Supercentenarians of the World–Live Long!

On January 31, 2011, Eunice Sanborn, widely believed to be the world’s oldest person, died in Jacksonville, Texas at the age of 115–bless her heart. She handed off the baton to Besse Cooper, 114, who was born in Sullivan County, Tennessee on August 26, 1896. Bless her heart too.

And let’s not forget to bless Frank Buckles while we’re at it. A veritable pup in comparison–he turned 110 on February 1st–Frank is the sole remaining US veteran of World War I, the Last American Doughboy (what cohort of uber-humans, pray tell, comes before The Greatest Generation?).

When the three of them, squirming, grunting, caterwauling little bundles of joy and raw, “FEED ME!” energy, popped into this world and opened their eyes for the first time near the turn of the last century, nobody on the planet had a clue as to what those itty-bitty babies would see during their lifetimes.

And that was probably for the best. For surely those pure, innocent folks–psychological virgins all–would have popped a gasket or blown a fuse. From Alexander Graham Bell to Steve Jobs. From the Spanish-American War to the so-called “Great” one, on to the endless, open-ended ones of present day. Kitty Hawk, the San Francisco earthquake, the sinking of the Titanic, The Charleston, Babe Ruth, The Crash, The Great Depression, radio, Prohibition, World War II, the A-Bomb, Jackie Robinson, television, hula hoops, the Four Minute Mile, The Cold War, Tupperware, The Beatles, miniskirts, The Pill, a bona fide Man on the Moon (waddya know, it’s not made of cheese!), Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam, Watergate, the birth, acting career, Presidency and death of Ronald Reagan, computers, oral sex in the Oval Office, Hurricane Katrina, and pocket-sized phones that worked everywhere you went (unless your carrier was AT&T).

And that’s just the short list.

Yet, Eunice, Besse and Frank never seemed to get too worked up about anything. Frank, asked his secret of long life, said, “I never got in a hurry.” They just went about their business, taking it all in, living long to tell the tale.

Eunice lived her entire life in southern Louisiana and southeast Texas. She never worked outside the home, but stayed very involved in community service and sang in the choir at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville for decades on end. Together with her second husband Wesley Garrett (she buried three), they built what is believed to be the first concrete bottom swimming pool in their neck of the woods, the envy of Cherokee County.

Besse attended East Tennessee Normal School (which eventually became East Tennessee State University) and became a school teacher. She worked in her home state for a while but eventually moved south and taught at the tiny school in Between, Georgia, which also happens to be the title of a best-selling novel by Joshilyn Jackson. She married Luther in 1924 and buried him in 1963. She never remarried. Still, the two of them left their mark–4 children, 11 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and 1 great-great-grandchild. “Be fruitful and multiply”–they took that Bible verse to heart.

Frank was born in Bethany, Missouri and from his first breath lived the “Show Me” creed to the hilt. “I want to see The Show!” he shouted, and then he went out and did just that. At 16, “The Great War” ignited his wanderlust, and he kept lying to numerous military recruiters (“I left my birth certificate in the family Bible.”) until a weary Army sergeant finally enlisted him after Frank told him the biggest whopper of all–“Uh, I’m 21.” He sailed to Europe aboard the RMS Carpathia and listened to her crew tell about the night they rescued survivors of the Titanic. He finally made it to within a few miles of the front as an ambulance driver just as the shooting ceased.

He returned, attended business school, worked in Toronto and New York City, but eventually went to work for various cruise and shipping companies, the better to see “The Show.” In World War II, he was in his forties and in the wrong place at the wrong time when the Japanese invaded the Philippines. He spent three toilsome years as a civilian in various Japanese prison camps. Despite his wasting away under the strain, he led his comrades daily in calisthenics. “We needed to stay in shape,” he said. “We had to think about our lives after the war.”

Life after the war was good for Frank. He moved to San Francisco where he met and married his beautiful Audrey. Eventually, they moved to Charles Town, West Virginia, to land that his ancestors farmed two centuries before. He drove his tractor until he was 106 at which point his daughter took away his keys. He lives with her to this day on historic Gap View Farm in a white, clapboard house at the top of a hill.

I know they say that “it’s not the years in the life but the life in the years,” but wouldn’t it be nice to have a little of both?

But supercentenarians all have something in common that most of us common folks don’t, a gift of the gods–good, stable genes. We mere mortals might be able to add a decade to the average life expectancy with Seventh Day Adventist or Morman-style clean living, but I’ve met obese chain-smokers with redoubtable DNA who made it into their 90s, further proof, as if we needed any more, that life is not always fair. A spartan diet and regular, vigorous exercise can only take you so far. Just look at the original “Mr. Fitness” Jack LaLanne who, bless his heart, only made it to 96.

Supercentenarians will always be a rare breed. God, it seems, will only put up with us for so long–no more Methuselahs. In Genesis 6:3 the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”

But Frank Buckles is a humble man. He has no designs on such lofty numbers. Frank, who closes his eyes and takes little catnaps with increasing frequency these days, was quoted recently as saying that he would like to make it to 115 (but first, he’s got to catch Besse!).

After that, he plans to close his eyes for good, and call it a “day.”

  1. David Beshirs

    Nice article.  Will you write my obituary? 

  2. Mike the Eyeguy


    I certainly will–if I live long enough.

  3. Charlie

    Great story Mike.  I think Frank had the best advice; not to be in a hurry.  No need to race toward death.  The journey is what’s important.

  4. Mike the Eyeguy

    Thanks Charlie. You’ve seen my pedestrian pace on our long runs lately. You wouldn’t say I’m in too much of a hurry, would you?

Comments are closed.