct. 22, 2014, remembers having to save for what she and her family wanted. “We didn’t buy on credit cards,” she recalls. “We saved and we only spent what we could. We didn’t go out and buy a lot of things and put them on the credit card or anything, so I think today they get things too easy. Really, I don’t think they appreciate them like we did.”
Having a sense of humor and the ability to laugh has been important to Paul Miller, who was born on Dec 16, 1914. “Humor is a big thing. You will be surprised how much you can get away with,” he says with a chuckle.
So how did he live a happy life thus far? “Honesty is the key,” he says. “It seems to be my answer why I lasted as long as I did. … I always told the truth and did the thing that was right. … [Being honest] covers a lot of ground” for how to live your life.
Warren still marvels at reaching 100. “Somehow, I’m still here,” she says. “I don’t have any tips [on how to live to 100]. Just one day at a time and as long as God wants to keep me here, I’m here.”