Helen Thomson, 108, of Oak Manor in Largo is the oldest person at the Suncoast Hospice centenarian birthday party on May 1.
CLEARWATER – Helen Thomson remembers a world before planes and even cars were common modes of transportation.
Her family got its first car when she was about 18 or 20 years old. On May 1, she thought she was just going to a party. She was surprised to look around and see so many people around her age.
At 108 years old, Thomson of Oak Manor in Largo still was the oldest person in the room, but she was one of 39 centenarians – people age 100 or older – at the Suncoast Hospice centenarian birthday party in Clearwater.
The party may have broken the Guinness Book of World Records’ previous record of 31 centenarians all in one place at the same time. Additionally, there were 23 people in their late 90s among the approximate 250 people in attendance.
“It’s the whole celebration of life, which is what our organization is about,” said Rafael Sciullo, president and CEO of Suncoast Hospice. “We have a long-standing history of including people from the community and really celebrating what people have added to the community and also their lives as well.”
Everyone has a wonderful story, Sciullo said, and it is a wonderful opportunity to share some of those stories and to celebrate.
Thomson’s story began in Illinois, where she grew up on a farm. One of her favorite memories of her childhood was jumping belly first onto her wooden sled and using her hands to steer her way down the hill.
Ann Kelly of WDUV 105.5 FM helped host the ceremony and read brief biographies about many of the centenarians. One man is an Army veteran who can speak seven languages. Another woman, born in 1910, didn’t go to her first movie until she was 60 years old.
When Kelly reached the biography of Julia “Cookie” Winters, who will be 101in November, Winters’ eyes grew wide, her mouth twisted into a giant “O,” and her hands flew to her cheeks. She had never admitted her age out loud before, she said, and she could hardly believe how old she had gotten. Then she noticed a reporter’s camera and began making “moose antlers” with her hands and hammed it up for the photos.
Sheri Grunden with Suncoast PACE describes Winters as a “spitfire” who loves to sing, loves music, people and is a big social butterfly. Winters of Pinellas Park said the party was “super-duper,” and when asked what is the key to a long and happy life, she said it’s a glass of wine, whisky, and that she never had any kids. The table then erupted in laughter.
At a nearby table, another centenarian had a fury visitor. Ivan, Sciullo’s 6-year-old golden retriever and trained service and therapy dog, happily donned a party hat and visited with the guests. Helen Williams, 101, who lives at the Palms of Largo, enjoyed petting Ivan at the party. Williams was raised in New York and is proud of her years working as a real estate agent. She was married for 60 years and has 38 great-grandchildren. The other ladies at her table asked her how she still has such a lovely and young complexion.
“Just wash it,” Williams said.
Phyllis Brewer isn’t quite 100 yet, but born in 1916, that was close enough to celebrate. Besides, she’s had to be a grown-up since she was a teenager, so maybe that counts for extra.
“Well, I became a mother when I was 15 because mother died when I was 15 and left me with four children underneath me,” Brewer said. “The youngest one was 2.”
They lived in South Cushing, Maine, and though it was hard, she had promised her mother that she would raise her brothers and sisters while their father worked as a carpenter.
“I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it, but I did,” Brewer said. “I promised my mother that I would take care of the children, and I did. Leaving school was the hardest part.”
After Brewer raised her siblings, she got married and had three kids of her own – Arnold, Robert and Ruthie.
Brewer has learned a lot throughout her life.
“I think I’ve learned that your family means an awful lot to you,” Brewer said. “More precious than you realize as you’re growing up. And I had cancer when I was 40 and I thought I was going to lose my life. And I thought, ‘What’s going to happen to my children?’ They were old enough to take care of themselves, then, but I still thought they needed me.”
Sitting next to Brewer was Jane Hammond, 101, who lives in Regal Palms in Largo. She was at the party with her daughter, Audrey Walcheski. Hammond was married for 58 years, and she and her husband loved going on cruises together. She has always loved to dance and even got up out of her chair to dance along to the live music at the party.
Hammond was born in Holland and came to the United States at age 7. Her family landed on Ellis Island and then lived in New Jersey until she got married. Walcheski said her father was in the military, so they all lived in many places, including California, West Virginia, and Florida several times before the couple finally retired in Florida.
Hammond was a bookkeeper at St. Petersburg Junior College and has always been extremely active and an expert entertainer and cook. She passed down her skills for entertaining and cooking to her daughter, which are some of Walcheski’s favorite memories of her mom.
“She was always just happy,” Walcheski said of her mother. “Tons of friends. Every time they would go on a cruise or something, they would come home with new friends and would continue to correspond with them and send Christmas cards to them and things like that. She would write out her Christmas cards every year until just a few years ago.”
Walcheski lives in Feather Sound and greatly enjoys the time she gets to spend with her mother.
“You know what? I’m really enjoying her now,” Walcheski said. “I take her every Friday to get her hair done. We go to Safety Harbor to a beauty shop that she’s gone to for years and years and years so I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world. And we usually have the radio on and I find a station that she likes and we sing songs all the way up, and we just have a ball. She’ll read the signs to me on the side of the road and then we go out and have lunch. She’s just really a pleasure.”
Royce Ladd of Lake Seminole Square in Seminole was one of the few male centenarians. At 105, he still is quite lively and gregarious.
“I don’t feel like a minority anymore,” Ladd said with a laugh, as he looked around at all the other people his age.
Born in Iowa, Ladd was a civil engineer and was married to his wife for 77 years until she died last year at age 104.
“We had a very enjoyable life,” he said.
His helper, Joyce Otazo, said Ladd and his wife loved to travel and visited every country in the world except for Korea. He joked that the key to such a long and happy marriage was that they never had kids. But also, he said it’s to have a real good partner who likes the same things.
The pair was extremely active and truly in love, Otazo said. When she helped him move to a smaller living space, they found stacks of letters that the couple had written to each other over the years that were incredibly moving.
“He also kept a journal of all their travels,” Otazo said. “I mean, ‘It’s 7 o’clock in the morning and we’re doing this,’ ‘It’s 10 o’clock at night and we’re doing this.’ All day. And they both were like that. So he’s right. Find somebody who likes the same things that you do. They both loved the same things.”
When they got older, they still traveled, and he drove the motor home while his wife knitted and sewed. They were also proud that both of them graduated from college.
Ladd is amazed by all the inventions and advancements that have occurred during his lifetime, especially in electronics. He said the current electronics are way over his head, though Otazo points out that he uses email and keeps up with people on the computer.
Ladd said a key to living a long time is to not smoke or drink and to keep healthy as best one can.
“Also, look on the bright side,” Ladd said. “There usually is one.”