Centenarian enters computer age Story to tell: With one book in print, and another in the works, a reluctant keyboard fan pounds out her tale of growing old.

October 26, 1995|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- Ella May Stumpe already is looking forward to her second book. The subject? Growing old.

But, she concedes, she doesn't know enough about it yet. She's only 100 -- and still reveling in last month's release of her self-published first book: "100 Years, My Story."

Ella May, as she prefers to be called, didn't even start writing her story until after completing a computer course at Frederick Community College -- when she was 98.

She looks much younger. Her voice is strong, her mind agile and her sense of marketing impeccable.

"We haven't even hit the Baltimore market," she says. "We hope to do that with this article." And a short time later she gently instructs the photographer: "Let's not photograph the cane."

The cane rests against the couch where Ella May sits in a stately old farmhouse in Frederick. She lives there with Sue Ann and Heinz Wilms, who invited her into their home 2 1/2 years ago.

Mrs. Wilms, 55, met Ella May about 1975. Ella May was living at the Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring, where Mrs. Wilms was a registered nurse. They became great friends -- and then housemates.

Ella May had moved to Leisure World after outliving three husbands, making homes in four states and working as a teacher, tax auditor, clerk in her first husband's drugstore, head cashier and assistant credit manager of a department store, cook at a college and manager of an executive dining room.

"I go back so far," she says -- back to what she likes to call the "pioneer era."

She was born in a three-room shanty on the North Dakota prairie in 1895 -- six years after North Dakota became the 39th state. That's a long way from what she views as this age of permissiveness, crime and self-absorption.

"Of course, I blame it all on Ted Kennedy," Ella May says without cracking a smile. "He's such a liberal."

Ella May belongs to a select group of Americans. The Social Security Administration's most recent benefits records list 35,679 centenarians across the country as of December. In Maryland, the number is 525.

Throughout Ella May's 100 years, she has written short stories, family histories, eloquent letters and devotional pieces for her church. But as she approached a century, she was reluctant to take on the writing of her autobiography because of limited vision and arthritic hands.

Then modern technology intervened. Weary of watching Ella May struggle with the typewriter, Tiffany Wilms, daughter-in-law of Ella May's housemates, blurted out: "Ella May, you need a computer."

Ella May's response? "It was too far out," she says. "I couldn't even think of it."

She writes even more bluntly in her book: "I didn't want a computer, I never wanted a computer; and if Tiffany thought I needed a Computer she was 'talking through her hat.' "

But Ella May ended up with a computer; the Wilmses persisted until she gave in. As if that wasn't enough, Ella May then ended up in computer class.

That happened because she couldn't get the knack of the thing at home. Mrs. Wilms encouraged her in spring 1993 to take the course at Frederick Community College.

"I was 98 years old, and she's trying to send me back to school," Ella May recalls. "And she did."

But first, as Ella May filled out registration forms in the registrar's office, one of the workers said: "Oh, your birthday is "

"Yes, July 12," Ella May says. "That's correct."

July 12, of course, was not the issue. It was that "1895" the worker couldn't get over -- and neither could the computer. It could not -- in such sweet irony -- accept a birth date before 1900.

But Ella May was admitted anyway. And she completed the course -- with assistance from Mr. and Mrs. Wilms, one of whom drove her to each of the six two-hour sessions Saturday mornings. Her teacher, Julie Stroud, was 23.

"She's a smart cookie," Ms. Stroud says. "The other students just treated her like any other student. I think that's because she doesn't seem that old. She's like a grandmother or something."

After the course, Ms. Stroud visited Ella May several times offering personal instruction. By then Ella May was on her way, writing at all hours, even in the middle of the night.

She became a slave to the wonderful, cursed invention. In her book she writes:

"NOW it is a Computer that is disrupting the hard-earned tranquility of my daily life. It is a Computer that is interrupting my concentration at the Bridge Table; it is a Computer that is causing sleepless nights, and it is a Computer that awakens SUE ANN to the hopelessness of her efforts to keep me in a pleasant MOOD, for the right MODE."

The curious capitalization is Ella May's style. She writes that way for emphasis, she says. And because she paid for the book's typesetting, printing and binding, she figured she could capitalize all the letters she wanted.

She declines to say how much she spent to have the 500 books printed last month. With their large print and sturdy, cherry-red covers, they are handsome and easy to read.

She's already done one book signing at a retirement home. And, like an author on a promotional tour, she explains that her book recounts "each fork in the road that changed the course of my life."

Mrs. Wilms says Ella May's ability to adapt -- along with the blessing of good health -- has let her age gracefully.

"As each advance in society came, Ella May took it in stride," Mrs. Wilms says.

Or, as Ella May puts it: "Life has just gone on. And I've kept up with it."

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