In the not-too-distant past, if someone reached the age of 100, society considered that person to be ancient and functionally useless.
Today, those who reach 100 are not considered to be outliers but a standard of living that should be aspired to. That message came through clearly at the 33rd annual Salute to Centenarians at the Kellogg Conference & Hotel Center on the Northeast campus of Gallaudet University on April 29.
“Today, we recognize the extraordinary D.C. seniors who got us to where we are today and continue to help move us forward,” Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said to the 61 honored guests and their family and friends. “My administration is committed to making the investments that keep D.C. an age-friendly city where we grow together, age together and, like we did today, celebrate together.”
The Social Security Administration says there are 300 centenarians living in the District. In 2014, a report for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 72,197 Americans were 100 or older, and that number has likely increased because studies over the past three decades have shown that people are living longer and the death rate has fallen in recent years.
The centenarians who attended the luncheon did not fit the stereotype of wrinkled, half-dead people afflicted with ailments, failing eyesight and hearing. During the luncheon, they sang along as the band played music, bobbing their heads and swinging hips. Inez Robertson, 102, even got on the floor and danced to “When the Saints Go Marching In” by the band Bruther’s Plus One.
Vanilla P. Beane, an internationally recognized milliner, received special attention because of her well-known nickname as “The Hat Lady.” Beane opened up her hat shop on 3rd Street NW in 1978 and it still operates under her watchful eye.
Beane’s hats are displayed in the Black Fashion Museum in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in the District acquired five of her hats for permanent display. She designed many hats for Dr. Dorothy Height, the iconic former president and chair of the National Council of Negro Women.
Marilee Asher, born in 1912, was recognized as the oldest of the 61 present, while Viola R. Harrison, 102, received a lot of attention because of her family of long-livers and her career success. Harrison’s grandmother died at the age of 109 in 1955 and her grandfather died in 1947 aged 114.
Harrison also had three cousins who have lived past 100, one of whom lived to be 108. In addition, she worked for the same New York bank location for 60 years and presently owns two apartment buildings, one home in Kingston, N.Y., and one in the District.
Harrison has a simple philosophy for living long and well.
“Treat people right, live right and you will live a long time,” said her daughter, Thelma Ferbish, quoting her mother. Ferbish manages her mother’s properties but Harrison remains the owner and keeps abreast of developments.
A documentary about her mother, Ferbish said, is in the works.
The centenarians consisted of published authors (Cora Satcher Parker), a former Senior Olympics swimmer (John Tatum) and a graduate of West Point Military Academy (Peter Russell).
Laura Newland, the director of the District Department of Aging and Community Living, personally congratulated each centenarian while the master of ceremonies, Carroll “Mr. C” Hynson Jr. of WHUR-FM (96.3), read shortened versions of their biographies.
Newland, who distributed medals and certificates to the participants, said she enjoyed the luncheon and understood its importance.
“This event helps us as a community to grow closer,” she said. “No matter how long one has lived or lived in the District, we have to recognize everything they have done for us.”