PROVIDENCE, R.I. — With roughly 72,000 centenarians in the United States, it’s not all that unusual to find several clustered in the same city. But to have several living under the same roof in the same city?
That’s rare, said Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University.
A wealthy retirement community in Providence, Rhode Island, boasts six centenarians. The oldest, Elsa Zopfi, is 104. The youngest, David Richardson, celebrated his 100th birthday on Sunday.
Eva Sheer and Robert Kenyon are 102. Lottie Posner is 101, and Samuel Bender is 100. Zopfi, Kenyon and Bender sat down together recently at the Laurelmead retirement community to talk about their lives.
Having grown up in Glarus, Switzerland, Zopfi said she remembers the day in 1914 that her father was inducted into the Army in Switzerland.
“The alarm bells were ringing in the church, everybody was running, the trains were coming to take the people to the border, my mother was running around to find my father’s things to put in a backpack. He had a big backpack that he had to carry and then everybody ran to the train. The train was full of these men who had to go to the border. It was terrible.”
Kenyon, a lifelong Rhode Islander, remembers being in his father’s office in downtown Providence on Nov. 11, 1918, when the armistice was signed to end World War I. “I was 4 years old and it was quite an occasion,” he said, recalling the crowds and merrymaking.
Bender lived in a tenement house in Brooklyn, New York, as a child before moving north to a farm outside Albany. He played stickball in the streets of Brooklyn and traveled by horse-drawn trolley cars. “We used to follow the ice wagons and pick pieces of ice that were chopped off by the iceman.”
Ice was a “delicacy” on a hot day, he said.
Bender couldn’t afford to go to college immediately after high school, so he worked odd jobs to save up, then picked the cheapest school he could find — Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas.
“The only fee they charged was an out-of-state fee of $63, which I didn’t have. I went to the registrar and said, ‘I’d like to start class tomorrow, but I haven’t got the money.’ He says, ‘Don’t worry about it. When you get it, bring it.”’
After one year, Bender said, he transferred to the veterinary college at Cornell University because he got a $100 loan for the lab fee. He became a veterinarian and got married. His wife’s ring cost $1.
Zopfi, a champion skier in her youth, has many fond memories of life in Switzerland.
“I was born in 1911; we didn’t even have any cars before that. I lived in a place in Switzerland where the first races were held with cars over the mountain pass. The big guys came from Germany, from France, and everybody was staying overnight in our little town. It was the biggest excitement of my life in those days.”
She moved to the United States in 1935 to marry a man from her hometown who managed a textile mill in Webster, Massachusetts. She was a community volunteer.
Kenyon, who studied economics at Brown University, worked in an office in Providence that managed properties and financial assets. During WWII, he said, he wasn’t accepted into the military because of a mild heart defect.
“They assured me it would not shorten my life,” the 102-year-old said. “So far, it hasn’t.”
All three keep busy. Zopfi likes to talk and is known for being the first to arrive at the retirement community’s events. Bender swims and can often be found at the gym. Kenyon is an avid reader. They often socialize in the dining room.
Bender joked that he can easily find an audience for his stories.
“They never get stale, because I can repeat them six months later and they’re still new,” he said with a chuckle.
They all have a good sense of humor, and their relatives have lived long lives, too. While Zopfi said she hasn’t found the “secret,” she thinks leading an active life has helped. She has never known anyone as old as she is now.
“I’m surprised myself at how old I’m getting,” she said. “I’m just experiencing now from day to day. I don’t know yet how I judge it. I think if I can still read a little bit and I can talk to people and understand what they’re saying, this is a big plus.”
The ranks of Americans who make it past their 100th birthday is growing, according to a government report issued in January. The latest census figures put the number of centenarians at 72,000, up from about 50,000 in 2000.
Kenyon said he doesn’t think about his age all that much; he just tries to take one day at a time.
Bender said he thinks about the people he has had the privilege of meeting, the places he traveled and the adventures he had.
“Life,” he said, “has been an achievement.”