Sister Mary Irmina Blatt -103 years

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May 7, 1907 – September 5, 2010

A volunteer from the Benedictine Monastery in Clyde Missouri, Mary Sheridan, replied to my letter.  Sister Irmina’s memory was not great and Ms. Sheridan had recently completed an oral history with her which she shared with me.Sister Mary Irmina was born Cecilia Mary Blatt in Granville, Iowa to Nicholas and Anna Blatt.  One of 11 children, she had 7 older sisters and 3 brothers, they lived on a farm with cows, pigs, horses, chickens, and sometimes ducks.  She considered herself an obedient child.  She was raised as ‘a good Catholic’ and attended Catholic schools, joining the Benedictine Sisters as a novice at 16 years old.

A member of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, clearly faith has been a daily part of her life.  She says, “I am a person that just takes things as they come, hard times or good times.  I just try to do the best I can.  Try to obey the Rule, that’s the one thing.”  When asked how old she felt she replied, “I don’t feel [any age] at all, I’m just happy I’m living.  Take things the way God has them for me, that’s the way I live.”  She also notes that she says her rosary every day.

I could not find definitive numbers on the average age of living Catholic sisters but the consensus appears to be in the 70’s.  The amount of Catholic nuns has been declining and the average age increasing as fewer women join.  Being that sisterhood is a spiritual endeavor, there is minimal scientific evidence about the effects on their life of celibacy, devotion, and good works on their health and longevity.  Despite that, we can draw our own theories.


Elizabeth Kuehnoel – 105 years

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May 17th, 1905 – August 10, 2010

Elizabeth sent me an especially poignant letter.  I feel that the letter is so ‘stand on its own’ beautiful that further commentary/ speculation is not necessary.

June 19 – ’09

Dear Heather,

Yes, I am 104 – Today I sold my car – it broke my heart.  It was a 1990 Honda Accord.  I turned in my license to drive.  My family will be happier.  The car was spotless –

The strongest character trait I possess is a fine sense of humor.  It makes life livable.  Also, once I set a goal for myself – I don’t ever look back.  I had a hard life but it never occurred to me to quit!  I never had a mother – she, bless her heart died from childbirth.  Nobody really wanted me – the paternal grandparents took me.  My grandmother loved male children and detested little girls.  I tried so hard to excel – to get a word of approval – school was a refuge – so I was a super student still in quest for acclaim.  She never picked me up.  She never allowed me to cry so, to this day – I don’t cry.  I can’t.  College was a nightmare – but it never occurred to me to quit.

The point I am trying to make is a soft life does not ensure a long life.

I worked hard all my life.  I had a bachelor’s degree.  I had been a secondary teacher until by age I had to quit.  My grade point as a H.S. Grad was 94.4.

Adversary is not a deterrent, unless you want to whine.

I always believed I was here for a purpose.   I taught all ages, many subjects, always devoted classes.

At 104 I teach college level classes on alternate Weds.  I teach without notes.  I credit a superb liberal arts education which I received at Juniata College – Incidentally I have seven years of Latin to bolster up my vocabulary.  I have this peculiar ability to attract super people – I draw them to me like a magnet.  My guardian angel guides me.  I think a lot – usually I come to a reliable conclusion.  I have taught on all levels – I supplied for a couple of months in an all Spanish third grade – It was a joy –

Does this give you an idea of what makes me tick?

Gladys Ritchie – 104 years old

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born February 11, 1906

This is my first response from the United Kingdom!  I will admit that I was cautious about writing to centenarians in the UK because I was unsure if they would write back and it would ultimately be a waste of postage.  So I was absolutely thrilled to get this response.

Gladys Ritchie resides in a care home in Lydiate, Liverpool.

Ms. Ritchie was 103 when she sent me a brief handwritten letter.






And yes, she did write in all caps.  Her handwriting was little difficult to decipher but legible enough.  I love foreign postage stamps.  Isn’t this one lovely?According to the Formby Times Gladys was quite the shooting enthusiast in her day, winning many trophies and belonging to the Altcar Rifle Club. She lived independently until October 2008 when she moved into a care home.  She enjoys reading, crossword puzzles, and clearly writing to strangers in America.

The world through Gladys Ritchie’s Life:

Birth year of 1906

-King Edward VII the monarch of the United Kingdom.

– The light bulb is introduced.

Age 22 – The right to vote granted to all women over the age of 21 in England.

Age 24 – First BBC television broadcast.

Age 34 – The automatic dishwasher is manufactured.

Age 58 – The Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan show for the first time 2 days before her 58th birthday.

Age 70 – Betamax the first home video cassette recorder introduced.

Age 80 – The world’s first test tube twins born in London.

Age 91 – The unexpected and much publicized death of Princess Diana

Thelma White – 105 years


April 12, 1905

I received a response from Thelma White’s daughter Elizabeth A. Garrett.  She sent a typed letter and the photo (above) taken on April 12th, 2009, her 104th birthday.

Her letter reads:

Thelma Marie Faulkner White

Thelma was born on April 12, 1905 in Leeds, Ala.  She was the second youngest of 12 siblings.  Her father was a land owner and her mother was a homemaker and midwife.

She married Herman H. White in 1924 and they moved to Tampa, Florida in 1928 where they raised two daughters.  Elizabeth A. Garrett and Dorothy R. Hardy, and has six grandchildren and six great grandchildren.  Her husband died in 1963 and she never remarried.

Thelma was a homemaker, seamstress and assistant to an interior decorator. She was a fan of detective stores in print and on television.

She lived by herself until she broke her hip when she was 96 then she came and lived with her daughter Elizabeth in Clearwater, Florida.  She now has trouble seeing and has a small heart condition and is living in a rehabilitation center.

Thelma never drank or smoked and always preferred vegetables over meat and attributes her longevity to a love of sweet potatoes.

She always has a story to tell and her memory is amazing.

Hope this will help and good luck in your writing.

Her daughter Betty.

Thanks Betty!  Thelma is among many centenarians to come who have never drank or smoked, two known contributors to aging.  Her preference of vegetables over meat appears to have served her well.  According to the Chicago Health and Aging Project, older adults (65+) who consume at least 3 servings of vegetables daily maintain their mental abilities 40% longer than those who eat less servings.

Foods rich in antioxidants are believed to help decrease the effects of aging.  Oxidation can cause cell damage and may attribute to aging.  One antioxidant beta carotene, is found in Mrs. White’s favorite food: sweet potatoes.  It can also be found in other orange and yellow vegetables such as carrots and pumpkin.  Diets rich in beta carotene have been correlated with a reduced risk of certain kinds of cancer, especially lung, female reproductive , gastrointestional, and oral cancers.  Also in clinical trials it has actually been shown to reverse precancerous lesions.  Some evidence suggests it may decrease the risk of cataract formation.  What can’t beta carotene do?

Thelma sounds like a lovely woman and I hope her many years to come.  Also, I hope someone is fixing her favorite sweet potato dish right now.

Veggies Boost Brain Power. American Dietetic Association. July 13, 2009.
A. Catherine Ross, PhD, Maureen E Ternus MS, RD. Vitamin A as a hormone: Recent advances in understanding the actions of retinol, retinoic acid, and beta carotene.

Stephanie McGraw – 104 years

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January 24, 1905 – July 31, 2009

Stephanie McGraw responded to my letter by sending a copy of an article with a handwritten signature.  There was no additional letter but, I want to note that Ms. McGraw passed away a little over two months after she sent this reply.  And let’s not forget, she’s responding to a total stranger.

Stephanie was not a common name for babies born in 1905.  In that year, Stephanie was ranked 585 on the Social Security baby name site.

The photocopy image doesn’t do her justice.  She has a surprisingly youthful appearance for a lady who just celebrated 104 years of life.  Her white hair is cut in a stylish short doo.  Its no surprise that she cut it herself as she spent many years running a 16 station hair salon.  She became a stylist for Howard Hughes’ Hollywood studios and went on to become the contract stylist for Jane Russell.  For those of us too young to know who Jane Russell is, she was an actress in the 1940’s and 50’s.  She appeared in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opposite Marilyn Monroe.

So what’s her secret?  Stephanie did not directly answer the long life question but the article discusses what may have contributed to it.  It may be in the genes, she had a grandmother who lived to be 105 years old!  She characterizes herself as worry-free and having self-confidence.  It is also mentioned that she eats healthy foods and stays active.  She’s quoted as saying, “Enjoy life fully, and enjoy the people in your life while you have them.”  And I think that sums it up.

Doris Eaton Travis – 106. The last Ziegfeld Folly girl.


March 14, 1904 – May 11, 2010

Doris as a young play actress

In response to my letter, Ms. Eaton sent me a copy of her book accompanied with a note.  She was 105 at the time.

The note read:

Dear Heather,

I’ve enclosed a copy of my book which will provide you with many stories and pictures.

I attribute my long life to always having a goal and being able to adapt to changes.  I’ve also been supported throughout my life with the study of Christian Science.

Doris Eaton Travis

After reading The Days We Danced, it is clear what Ms. Travis means by adaptability to change.  Doris and her siblings began acting in local plays and quickly moved to larger venues.  She joined the Ziegfeld follies in 1918 at 14 years old (they were lead to believe she was 16) where her sister Mary was already a star.  Throughout her career she appeared in many plays and even sang “Singin’ in the Rain’.  She also had the opportunity to appear in a silent film.

As movies became more and more popular, vaudeville acts were slowly being replaced.  Many talented women had a difficult time transitioning to film once they aged out and vaudeville lost its popularity.

While Doris struggled to pay her bills and fewer and fewer jobs became available, she came upon the chance to teach at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio.  She eventually owned many of the studio franchises throughout Michigan.  This venture provided her with many years of joy and a steady paycheck’s worth of independence.  Unfortunately, this too eventually led to hardships as the company went bankrupt and Doris did her best to salvage what was left.

She knew Babe Ruth!

While it seems like Ms. Eaton had already lived two lifetimes, she had more change in store.  Doris and her husband moved to Norman, Oklahoma and owned a horse ranch.  For real.  This turned out to be pretty successful for them.  Living in a college town, home of the University of Oklahoma, she decided her 70’s would be an excellent time to pursue her college education.  And really, who wouldn’t think that?

Now don’t think she gave up dancing.  She taught friends to dance in Norman and they began having extravagant show parties.  And in 1997 at 93 years old, she and 4 other Ziegfeld Folly girls were invited to the reopening of the New Amsterdam Theater.  Doris Eaton Travis was the only one still able to dance.  Such appearances continued including benefits performances, such as the Easter Bonnet AIDS benefit (below).

Dancing on Broadway in 2001

When Doris mentions adaptability to changes in her letter she wasn’t kidding.  When you live as long as she had you don’t have a choice but to continually change.  The great thing is that she clearly was not afraid to remake herself over and over.

Let’s not forget her mention of the other ‘secret’ to her incredible long life. The Christian Scientice Church is a denomination founded by Mary Baker Eddy, following her major work Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures which is drawn from the Christian Bible.  Christian Scientists believe in prayer for healing over medical practices, but church members are free to choose in such circumstances.  They are well known for avoiding modern medical care.

Doris’ lifelong love of dancing could have attributed to her on-going mental capacity.  According to the New England Journal of Medicine,  dancing is the only physical activity that decreases the incidence of dementia.  Living a long life without the onset of dementia is what is makes Doris so spectacular.

Having only skimmed the surface of her extraordinary life, I would recommend reading The Days We Danced if you are interested in learning more about the Eaton family and Doris Eaton Travis herself.


Travis, Doris E.  The Days We Danced: The Story of My Theatrical Family from Florenz Ziegfeld to Arthur Murray and Beyond.  Marquand Books. Seattle. 2003
Verghese, J.,  R.B. Lipton, M.J. Katz, et al. Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly.  New England Journal of Medicine.  2003; 348; 25; 2508-2516
Full disclosure.  I am a graduate of the University of Oklahoma and people that obtain a degree there are a little bit better than everyone else.  (This has not been studied yet, unfortunately).

Walter Breuning – 114 years

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Born September 21, 1896

Currently the oldest living man in the world!  And he is the 4th oldest living person in the world.  Mr Breuning was 112 years old at the time that I wrote him.  That is older than I can even imagine but he responded very quickly and was the first person to write me back.  I received his response one week to the day that I posted the original letter.  Receiving a letter from an alert 112 year old is like a letter from a super-hero.  Immortal power.

The envelope was thick, had the distinct feel of containing a picture.  I could not open this immediately.  It was necessary to squeal, hop about, and breath deeply holding my chest.  You would think I won a beauty pageant with all the ‘I can’t believe it’ being uttered.  I demanded my husband get me a letter opener, to do it right of course.  Well it turns out the neither of us have ever even owned a letter opener so he got me  a butter knife.

I finally opened it.  Inside I found a copy of a Masonic Newsletter hailing ‘Brother’ Breuning, an actual clipping from a newspaper celebrating his 110th birthday, a picture of himself looking quite snazzy in a black suit and red tie, and a brief but to the point handwritten note.

The note reads:

Thanks for your letter.

No eyesight.

Keep your mind busy

and exercise each day.

Watch your weight

Walter Breuning

9   21   1896

And by the way, his handwriting is totally legible.  His secret is that of moderation and hard work.  I laughed when I read it, its exactly what people don’t want to hear.

Keep your mind busy.  Walter Breuning belongs to the Masonic Brotherhood.  According to the clipping, he was initiated on March 7, 1925 and became a Master Mason on May 16th, 1925.  He has been a member for 86 years which makes him the most senior Master Mason in the world.  I gather this is kind of a big deal.  The Masons are a charitable group focused on character building and community works.  While the Masons are traditionally men, there are off-shoots that are co-ed along with women only groups.  Once invited to join, one has to believe in a supreme being.  This opens up to many different religions and allows individual beliefs.

Research has shown that strong social ties are linked with increased longevity.  This is especially true when the social network is comprised of friends and not just family members.  Breuning has been an active member in the Masons and managed the Elbon Club, the Shriners club, until the age of 99.

In addition to his Masonic membership, Breuning worked longer than many people even live.  He began working for the Great Northern Railroad in Montana in 1918, worked through the Great Depression, and retired after working 50 years.  He’s quoted as saying, “Work.  When I was 50, I was working two or three jobs.  The secret is to keep busy.”

Exercise everyday.  According to the Evercare 100 @ 100 survey, centenarians reported physical activity an important part of their lifestyle with the most popular forms being walking, hiking, and working in the garden.

Watch your weight.  At 110, in addition to walking he also said he only eats two meals a day.  It is not clear when he began this routine but it appears to be serving him well.

The world in 1896:

Utah is admitted as the 45th State.

William McKinley defeats William Jennings Bryan for presidency.

John Philip Sousa composes Stars and Stripes Forever.

1. Giles LC, Glonek GFV, Luszcz MA, et al. Effects of social networks on 10 year survival in very old Australians: the Australian longitudinal study of aging.  J Epidemiol Community Health. 2005;59;574-579
2. Evercare 100 @ 100 Survey.  By United Healthcare.