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Centenarians share stories of hardship, humor and humility

November 6, 2021 GMT

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Marion Yates lived the first 10 years of her life without electricity. Frank Pugliano Sr. had one of the first television sets in his neighborhood. Elijah Gardner grew up on a Southern plantation that his father operated for a white family.

All three are centenarians, people who have lived 100 years — or more.

And have they lived.

Part of the Greatest Generation, they have endured two pandemics, a Great Depression and a Great Recession. They have witnessed technological advances unfathomable to even the most imaginative mind, and they have watched as someone just 10 years their junior flew to the edge of space two weeks ago.

There are more centenarians today than at any point in history, according to the Pew Research Center.

“I am blessed,” Gardner said. “I thank God for every breath I take. I don’t want for anything.”

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“I am blessed.

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I thank God

for every

breath I take.

I don’t want

for anything.”

— Elijah Gardner

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The world’s centenarian population is projected to grow rapidly, according to Pew, citing United Nations estimates. In 2015, there were nearly a half-million centenarians worldwide — more than four times as many as in 1990. U.N. projections suggest there will be about 3.7 million centenarians in 2050.

The most recent Social Security Administration numbers on centenarians in Pennsylvania show there were about 5,890 in 2019. That’s a minuscule percentage of the 13 million people who live in the state, but more than double from 2010, according to U.S. Census figures.

“It’s clear that more people are living to 100 in the post-industrial world and some are living to be 110, what we call supercentenarians,” said Dr. Eric G. Rodriguez, a geriatrician at UPMC Benedum Geriatric Center in Oakland.

While hitting the century mark is a reason for celebration, it’s not without hardships.

“One of the ‘rewards’ of long life is that you lose everyone and everybody close to you who has meaning to you, from spouses to friends and relatives and even your children,” Rodriguez said. “The biggest thing is to avoid isolation and to be open to learning new things like a computer, iPad and smartphone.”

Rodriguez credits many seniors’ longevity to improvements in medicine, including less invasive surgeries and vaccinations. Nutrition is better, he said.

For many, their memory — at least their long-term memory — remains vibrant.

Rodriguez said with most seniors, remembering things that happened many years ago comes more easily than recalling the recent past because it’s more difficult for the brain to retain new information. Those long-ago memories are hard-wired, he said.

There is some connection to long life being hereditary, he said. The ability to handle stress is important. If people are able to “roll with the punches,” he said, they will be able to overcome some tough times.

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As they mark 100 years with parties and celebrations, a centenarian’s birthday candles illuminate more than an age. They represent a life well lived.

The following centenarians exude wisdom, humor and personality, their stories tantamount to living history.

Frank Pugliano Sr.

100, Washington Township

The lawn at Frank Pugliano Sr.’s home is pristine. He mows it himself and handles trimming the bushes and other landscaping duties — despite using a wheelchair.

He lifts himself from his wheelchair onto a riding mower, often wearing a T-shirt that reads “Father Mows Best.”

He also can fix pretty much anything. Neighbors call him the “handyman.”

Pugliano, a World War II veteran, celebrated his 100th birthday in June with a party at Boyce Park.

He came to the U.S. from Italy as a child and later contracted scarlet fever. He eventually recovered and went on to graduate from Penn Hills High School. That’s where he met Mary Strough, the “love of my life,” he said. They were married for 65 years and raised two children. He has one granddaughter.

Mary died of cancer in 2011.

“We owned one of the first televisions to come out, and we had all kinds of people coming over to our house,” he said.

Pugliano enlisted in the Army on Dec. 28, 1942, and became a technical sergeant. He survived a torpedo attack by the Japanese on his convoy mission to Luzon in the Philippines.

“Those young men, they never had a chance at life,” he said as tears welled up.

After the war, Pugliano laid railroad ties and rails with Union Railroad, served as a crane operator at Gascola Slag Co. and for Robert M. Chambers in Penn Hills, and worked as a diesel mechanic for Mushroom Transportation on Neville Island. He can play the guitar, harmonica and saxophone. He enjoys chocolate and Coca-Cola.

He said he has good genes — his parents lived into their 90s.

“They gave me a 50-50 chance of living (as a child with scarlet fever), and here I am 100 years later,” he said. “When you are born, you are dealt cards. What makes me (live to be 100), I don’t know.”

Ruthie Shuster

100, Irwin

Ruthie Shuster loves to dance and often extends an invitation, starting with a polka. But she might be best known for working three days a week at McDonald’s in North Huntingdon. She can spotted cleaning a table or washing windows.

“I miss seeing the customers,” she said one day during the summer as she stood in an empty dining room. At the time, covid-19 forced in-restaurant dining to stop. “I love working at McDonald’s.”

McDonald’s threw Shuster a party for her 100th birthday in March.

She wears an “M” necklace the company bought her two years ago marking for 25 years of service.

Shuster said she doesn’t see turning 100 as anything special.

“I am just plain Ruthie,” she said.

Mary Lou Shuster, who is married to Ruthie’s son Jack, said her mother-in-law is one of a kind.

Ruthie Shuster was born in North Huntingdon, the daughter of Italian immigrants. All of her brothers joined the military. She met Joseph F. Shuster at a square dance in Manor. The couple wed in April 1945. She has been a widow since 1971. Shuster has two children, Jack and Janet, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

She has a valid driver’s license but doesn’t use it much these days.

Shuster said she never drank alcohol or smoked. She loves chocolate and any kind of soup.

She wears an angel pin every day and lives by the belief that love is the most important thing.

Her mother lived into her 90s.

“She appreciates the good things in life,” said Michael Delligatti, owner of the North Huntingdon McDonald’s. “She is always singing, ‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.’

“We could use 1,000 more Ruthies.”

Julia Parsons

100, Forest Hills

Julia Parsons kept a secret for more than 50 years.

The Forest Hills resident was a code-breaker in World War II. She served in the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) after graduating from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) in 1942.

She worked on one of the first computers to decode German U-boat message traffic sent via the Enigma machine, according to Todd DePastino, founder and executive director of the Veterans Breakfast Club, a Pittsburgh nonprofit dedicated to sharing veterans’ stories.

Parsons never talked about her service — even with her husband.

“I knew this was important information to keep to myself,” she said. “It was a top military secret.”

She broke her silence in 1997 when she discovered that the information was declassified in the 1960s.

Serving in the U.S. Navy’s WAVES during World War II, Julia Parsons decoded German U-boat messages.

For her 100th birthday in March, DePastino organized a parade past Parsons’ home with police cars, an ambulance and a fire truck, and other vehicles driving by her home as she sat on the lawn.

A Color Guard of servicemen and women saluted Parsons.

“It was exciting being in the Navy,” she said. “I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was like doing a crossword puzzle every day.”

Parsons works to stay sharp by playing bridge. She said she had to find younger people to play with because most of her friends have died.

She attends Veteran Breakfast Club meetings virtually on her iPad. She said she had less trouble learning to use a coding machine in the 1940s than adjusting to today’s technology.

Parsons credits her longevity to good genes — her mother lived to be 100.

Parsons and her husband Don, whom she met in the service, were married for 62 years. He died when he was 82. They have three children, eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

As she read through a pile of birthday cards, Parson said: “I was thinking the other day, ‘Oh my God, how did I get here?’”

Elijah Gardner

100, Valencia

Elijah Gardner walked into the living room with a walker and tapped his wife, Minnie, who was sleeping in a recliner, lightly on her foot.

“Honey, I’m back,” he said.

She opened her eyes and smiled, that same look she given him throughout their 70 years of marriage. Gardner serves as his wife’s caregiver.

They had two sons. One of the couple’s toughest times was when son Herbert, then 24, drowned in 1984.

Gardner said the pain of losing a child is indescribable. “Every day, I wish he was still here,” he said.

Gardner said he asked God for a wife. He had a dream about a woman offering him peanuts. The next day he said he met Minnie. She asked him if he wanted some peanuts.

“God sent Minnie to me,” said Gardner as he sat in the chapel at St. Barnabas The Arbors-Valencia, where the couple lives.

His faith guides him, no matter the challenge, he said.

Gardner, in his soft-spoken tone, recounted growing up on a plantation in South Carolina, which his father ran. Curious to learn, white men would meet with the elder Gardner late at night so no one would see they were asking for help.

Gardner said his family was treated well on the plantation.

“He didn’t know the specific difficulties African Americans faced in urban settings until he found himself immersed in that culture,” Elijah Gardner’s son Kelvin said. “When we watch shows that address racism, he realizes he was blessed to have avoided some of the terrible things that happened to others.”

Elijah and his brother Peter joined the Navy. Elijah served on two destroyers during World War II: the USS Parrott from August 1943 to March 1944 and the USS Ellis from April 1944 to September 1945.

When the war was over, Gardner came to Pittsburgh to work in a steel mill. He later applied for a job with the Veterans Administration and was hired as vehicle operator. The family lived in what was called the Lincoln District of Pittsburgh and belonged to the Homewood A.M.E. Zion Church.

Gardner turned 100 on Oct. 1, the same day as he and his wife’s 70th wedding anniversary. There was cake and singing of “Happy Birthday” as well as a virtual party Kelvin arranged with family and friends.

“Life is about doing the right things and treating people the way you want to be treated,” Elijah said.

Marion Yates

100, Upper Burrell

“Eat right. Think right. Do right. Live right.” That is Marion Yates’ motto.

The Upper Burrell resident turned 100 in September. A celebration was held at United Presbyterian Church of New Kensington.

“Those are the words she has always lived by,” said her son Ernie, 69, of Catawissa, Columbia County. “This is quite a milestone. She said, ‘Let’s do this again next year.’”

Yates, who is deaf, communicates via messages on a dry-erase board. She lost her hearing because of an infection two and a half years ago. She still puts her hearing aids in every day out of habit, said another son, Cecil.

Yates also is blind in one eye.

At her birthday party, family members and friends wrote on a dry-erase board “Happy Birthday,” “You can have some of my Mountain Dew,” “Singing Happy Birthday” and other warm sentiments.

Asked about the celebration, she wrote, “Oh my, it’s wonderful. It is so exciting to see family and friends gathered to celebrate my birthday.”

Born Marion Morrow, she grew up on a farm in the New Kensington area. She told her children that her family had no electricity until she was 10. She was so happy afterward, she said, because she hated cleaning the globes used with oil lamps.

She married Cecil H. Yates, who later became New Kensington’s police chief.

They had three sons and a daughter. She has eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Her husband died in 1987. They had been married 45 years.

“My mother has always had a lot of spirit,” said Yates’ daughter Kathy Forrest, 77, of Gaithersburg, Md. “She has a really good philosophy on life.”

William Fedor celebrated his 100th birthday — on Oct. 9 — with his two younger sisters.

William Fedor

100, West Mifflin

William Fedor doesn’t own a mop — he prefers to clean the floor on his hands and knees.

He also still drives his 2003 Toyota Corolla.

“He has such a positive outlook on life,” said his niece Pati Damon-Johnson, of Virginia Beach, Va. “He is vintage and has all his original parts — knees, hips, teeth.”

William Fedor’s real birthday is Sept. 27; the midwife who delivered him never filed the paperwork until Oct. 9.

Fedor grew up in Braddock, where is family owned Fedor’s Meat Market. “Everyone had to chip in,” said Fedor, who later owned the market.

At 19, he left Westinghouse Technical School where he was studying electrical engineering and enlisted in the Army Air Corps — the precursor to the Air Force. He became a certified radar bombardment operator. He spent most of his service in England and was assigned to a B-24 bomber.

He was awarded six service stars and became a staff sergeant.

He never married. He lives with his sister Irene Fedor, 97, in West Mifflin. Another sister, Agnes Ivory, 93, lives in Wilkinsburg.

Damon-Johnson and another of Fedor’s nieces, Ann Ivory Hersh of Bethlehem, helped plan a party Oct. 9 at the Omni William Penn Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh. Damon-Johnson contacted the J.M. Smucker Co. about getting her uncle’s photo on a jar of jelly to be profiled on NBC’s popular “Today Show” segment profiling 100-year-olds. He hasn’t yet appeared, she said.

Asked how he hit 100, Fedor said: “I was lucky, so lucky.”

He recounted the story of riding in a Jeep in London during World War II. The Jeep was bombed. A fellow passenger died. He survived.

Fedor told the crowd at his birthday party that his actual birthday is Sept. 27. He said the midwife who delivered him never filed the paperwork until Oct. 9.

At the party, there were more than 300 birthday cards from Homeville Elementary School in West Mifflin. Ivory Hersh contacted the principal and asked if the students would write to Fedor. Many thanked him for his service.

One read, “Happy Birthday Mr. Bill. Let’s see if you can get to 200. Good luck with that.”

Fedor made the rounds at his birthday celebration, where a cake was adorned with three candles spelling out “100.”

“I just want to wish all of you the best in luck, health and happiness,” he told the group.

Everyone clapped.

“You have always supported each and every one of us through special and memorable family occasions,” Damon-Johnson said. “Now it’s our time to celebrate you.”

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