Three centuries of colorful living

Hundreds of Marylanders born in the late 1800s are still going strong in 2000 -- and recall an era of fewer material goods and more neighborliness.

Life After 50

February 13, 2000|By ISAAC REHERT | ISAAC REHERT,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Nearly everyone today has now lived in two centuries. But a small number -- a very small number -- has lived in three.

People living today who were born on and before Dec. 31, 1899 can claim not just the 21st but the 20th and 19th centuries as their own.

The State Department of Aging estimates that between 500 and 750 of the five million residents of Maryland are in this group. They might be called the Three Centuries Club.

Pamela Causey of the State Department of Aging says: "With the advances in medical science, more and more people are living longer and the number who reach 100 will only go up. ... People need to be shown that growing older doesn't necessarily mean that life is no longer interesting or joyful."

To gain an impression of the lives of these centurians, we talked to four of them.

From sod houses to computers

When she was 98, Ella May Stumpe (pronounced Stumpey) learned to use the computer so she could write her autobiography. That was in 1993. Since then, she has written a second book about the residents of the Record Street Home in Frederick where she lives.

She was born in North Dakota, on July 12, 1895, just six years after that area ceased being Indian Territory and was admitted as a state to the Union. Her father was a pioneer, a homesteader. "In my earliest years we lived in a sod house. Later, my father built a shanty. There was little timber; everything had to be hauled in. Eventually he owned a nine-room mansion," says Stumpe, who is 104.

As a child, she helped on the farm. "It was routine for me to go out to the pasture and get a horse and take my mother to town to go shopping. We made our own entertainment. The pony and dogs were our companions," she says.

When she was 10, the family got its first automobile, which they called a runabout.

The Great Depression is still vivid. "I don't remember the distress. We were church-going people. Our faith helped us. And the neighbors. We don't have that kind of neighborliness any more."

She was in her 20s when the United States entered World War I. "All our young men enlisted, and women worked on the farms."

She left North Dakota at 25, married and homesteaded for a second time with her husband in Arkansas, where free land was still available.

An interest in researching and documenting her family's history led her to writing her autobiography "One Hundred Years My Story."

As she aged, her eyesight began to fail and arthritis interfered with writing by hand, so she went to a computer.

"My friends and family practically forced me into it. There I was in a wheelchair, 98 years old, and they took me shopping for one. I paid $2,000 for it, but I said to myself, `This isn't the first foolish investment I've made in my life,'" says Stumpe who has 15 grandchildren and "about" 25 great-grandchildren.

"It sat two weeks unopened. Finally I thought I'd try it. I didn't know what to do. I hired a tutor from the community college, but when she arrived and saw I was practically 100 years old, she never came back.

"I hunted and pecked for a while. Finally I signed up for a course at Frederick Community College. It shook up the town, made the front page of the paper -- a 98-year-old lady entering college. I got calls from Florida, Texas and California.

"I had nearly given up the idea that I would ever finish the book, but with a computer, it went. We printed 500 copies, and they are practically all gone."

A social activist

Emma Thomas today still feels strongly committed to the social ideals of her youth.

She is nearly blind, nearly deaf, and by her own admission "tottering," but she can still declare firmly, "When I hear about the corruption in public life, I get discouraged and depressed. There's too much money in the hands of the wrong people. "And I still get angry when I hear people talk in derogatory tones about people in any other ethnic group," says Thomas, who is 100.

A woman of small stature, with neatly arranged white hair and piercing blue eyes, she lives at Broadmead Retirement Community in Cockeysville.

As a child, she got her liberal views from her father, a Presbyterian minister.

One of her four brothers was Norman Thomas, the democratic Socialist who ran six times for president of the United States on the ticket of the Socialist Party. Another brother was Dr. Evan Thomas, a famous conscientious objector in World War I. "I never joined the Socialist Party," she says, "But I can't to this day accept either of the major parties. In the last election I voted for Ralph Nader."

She born in Marion, Ohio, on Aug. 2, 1899, but grew up in Lewisburg, Pa.

The youngest of six children, she attended Goucher College and graduated in 1921. She decided to pursue the then-new career of medical social worker. "Doctors were just beginning to take seriously that it was not enough to deal with physical ailments. They needed to know the home circumstances, the environment the patient would be returning to."

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