Ethan B. Shelton

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Born July 10, 1903

Ethan Shelton’s daughter, Martha Ann, responded to my letter with an envelope packed to the brim!  There were photos, several original newspaper articles, copies of older newspaper articles, family Christmas newsletters, and additional articles about other centenarians.  Her enthusiasm and love for her father is evident.  He was 106 years old at the time she wrote me.

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June 2009, Ethan soon to be 106 years old

The Letter

Dear Heather,

It seems everyday something else reminds us what an amazing man he is.  His can do spirit, devotion to family and friends, his church, his good attitude.

He’s thrifty, but loves to treat everyone when you go out to eat.

He lives alone with his cats, Blackie adopted him about thirteen years, Ace adopted him about seven months ago.  He still misses the companionship of marriage.

I hope I didn’t overwhelm you with all the articles, I think they answer most of your questions.  Okra is his favorite veggie, then turnip greens and collards.

With warm regards, 

Martha Ann, Girl Friday in Dad’s words.

Taking a load off after gardening. (Love that suit!)

Okra, turnip greens, and collards

Gardening was a consistent part of Mr. Shelton’s life, something that he continued into his 100’s.  Even at a 100 he was still growing tomatoes, sweet corn, cantaloupe, watermelon, potatoes, turnips, beans, squash, okra, Alabama peas and collards.  Anyone who gardens in a suit is clearly a class act!


Ethan loved his green veggies!  The Chicago Health and Aging study reports that older adults who eat at least three vegetable servings a day maintain their mental abilities 40% longer than those who eat less than a serving a day, this is especially true when those vegetables are leafy greens like spinach, turnip, and mustard greens.  Leafy green vegetables are also known as cruciferous vegetables.  A Chinese study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that individuals with the highest intake of cruciferous vegeteables had a 22% lower mortality rate and a 31%  lower cardiovascular disease mortality.

Celebrating his 100th birthday in 2003. Martha Ann is on the lower left.


Oldest and youngest (at the time) in a ballroom dance studio when Ethan was in his 90’s.


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65th wedding anniversary picture from their local paper.

Ethan was married to Rose Zimmermann January 18th, 1926 and they had 5 children together.  At the time of their marriage (a year after they met) Rose was 18 and Ethan 23, Rose’s parents thought he was too old for her.  Ethan was quoted as saying, “I believe it takes commitment to make a marriage last.  And if having children doesn’t help, I don’t know what will.”  They were married 69 years at the time of her death.  In 1947 they purchased a 40 acre farm in Berrien Center, Illinois, which became a family business with two retail and wholesale operations, known as Shelton’s Farm Markets.  Ethan Shelton was also a barber and operated a barber’s shop until 1960, retiring from farming in 1969.  Rose Shelton worked in the local hospital as Personnel Director.

Martha Ann also included two articles about her father’s love of music and dance.  The Sheltons were great lovers of music, having 20 instruments in their home.  Rose was known to primarily play the ukulele and harmonica and Ethan played the guitar.  The harmonica also occupied a special place in his heart, having bought one himself at 8 years old from Sears Roebuck for 11 cents.  Mr. Shelton began taking dance lessons in 1995 after the death of his beloved wife Rose.  He was noted to enjoy swing dance, cha-cha, and the tango.

More Science

The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of the Bronx Aging Study which concluded that playing musical instruments and dancing are associated with a lower risk of dementia.  With dancing being the only physical activity to be associated with the lower risk.  So take a page from Ethan Shelton’s book, its never too late to learn to dance!


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).