100 Year Olds Share Top 10 Lessons Learned From Their Long Lives
Five women who reside at Presbyterian Manor of Rolla, Mo. will celebrate their 100th birthdays or more this year.
ROLLA, Mo. – Five women who reside at
Presbyterian Manor of Rolla, Mo. will celebrate their 100th
birthdays or more this year.
Mildred Leaver turned 100 on June 10; Grace Wolfson turns 100 on
July 15; and Mildred Harris will turn 100 on August 27. They will
join fellow Manor residents Viola Semas and Gladys Stuart, who will
both turn 101 this year on July 19 and November 23, respectively, as
Centenarians are those people who have lived 100 years or more. Of
the 299 million people living in the United States, only an
estimated 70,000 are centenarians.
To mark the special occasion, the quintet was asked to share their
experiences and tips in reaching a combined 500 years of living. The
ladies offered the following “top 10” lessons learned as tips for
how others might live a long, enjoyable life:
Lesson 1: “Don’t drink coffee or soda; they’re bad for your health.”
– Mildred Harris
Lesson 2: “Eat lots of fruits and vegetables.” – Gladys Stuart
Lesson 3: “Walk everywhere.” – Mildred Harris, Gladys Stuart
Lesson 4: “Work hard; it makes you stronger.” – Viola Semas
Lesson 5: “Take life easy, and don’t stress over things.” – Grace Wolfson
Lesson 6: “Go outside, and get some fresh air.” – Gladys Stuart
Lesson 7: “Drink lots of water.” – Mildred Harris
Lesson 8: “If you never take a stand, you’ll always be wrong. If you
take a stand, you may be wrong sometimes, but you can also be right
sometimes.” – Mildred Leaver
Lesson 9: “Be yourself and fulfill your dreams.” – Viola Semas
Lesson 10: “Aging is all about attitude, not about number of years.”
– Mildred Leaver
“It is such a privilege to be in the same room with 5 people over
100 years of age--much less to have them residing in our retirement
community,” said Anita Carroll, executive director of the Rolla
manor. “We are so excited to be able to share this celebration and
honor our centenarians at this time in their lives.”
Background on the Five Centenarians
They were born the same year as Agnes DeMille, Ayn Rand, Lillian
Hellman, Greta Garbo, and Maggie Kuhn in 1905, or Margaret
Bourke-White, Josephine Baker, and Susan B. Anthony in 1906.
They have lived through 19 U.S. presidents, two World Wars and other
world conflicts, and they have endured the economy’s ups and downs,
including the Great Depression.
They are five women who this year celebrate will their 100th or 101st birthdays. Though there are an estimated 70,000 centenarians in
the country, it is unusual to find five of them in one place at one
time. But that’s the case at Rolla’s Presbyterian Manor where Gladys
Stuart, Viola Semas, Mildred Leaver, Mildred Harris, and Grace
Wolfson will be honored at a reception on July 21. Community members
and political leaders have been invited, according to Sue Stoltz,
marketing and development director at the Rolla manor.
In the 17 Presbyterian Manor facilities, located throughout Kansas
and Missouri, there are a total of four other centenarians—in four
separate facilities—further highlighting the uniqueness of the Rolla
Though their memories are not as clear now, their lives are a
testament to what former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt must have
meant when she said, ”As for accomplishments, I just did what I had
to do as things came along.”
Today, women live longer than men; life expectancy for men is 74 and
79 for women. Yet, these women have bested that expectancy by more
than two decades. All outlived their spouses, which is not uncommon.
And significant for their time, they were all “working women” who
had careers outside the home, which may have contributed to their
The eldest of this gray-haired quintet is Gladys Stuart, born July
19, 1905, in Springfield, Ill. This tall, blue-eyed woman, whose
signature is her pink eyeglass frames, has what the staff refers to
as a “very knowing” face. She says she graduated from Springfield
High School and recalls that it was “with honors.”
She said she initially went to work for a bank and then became an
employee of the Illinois Highway Department where she was a
secretary for 20 years. She married Sam Stuart when he was
discharged from the Army. He built boats for the military, she
Her daughter, Elizabeth Munson, Plymouth, Minn., works for General
Dynamics, and her son, David, works for a garage in Minneapolis, she
At the Manor, Stuart is known for her expertise and talent in
quilling—the ancient art of paper sculpture, or paper filigree—which
she still does. It is the art of rolling thin strips of paper into
shapes and then putting them together to form designs. Stuart has
amassed quite a collection of pieces that have been framed and
displayed in her room. Angels are among her favorite works. Some of
her art she gives as gifts as well. The intricate nature of this art
speaks to her manual dexterity.
If there is one thing she regrets, it is that she used to play the
violin and “I just put it on a shelf one day and forgot about it.
Well, that’s the worst thing I’ve ever done,” she said dramatically.
It was an instrument she learned as a child and she was very active
in music groups, she adds. She also wishes she had traveled more,
because she enjoyed it.
Asked why she’s lived so long, she said, “I’m afraid I can’t answer
that.” But she does say you should “eat lots of fruits and
vegetables” and “get outside and have a good time.”
Viola Semas, born November 23, 1905, in St. Louis, graduated from
high school and “went to work as a bookkeeper.” Her soft-looking
round face, salt-and-pepper hair, and inquisitive eyes remind
everyone of their own grandmothers.
She was married, and her husband, Leo, worked for a wholesale fruit
and vegetable company. She said he died early as did her daughter,
Virginia Lorraine. She has a son, Leo, who lives in St. Louis and is
a buyer for a company.
“I worked when I had my two children,” she said of her days as a
married and single working mother. She loved working as a
bookkeeper, she said. “I worked all my life. But right now, playing
bingo is the big thing in my life.”
This may or may not be a recipe for long life, but she does explain
that she eats “three meals a day.”
The expression “live wire” just might have been invented for Mildred
Leaver. This perfectly coifed, stylish, distinguished looking woman
still carries herself “straight as a rod.”
Born June 10, 1906 on a dairy farm in Springfield, Mo., she is a
life-long teacher who, technically, is still at it. She taught for
several years after receiving her teaching degree at Southwest
Missouri State Teachers College in Springfield until she married
Larry Leaver, a physics professor at the University of Missouri,
Rolla. They had one daughter, Lari-Le Murray, who also became a
teacher. She is a grandmother of two and a great-grandmother of two
In 1948, she returned to teaching and served as a principal at
Eugene Field Elementary in Rolla. But in 1971 after 30 years in
education, mandatory retirement caught up with her at 65. She found
a way to get back into the classroom—substitute teaching until she
was 90. “The teaching profession is the greatest ever. We teach the
doctors, the lawyers, the legislators and everyone else. They are
what they are because of our profession,” she said.
Leaver declared, “God has been good to me. I don’t take any
medicine. I live independently at the Manor…a lovely, lovely place.”
She still drives and she doesn’t use a cane when she walks, she
proudly pointed out.
And, she added, “Aging is attitude—not the number of years. Some may
want to give up, but I don’t.” That’s for sure. On the week of her
June birthday, she attended five celebrations in which she was the
guest of honor.
Leaver was president of the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA),
an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), from
1969-70. She also served on the NEA Board of Directors, a role that
included significant travel throughout the country.
Her legacy will certainly be what she accomplished to improve
teacher pensions in Missouri. That was a major initiative in which
she traveled the state to organize 52 units of the National Retired
Teachers Association so that members could lobby the legislature to
improve their pensions. The result: teachers with 30 years of
service now receive $1,200 a month and periodic cost-of-living
increases—a major improvement from the previous $150 a month. Today,
she continues to make classroom visits to talk about historic events
in the country and to share the tales of Hans Christian Andersen.
Her memories of the past? She recalls that her first date was in a
horse and buggy. There was no family car until she was in high
school; she drives a Buick today. Dirt roads were common. “We were a
farm country then,” she said. “We had no running water in the house.
Bathing was a big tub in the kitchen. I remember hearing my first
radio voice with a headset in a local hardware store.” She also
remembers seeing her first airplane during World War I. “It landed
in the pastures,” she said. “We had wonderful parents,” she added.
“Education was important to them. There were seven children in our
family and we all worked on the farm. We all milked—by hand.”
Leaver is an independent thinker. She was raised that way. “I’m a
liberal and I’m very disturbed about the issue of not allowing gays
to marry. Everybody should be able to choose,” she declared
adamantly. “I don’t believe people’s choices should be limited by
anyone else.” She’s been invited to speak about freedom this month.
It’s no surprise that she will talk about people having the right to
make their own decisions and choices. “My father used to say, ‘If
you never take a stand, you will always be wrong. If you take a
stand, you may be wrong sometimes, but you can also be right some of
When asked how she would have changed her life, she said, “I can’t
think of a thing I would have changed.”
Mildred Harris was born June 27, 1906, in Anutt, Mo., in her
parents’ farmhouse. At 18, she married Alfred Edward Harris, “a
local guy,” she said and lived on an “ordinary farm. We had corn,
wheat, oats, cattle and we had a pretty good life. Life was simple.
We visited with the neighbors and went to Sunday school,” she said.
The couple lived on various farms in the area until World War II,
when they moved to St. Louis where she made munitions in a factory
and her husband became a sheet metal worker. The couple eventually
moved back to their home area to farm. He died in 1973.
She worked as a ticket taker and night manager for Greyhound Bus
Lines in Rolla, a job she held for 16 years or more in a couple of
stints. She also worked in two downtown Rolla restaurants in her
younger years. At one job, she recalls going to work at 5 a.m. to
bake pies. Those jobs were on top of the usual canning, cooking, and
raising chickens at home, says her granddaughter, Pat Black of Edgar
Springs, Mo. She said her grandmother was “one of those women who
took their egg money to town on Saturdays to purchase their
Even though she is now in a wheelchair due to a stroke that affected
her short-term memory, Harris was a physically active woman. Black
recalls that she and her brother spent part of their summers with
their grandmother on the farm as children. “I had a horse there and
we would frequently visit the neighbor down the road,” said Black.
It was a distance of about three or four miles one way, and
grandmother would walk the entire distance alongside my horse. She
was as strong as a big bucket of nails.” Until 2002, Harris lived
independently on her farm.
Harris was known for her “beautiful quilting,” added Black. Modest
about her work, she confined her quilts to family gifts and did not
begin to sell them until late in her life. Black has dozens of these
quilts in her home, some made from family clothing and many more
from scrap fabrics. Harris has one in her quarters at the Manor.
“She was a quilter until the ‘90s when vision problems and arthritis
took their toll,” Black said.
Harris still has a grandson in addition to Black. Both have children
who have children, making Harris a grandmother, a great-grandmother,
and a great-great-grandmother.
Black said her grandmother “didn’t eat a lot of meat but drank milk
by the gallons and at lots of dairy products and vegetables.”
If you are looking for a centenarian with beautiful skin and nary a
wrinkle, she’s the one. If there’s a secret to that, it may be that
she adopted a practice from a woman whose skin she admired at a
younger age. She once asked the woman how she kept her skin so
lovely, and the woman responded, “Not a drop of water touches my
face. Only cream touches it.” That cream may well be Harris’ secret,
but she’s keeping it to herself.
Grace Wolfson was born July 15, 1906, in Budapest, Hungary. She came
to the U.S. with her husband, Erno Metzner, who worked in the film
industry. They lived in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
A small woman with porcelain-like features, she is the quiet, shy
one of the five. She had a 25-year career as an aerospace
illustrator working for the forerunner companies to Boeing. It was a
career in which there were just two women and “the pay for the women
was the same as for the men,” she explained.
Away from work, her art extended to acrylics and watercolors and
some of her work hangs on her walls at the Manor. Some of the art
techniques, she says, she learned from her husband. He was an art
director for MGM, designing sets for movies during the silent film
era and the beginning of talkies. When her husband who was once
nominated for an Academy Award died at 53, she took her then
17-year-old son, Henry, to New York to see three pieces of his work
preserved at the Museum of Modern Art.
Henry, now 70, was born in London and is now a retired electrical
engineering professor from the University of Missouri, Rolla. He
went to school with the offspring of some of Hollywood’s stars.
Among them Jack Linkletter, Bing Crosby’s children, Loretta Young’s
nieces and even offspring of Bugsy Siegel, the gangster who made Las
Vegas an early gambling mecca.
After her husband died, she married John Wolfson, who worked on the
production side of the Los Angeles Times. They eventually moved to
Rolla after his retirement. Now dealing with macular degeneration,
she said her only regret is that she did not learn to play the
piano. “You can express yourself with the music you play. It also is
a way to give to others,” said the quiet-spoken woman.
Her son said that even as she lost her sight over the past years,
she played bridge. If she has a recipe for longevity, he does not
know what that would be. He could not recall any particular health
regimen that she followed, but said that “she was always the
Wolfson is a grandmother of three and the great-grandmother of five.
Her son said that dates and times of events aren’t terribly clear to
either himself or his mother because they tend to “look forward, not
About Presbyterian Manors
For 55 years, Presbyterian Manors of Mid-America has set high
standards for excellence in retirement living. With 17 locations in
Kansas and Missouri, they are one of the larger not-for-profit
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communities are designed to meet the physical, spiritual, social and
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Several locations also offer memory care for residents with
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