Life Lessons from a CentenarianOn May 29, 2019 by Elyse
As Abner and Mary Hammond taught us last year, the early 20th century press was obsessed with stories about the elderly doing anything besides sitting in rocking chairs. That press had a field day with Electa Kennedy. Starting in 1905 with an article anticipating her 100th birthday—in four years’ time—newspapers from California and Montana to Illinois and Vermont dutifully covered each of her celebrations and achievements:
The media attention continued right on up until she passed away in 1915, at the ripe old age of 105. Born in Vermont in 1810, Electa lived through a transformative period in American history. While you won’t find her name in any textbook, her accomplishments later in life are a valuable lesson on living, no matter how old or young we are.
See the World
After getting New England bingo by living in each of those states (with the exception of Rhode Island—that’s what the free space is for), Electa was diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis) at the age of thirty-two. In an era before antibiotics, her physician prescribed a drastic course of treatment: move to a warmer climate. So, Electa and her husband, James Kennedy, left their two sons behind with her parents and traveled by schooner, coach and mule all the way to Mexico, where James was hired to build a cotton mill.
It was not to be their permanent home. When the Mexican-American War broke out three years later, they fled Mexico, “traveling by muleback across the deserts, enduring the most terrible hardships one could imagine, choking of thirst, passing through colonies of rattlesnakes and encountering Apache Indians.” Another account of their journey added, “Their flight was marked by many exciting encounters with hostile Mexicans and Indians. Several members of the party that accompanied them were killed. Mrs. Kennedy was forced to ride astride a mule for fourteen hundred miles before reaching her old home.”
After all that excitement, I wouldn’t want to move any farther away than Rhode Island. But maybe that’s why I’m not a centenarian. In 1852, the Kennedys once again packed their bags—this time, in a covered wagon—and gradually made their way from Vermont to California, where she lived for more than half a century.
Get Out and Vote
In 1911, only six states allowed American women to vote. Fortunately for Electa, one of those states was California, which granted suffrage to women in the fall of that year.
If a 102-year-old can do it, you have no excuse.
Try New Things
At the age of 101, Electa was initiated into the Eastern Star—an appendant body of the Masonic Fraternity—supposedly becoming “the oldest person ever taken into a lodge of any kind” and “undoubtedly the oldest living member of the order she has just joined.” How many world records have you shattered recently?
As part of the ceremony, she apparently had to ride a goat. No, that’s not a euphemism. This might give an ordinary person some pause, but not Electa. When asked if she was afraid, she replied:
“I rode astride a mule for 1,400 miles during the Mexican war and I think I can ride an Eastern Star goat without any fear.”– The San Francisco Call, June 14, 1911
It’s never too late to teach an old goat, er, dog, new tricks.
Don’t Be Afraid to Judge
Babies, that is. In 1913, 101-year-old Electa was accorded the great honor of presiding at the annual Cloverdale Citrus Fair in California, which was:
. . . made possible through the ambition and indefatigable efforts of Mrs. D. W. Dineen, scion of one of Cloverdale’s leading families, when she opened today the doors to her baby show, thereby adding dignity and attraction to the first day of Cloverdale’s twenty-first annual institution.– From the San Francisco Call, February 20, 1913
The meaning of “dignity and attraction” must have changed in the last century.
Anyway, Judge Kennedy had some stringent criteria for the babies paraded before her, who ranged in age from a few months to two years:
I do not like babies that are nothing but a lump of fat. Of course, I love to see a nice plump baby, but I also want intelligent features and an agreeable disposition. I had two babies of my own, and the plainer infant turned out to be the handsomer and more useful man. If I am to judge, I can not say whether I shall choose blue eyes or brown, dark hair or fair, for I’ll first have to see their smiles and feel of their heads.– From the San Francisco Call, February 20, 1913
She sounds more like a horse dealer than a baby judge. However, perhaps all that judging kept her mind young, because the newspaper described her as being “in full possession of all her mental powers.”
Take a Joy Ride
Beginning with her 102nd birthday, it became tradition for Electa to go “motoring” on her birthday in one of those newfangled automobiles—and for the newspapers to write about it:
As the weather grows bright and warm she enjoys her usual auto ride for her birthday. She delights in these outings and they cannot drive too fast to please her.– From News and Citizen, March 4, 1914
Late bloomers, take heart: It’s never too late to embrace new experiences, have some fun. . . or ride a goat.
Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above historical articles. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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