How they lived their 100-plus years
I recently wrote an obit that ran in The Plain Dealer on Aug. 16, 2006, for Florence Homan, who had been the oldest person in Ohio. Age 112. A lot of years, and yet there was little more for me to say about her.
She had outlived her husband. She had no children. The "next of kin," who handled her funeral arrangements, was a stepsomething-in-law of a relative of her husband's a few times removed.
The only story about her that I could find in our archives was written a few months earlier when the previous oldest-person-in-Ohio died. It was more about centenarians in general than it was about Florence in particular.
I put together a short obit that said she:
(1)was born Florence Wilker on Nov. 18, 1893, in Middleburg Township, more than 30 years before the area was incorporated as the village of Middleburg Heights;
(2)grew up on a farm;
(3)had an 8th-grade education;
(4)worked for Higbee's department store as a seamstress for more than 50 years;
(5)married a railroad worker, who was 10 years her junior, in 1941;
(6)lived most of her life in Cleveland in a house that was torn down to make way for the construction of an interstate highway;
(7)moved to the suburbs;
(8)was widowed in 1988;
(9)and moved into a nursing home at age 105.
That's actually a lot more than I could dig up about other centenarians, who have died on my watch. I have to believe there was much more to tell about Florence. I just couldn't find people or documentation that could help me get it together on deadline.
Bryan Marquard's obit for artist Polly Thayer Starr, which ran in the Sept. 3, 2006, edition of the Boston Globe shows a centenarian, who lived a fascinating 101 years.
Polly had children and friends with sundry details about her New England ancestry, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson and a host of Episcopalian ministers, her art training and career, marriage and motherhood.
And the Smithsonian Institution had interviewed her 11 years before her death.
Bryan was able to gather a considerable amount of information about this centenarian. And he selected terrific facts and quotes that made this a delightful obit to read.
He included details about her work - portraits that range from literal to ethereal; to landscapes illuminating the spirit of a milieu; to a series of paintings capturing the life span of a thistle - that illustrate the depth of her art.
And this revealing quote from Polly's Smithsonian interview: "I was pretty gun-shy of marriage when it would mean giving up painting. . . . It took a long time to make up my mind."
Here are more gems:
"You never achieve what you want," she told a friend late in life, "but you're always getting nearer to the essence . . . and that's a search that is all important."
From one of her daughters: "She could pat bumblebees. While he was on the flower, she would take her finger and stroke his fur and his wings would buzz like mad, and he wouldn't fly away until she stopped. It always seemed to me the equivalent of a cat's purr."
She became a Quaker and ventured away from home, seeking new inspiration. She attended wrestling matches and was invited into an operating room to watch surgery, telling a friend that "to see the living organs pushing up uncovered out of a woman's body . . . I forgot everything in the wonder of it."
Then, in her 70s, she developed glaucoma and macular degeneration. Before completely losing her sight, her final works in her late 80s were drawings of a thistle and a diaphanous self-portrait that seemed to place her both in this world and the next.
Bryan ended the story with this: The pull of creativity, she told the Smithsonian, never ceases. "It's the Hound of Heaven," she said with a chuckle. "It's always after you."
Please share your favorite centenarian-obit stories and tips on how to gather info about the dearly departed, whose family and friends are long departed.