Clear recollections of the distant past

Centenarians: A photojournalist has gathered the memories of people who witnessed most of the wonders of the 20th century.

June 20, 1999|By Diane Scharper

AS WE APPROACH the next millennium, there are more than 63,000 Americans who saw the dawn of the 20th century. Centenarians -- people 100 years old or older -- have witnessed the advent of electric lighting, the refrigerator and the indoor toilet. They have lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, the rise and fall of Communism, and the emergence of the United States as a world power.

When they were born, most Americans lived on farms, and they rode in horse-drawn carriages. When they went to school, they considered themselves privileged. Often they had to drop out of school to work and help feed parents and siblings.

This generation married, and stayed married. Mothers took care of their children. Fathers sacrificed to give their children advantages they never had. Families worked hard and went to church on Sunday or synagogue on Saturday. Theirs were the good old days, but sometimes they weren't so good.

Rose Freedman remembers the following story as if it had just happened -- the flames, the screams, the panic:

At 4:45 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, 1911, gray smoke from a smoldering bin of fabric turned red. A frightened teen-age girl screamed, "Fire!" Other girls, working at the sewing machines of New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Company, looked up, saw the flames and panicked. Flaming bits of material spilled out of the bins. Scraps on the floor ignited.

Hundreds of girls crawled to the fire escape. Then it broke under their weight. Only one elevator was working, and that stopped as girls jumped down the elevator loft.

Worse, there was only one passageway to the outer hall. The other doors had been locked. In 18 minutes, the fire was put out. By then, 146 people were dead.

Rose Freedman survived. At 104 years old, she told her story to noted photojournalist Bernard Edelman and added this interesting perspective to the historical account: After having saved herself despite the locked doors, Freedman was offered a large sum of money to testify in court that the doors were unlocked. "Nothing doing," she said, refusing to lie about what she considers "the biggest tragedy of the century."

Edelman interviewed 89 other centenarians: former businessmen, teachers, artists, doctors, writers, inventors, seamstresses, a nun and an Avon lady. Hoping to give a human face to history, he photographed them and collected their stories in "Centenarians: The Story of the Twentieth Century by the Americans Who Lived It."

The centenarians tell inspiring stories about early childhood, school days, falling in love, working, serving their country in World Wars I and II, being sick, surviving the death of loved ones, enjoying golden years. Some of their remembrances -- such as Rose Freedman's -- are gripping.

Some are biting, like the comment by the first woman to graduate from the University of Mississippi Law School, Lucy Somerville Howerth: "If you want to study spite, Washington [D.C.] is a good place to do it."

Other remembrances are profound: "I am ageless," says Beatrice Wood, an artist. "The only shrouds of sadness are the loss of loved ones. Certainly part of us dies when a dear friend leaves, yet we must go on giving to the stream of life."

The centenarians generally have clear memories of the distant past. Noting that she comes from hardy stock, Lois Addy mentions her father walking home to South Carolina from the Battle of Gettysburg. Also coming from hardy stock is York Garrett; his grandfather was a runaway slave.

Some, like Ella May Stumpe, who resides in Frederick County, seem to remember everything. Stumpe recalls registering for college in 1993 when she was 98 years old. Wanting to write her autobiography, she decided to learn how to use a computer. The registrar's computer rejected her because it could not compute her age. But the misunderstanding was cleared up, and after much frustration and effort, Stumpe completed "100 Years, My Story," by the deadline she had set -- her 100th hundredth birthday.

Stumpe was not the only one working at the time of these interviews, which began in 1995. Pediatrician Leila Denmark, born in 1898, was still practicing medicine. Milton Garland, born in 1895, was still employed as a refrigeration engineer. Audrey Stubbert, also born in 1895, was working as a proofreader and columnist for The Examiner in Independence, Mo. Philip Caret, born in 1896, was still working at his investment-counseling business.

This generation is made of stern stuff. Grandparents to the Baby Boomers, many of them really did walk miles to school in the snow. Their teachers also made superhuman efforts to get to school. One centenarian recalls renting sleeping space in someone's kitchen during a blizzard to be near the schoolhouse.

In their early days, they did not have electricity or plumbing. They washed clothes with water carried in from a well and heated on the stove. They rubbed clothes over a washboard and used homemade soap.

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