Updated: December 16, 2013 6:05AM
Bessie Smith didn’t quite understand all the fuss on Thursday — her 100th birthday.
“It’s just another day, really,” Smith told me nonchalantly before her birthday brunch with family.
Maybe she’s on to something, considering the rising trend of centenarians in this country, which is expected to spike even more sharply as baby boomers come of age, so to speak.
Over the past 30 years, the number of centenarians has jumped 66 percent, compared to 36 percent for the rest of us youngins, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There are roughly 55,000 centenarians today with prediction estimates of 600,000 by 2050.
“Really? I had no idea,” Smith replied with raised eyebrows from her home at Pines Village Retirement Communities in Valparaiso.
Health experts suggest that good clean living, as well as medical advances and healthy genetics, is a major factor for so many more Americans living longer than ever.
Smith, who could be the poster child for this national trend, has never smoked, always ate in moderation, exercised almost daily, believed mightily in the good Lord, and never drank (except for sips of champagne on special occasions).
It also helped that she was raised on a Kentucky farm during the Great Depression, teaching her how to survive and overcome adversity.
She’s too polite to say so, but she believes today’s generation of pampered, privileged pansies couldn’t live through such hard times. She’s right. Most of us get our panties in a bundle if our cellphones lose connectivity for more than a minute.
Smith came to Northwest Indiana in 1934, first to Gary then to Hobart for 50 years, where she raised her four children as a stay-at-home mother. She was married for 40 years to Conley Smith Sr., a Gary firefighter who died in 1975 at the relatively young age of 71.
“Mother has had a very good life, and she’ll be the first to tell you,” explained her 76-year-old daughter, Carolyn Garrison, who fielded nonstop phone calls to her mother.
Smith has 11 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren, which she rattles off without a hint of doubt.
She is still as sharp as she dressed on her birthday, complete with fancy earrings, an elegant necklace and a new hairdo, an early birthday gift from Pines Village.
“It’s been so busy here today,” she said modestly, showing off dozens of birthday cards from family, friends and fellow residents. “It’s been a great day, and a great life.”
She has lived through 18 U.S. presidents, and remembers voting for her first one, Franklin D. Roosevelt. She has also lived through both World Wars, the space age and the digital age, though she had trouble with her first wall-mounted, crank phone as a young woman.
“Our neighborhood shared the same line so when the phone rang, everyone in the area knew it,” she recalled with a smile. “I had to tell them to get off the line if I was expecting a call.”
Smith rode a horse to high school, where she graduated valedictorian among her class of 15 other students. Her daughter, Garrison, also was her class valedictorian, offering a hint about the power of genetics regarding longevity.
“I’ve been blessed with good stock,” said Smith, who is more fit than some people half her age.
She uses a cane or walker when needed, but still exercises five times a week, plays bingo and pinochle, and sometimes serves as a Pines Village greeter or in its card shop.
Five years ago, she voluntarily stopped driving, figuring that no one at age 95 should still be behind the steering wheel.
Without knowing it, or even trying, Smith is proving that living to 100 is the new 80 (or 70?) in this country. She also has a healthy shot of becoming a rare “super-centenarian,” living to 110, but such statistics don’t matter to her.
Before I left her home, I had one final question: “Do you have any regrets?”
She replied with a chuckle: “Oh sure, a few of them, but I’m not going to disclose them to you.”
Chatting with Johnny B
On my Casual Fridays radio show today, we’re chatting with Jonathon “Johnny B” Brandmeier, the longtime Chicago radio personality and recipient of radio’s highest honor, the Marconi Award for Major Market Personality of the Year.
He’s also won multiple Billboard Magazine Radio Personality Awards and has been named one of Talkers magazine’s “100 Most Important Radio Hosts in America.”
We’ll talk to Johnny about his colorful career, his secret to success, and his new podcast-format show, at http://feeds.feedburner.com/wgnradio/brandmeier
Tune in today at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at http://lakeshorepublicmedia.org/local-programs/casual-fridays/.
Call in with your question or comment at 769-9577.