Vickroy: At 98, she’s still raring to go
Dorothy Larson turned 98 last week.
While the petite resident of Chicago’s Beverly community looks and acts decades younger — it was just three years ago that a friend taught her how to ride a motorcycle — that is not what makes her so amazing.
Nor is it the fact that she’s survived two plane mishaps, three armed robberies and breast cancer.
It is not even the fact that she has been living with her boyfriend, Charles Bezemek, 90, for some 40 years.
“He says when I turn 100, he’ll marry me,” Dorothy said.
What makes Dorothy Larson so notable, and so lovable, is her zest for life. In the three years since she and Charles began going to the Old Country Buffet in Tinley Park for lunch on Fridays, she has made innumerable friends.
That’s how Pamela Johnson met her.
“She just goes from booth to booth, talking to people,” said Johnson, of Orland Park. “She’s unbelievably friendly.”
Ditto for Ruby DeBose and her mom, also Ruby DeBose, of Harvey.
About 20 of those friends attended a surprise birthday party for Dorothy last week.
“We just love to hear her stories,” said Mary Duncan, of Tinley Park.
At the heart of those tales is a story that Dorothy holds dear to her heart.
She was just 12 years old when her father took her to watch the dedication of Buckingham Fountain in 1927. Renowned “March King” John Philip Sousa conducted the band at that historic event, and after the music stopped, a spirited Dorothy pushed her way through the crowds so she could shake his hand.
Sousa asked her how she liked the musical performance and she replied, “It was wonderful but very loud.”
Since that grand day, Dorothy has been back to the fountain every year. It has been her happy, comforting, nostalgic place — where she goes to celebrate good times and where she goes to sort through troubled times.
In a near-century of living, she has had plenty of both, although she tries to stay on the sunny side of life.
Dorothy grew up in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing community, at 75th Street and Drexel Avenue. She attended Cornell Elementary School and Hirsch High School.
She earned a living mostly in sales, working her way up from a clerk’s position at Kresge Dime Store to manager of the Oglesby luxury apartment buildings in Chicago’s South Shore community, a job she held for 22 years until she retired.
She attributes her youthful attitude — she still visits Santa every year — to a lifetime of hard work and staying busy.
Dorothy first met Charles in 1959 when she was working at a cleaners and he was a customer.
“I was young and beautiful then,” she said. And Charles immediately agrees.
“She was,” he said, quickly adding, “She still is.”
Charles recruited Dorothy to come work at his hair salon, Hair Fashions by Mr. Charles near 95th Street and Western Avenue. Back then, Drury Lane Theater was just down the street and many of stars who performed there came to Mr. Charles’ shop to have their hair done.
After her divorce, Dorothy and Charles became an item.
And have stayed that way all these years.
“He’s wonderful,” she said.
“She’s amazing,” he countered.
As if he needed to prove his point, Charles asked Dorothy to recite the words to “Let’s Just Say So Long,” a song she wrote many decades ago. Without batting an eye, she began, “Darling, let’s just say so long, not goodbye. We’ll never really be apart and here’s the reason why. A vision of your face is stamped upon my heart. And there it shall remain even though for now we part ... ”
“How many 98-year-olds do you know who could remember that?” he asked.
When neighbor Art Jansky, a Chicago firefighter, showed up at the party, Dorothy quickly questioned his clothing and then said, “We’re surrounded by firefighters where we live. They’re all young, except for this guy, he’s old.”
“Way to build me and tear me down, Dorothy,” Jansky quipped. And the group laughed along.
Dorothy’s life has not always been a bed of roses. Her son, Jeffrey, committed suicide when he was just 17 after he learned his girlfriend was cheating on him, she said.
Now she counsels others who’ve suffered similar tragedies.
She also has been a victim of crime three times in Chicago.
“Three times, they held a gun to my ear,” she said.
She also survived two emergency plane landings, coming back from Mexico and en route to Hawaii. She even had to exit via the emergency chute one time.
And then there was that kidnapping attempt, in which a man lured her into his car and drove her all the way to Indiana. She escaped by grabbing the keys and throwing them one way while running the other. Later, she let the perpetrator off after his mother begged for mercy on his behalf.
“I guess I’m a softy,” she said.
Margaret Derenberger calls both Dorothy and Charles “very dear friends. They’re kind to everyone.”
“They’re so full of life,” said Marty Malone, Charles’ personal trainer.
Dorothy and Charles used to have lunch at an Old Country Buffet closer to their home. After it closed, Charles offered to make the drive to Tinley Park because Dorothy likes the restaurant’s salads and the vegetables so much.
“We can’t stay too long because I don’t drive at night anymore,” Charles said.
It is kind of a long way to go for lunch, Charles admitted.
“But we enjoy it here,” he said. “We’ve met the nicest people.”