If only we'd stop to listen, centenarians could teach us plenty


WRAPPING ONE iron fist around her sturdy walking cane, Ella May Stumpe strode through the big luncheon crowd at Martin's West last week, having just published her second book, and proceeded to read a speech she had written on a keyboard she learned to use recently in a computer course at Frederick Community College.

Ella May is 103 years old.

"We have dreamed many dreams," she told the big crowd. There were about 500 people sitting there at Martin's West, in northwest Baltimore County, at the seventh annual Maryland Centenarians Luncheon. "Many of our prayers have been answered."

Such dreams, and such prayers, once seemed a kind of miracle. About 40 people at the luncheon were past the age of 100, each of them on the verge of making history never before imagined: On Jan. 1, they will have lived through the turn of the century -- twice.

Ella May Stumpe was born July 12, 1895. She wrote about her first century in her 386-page memoir "100 Years, My Story," published nearly four years ago, in which she wrote:

"Science questions `memory accounts' given by the elderly, since they cannot be verified. I have no peers. But I have a very clear picture of baby-sitting my little sister when I was 4 years old as mother went out to milk the cow at night. My father was still out in the field."

The year was 1899. Ella May was living on a farm in North Dakota, which wasn't yet a state. She remembers Indian tribes following the grazing patterns of the buffalo that provided them with food and shelter and clothing.

"[The Indians] were not land owners," she wrote. "They believed that all land was ... to enjoy and use as survival dictated."

Ella May now lives in a group home in Frederick -- the lives of other residents are lovingly captured in Stumpe's latest book, 249 pages, called "Ladies of Record Street Home, 1998" -- but her memories of her girlhood read like something out of "Little House on the Prairie."

"Our only means of communication was the mail, which was brought in by wagon train, horse or ox-drawn wagons from a hundred miles away," she wrote. "The radio and television of the day was family talk. Evenings were spent together in conversation. The world news, beyond a radius of 25 miles, was brought by horseback circuit upon rare occasions."

Around the big crowd at Martin's West last week were those to confirm such recollections of their own, such as Hattie Myers of Baltimore, 105; Fred Hawkins of Baltimore, 105; and Hattie Forrester of Annapolis, 108.

Also, Maude Gomez of Baltimore, who chatted for a few moments about how she passes her days: She likes to bowl and follows politics. One relative at the luncheon said, "She'll call you on Veteran's Day and say, `Thank you for serving our country.' She remembers that kind of thing." She recently finished a computer class.

"It's important to keep up with technology," Maude Gomez declared. She will be 100 on June 20.

Social Security Administration records indicate there are roughly 700 people in Maryland now past the century mark. In a world where the speed of things astonishes us and leaves us too anxious to look behind us, we sometimes fail to understand the importance of the elderly.

They're our memory banks and our proof that we aren't isolated souls but are connected to a history. We should listen to them while we still can. We might find ourselves delighted.

In "100 Years, My Story," for example, Ella May Stumpe writes of her school days.

She sat on a long bench, with no desk, and "did not have my own book until my second year. That was a used one, having been used the year before by a second-grader with unwashed hands. Pioneers had large families and could not afford to buy new books.

"My brother Edward would disrupt the study period by shooting spitballs at the enemies he had made at recess-time. The teacher brought a freshly cut willow switch every day for discipline purposes. He would wear it out on Ed."

In 1910, when she was 15, Ella May's father bought a Model T Ford but "couldn't master the mechanics of it. My two older brothers took to the driving of it. They could hardly live apart from it, which prompted my father to prophesy that `Boys will soon be born without legs, since they will have forgotten how to walk.'"

Such a thought has a particularly modern sound to it. Ella May got her own driving instructions in exchange for milking the cows. There were no driver's licenses.

Such is the passage of time. Most of us feel it whipping past us. But, at moments like this, when they gather for the Maryland Centenarians annual luncheon, or those such as Ella May Stumpe look back, we're reminded how long some people have been around -- and how much they have to tell us, if we'll only listen.

Pub Date: 5/18/99

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