Living to 100: What I learned from 2 Philly women who did | Jenice Armstrong

Shown with a framed photo of herself at 33, Barnetta Williams lived to be 109.

I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, exercise regularly, and get at least eight hours of sleep a night.

I don’t smoke. Never have. I drink socially, but stick mainly to red wine because it’s high in antioxidants and supposedly has other health benefits. Experts say meaningful social connections are important for longevity, and I have a lot of those and make a point of nurturing my relationships. Besides all the time I spend sitting — I’m working on getting a stand-up desk because I hear that’s helpful — in the newsroom, I live a quiet, mostly stress-free life.

So does that mean I’ll be one of the lucky ones to live to 100?

Nah. There’s no magic formula. Genetics play a role. My parents lived longer than most, but neither made it anywhere close to 90. Does that mean I don’t have a chance to get to 100? Experts say it’s sometimes the proverbial luck of the draw.

In the last couple of years, I have had the pleasure of interviewing two local women who reached that magical benchmark. One lived to the grand age of 109, and at the time had the distinction of being known as Philadelphia’s oldest resident.

The other woman,  at just 100, was a relative youngster.  She even had an older sister who showed up at her 100th birthday party.  Of those who make it to 100, only a tiny fraction of centenarians have siblings still alive, much less one who is their senior.

Camera icon Michael Ares
Bessie Williams on the eve of her 100th birthday last year with niece Wilma Bird and a snapshot of Bessie’s older sister, Othie Rowser.

Both of these grande dames died peacefully last week.

Because only one in 5,000 Americans even makes it to 100, I was curious: How were these two women able to make it when most others don’t? What was their secret?

I’m no scientist, but it would seem that if your name is Williams, you’ve got a shot.

Before moving in with her great-granddaughter in Mayfair last year, Barnetta Williams had been living on her own in an apartment in Atmore, Ala., a small town on the Florida border, where she’d resided since she was 9. She had spent most of her life on land owned by her family, living a simple life, eating the produce and livestock they’d raised.

“Everything they ate, they nurtured and they tended to,” recalled Darlene Callands, Barnetta Williams’ great-granddaughter. “I really believe that was the reason” for her long life.

A teetotaler, she didn’t even drink coffee until her later years. She never smoked and advocated sipping a little apple cider vinegar mixed with honey and water. I’m not sure why.

Barnetta spent her later years alone, which I point out because various studies show that women who don’t have mates tend to live longer than those who do. Barnetta’s mother had lived to be 101. Before she died last Friday, Barnetta told her great-granddaughter to follow in the family tradition and hang on as long as she could. “She said, ‘I want you to follow.’ She blessed me with that,” Callands told me.

Barnetta died just 14 days shy of her 110th birthday, which would have made her a supercentenarian. Only about one in 5 million Americans reaches that milestone. She’ll be buried Sunday in Alabama.

I met Bessie Williams — no relation to Barnetta — a year ago as she prepared to celebrate her 100th birthday party at Wesley Enhanced Living at Stapeley in Germantown.

Born in 1916, Bessie spent her early childhood in Madison, Ky. At 13, she moved to Philadelphia. She went to school at night before graduating from Temple University with a business degree. Bessie worked as a contract officer at the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot, now known as the Defense Logistics Agency. A widow, she was a hearty eater who indulged in the occasional cocktail.

Oh, and her big sister? Othie Rowser is still very much alive. She’s 103 and in a wheelchair but was at the funeral. Their mother lived to 99.

My takeaway? Live simply. Eat what you want. Have faith and believe in something larger than yourself. Bessie really looked forward to hitting the 100 mark.

But most important, just keep living. And hope things break your way.

And it won’t hurt if your name is Williams.