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100 years and counting: Governor honors Utah's 'most exclusive club'

WEST JORDAN — Ruth Johnson and Angeline Astorga eat lunch together nearly every day at the care center where they live.

Thursday was no different for the 100-year-old friends since first grade, except that they were the guests of honor at the 31st Centenarian Celebration, an event recognizing Utah's 152 residents who are still plugging along after 100 years.

"You are members of the most exclusive club in Utah," Gov. Gary Herbert told them. "You are a good example for the rising generations that come after you."

Several centenarians and the people who care for them mentioned sheer determination as their standout characteristic, with hard work and a positive attitude following thereafter.

Having a "little bit of money saved up doesn't hurt" either, said Phyllis Chatwin, who is 102 and has spent most of her life on her own.

A single mom from young adulthood, Chatwin still drives herself around town, cooks for herself and takes care of her own home. She credits a healthy diet for her longevity.

But losing close friends and people her age along the way, she said, "is, in a way, quite lonesome."

Chatwin tries to beat the boredom by hosting dinner parties with family. And she recently cooked up a batch of her family-famous mustard pickles, a labor-intensive effort she swore she would do for the last time a year ago.

Caring for her four daughters, including one with Down syndrome who died two years ago, has kept Johnson young and busy. She likes to keep track of the days, noting special events she needs to "stick around for," said her daughter, Marilyn Johnson.

"She likes to be prepared," she said of her centenarian mother.

Ruth Johnson's funeral plans keep changing because she's outlived some of the intended players.

The 100-somethings have witnessed a lot of changes in their lifetime, many of them born at the start of the First World War, before space travel, cars and airplanes or the internet, and many of them aim to still make a difference.

"This is our heritage," said Damon Parcell, whose 106-year-old grandmother, Bertha Adams, lives with his family in Pleasant Grove. "We are what we are today because of her and the people who went before."

Adams is careful to keep a tidy living space, always offering to straighten things throughout the home. And as an avid reader, she will sometimes pick up the kids' homework to see what they're working on and have something to talk with them about.

She lived on her own until January.

"She's taught us a lot about patience and love and honoring those who have gone before," said Sarah Parcell, Adams' granddaughter-in-law.

Adams writes poetry and often recalls her late husband, noting that she is still his beloved wife. And because she struggles to hear well, she enjoys staring at the family's 75-gallon fish tank.

Adams was the oldest in attendance at Thursday's luncheon. The oldest woman in Utah is Dorothy Marlow, who is 110 and lives in Logan but couldn't make it to the party.

Utah's oldest man is 106-year-old Ted Wells. He's one of 40 male and 112 female centenarians in the state, boasting thousands of years of collective experience.

Herbert said that in 1917, when the newest members of the Century Club were born, the average life expectancy was a mere 52 years.

"You've beaten the averages," he said, adding that they've endured much change through the years.

The population of the Beehive State was just over 400,000 then; now it's more than 3.1 million. Home prices — along with the cost of nearly everything else — have increased exponentially.

But their optimism, Herbert said, remains "impressive."

"I grew up during the Great Depression," Chatwin noted. She jokes that she should have taken a second job after retiring from her business career 30 years ago.

"I could be collecting a second retirement check," she said.

And while the centenarians all have each other, a lot of what is passed on is stories from their time.

Like many family members in the younger generations, Marilyn Johnson has compiled a history that needs updating as long as their mother lives. The family hopes that it ends up being a long time — well, even longer than 100 years, which is a long time.

"She loves life. You can honestly say that," she said.

And that was apparent by the sweet smile that the peach-colored, polka-dot clad Ruth Johnson flashed anyone who came her way.