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Retirement community throws birthday bash for seven residents older than 100

From left: Helen Kutschke James WilliamsGertrude Norby Grace Graffeo Harold Altman John Stanis. Ann McGowan stands center back row flanked

From left: Helen Kutschke, James Williamson, Gertrude Norby, Grace Graffeo, Harold Altman and John Stanis. Ann McGowan stands in the center of the back row, flanked by Marti Jatis (left) and Cook County Commissioner John P. Daley (right). | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 24, 2013 6:30AM



How do you live to be 100, or older?

Gertrude Norby, who turned 100 in May, jokingly attributes her longevity to a nightly martini at dinner but then, in a serious tone, gives credit to her German heritage. John Stanis, 103, works out for at least a half hour every day. And Helen Kutschke, 102, calls her good health a blessing from God.

The seven centenarians who were feted at Smith Village retirement community’s annual birthday party for those who have turned at least 100 during the year, beamed proudly over their collective 713 years Sunday afternoon, indulging in a slice of seven-layer chocolate cake and receiving personal greetings from Cook County Commissioner John Daley.

“It’s a great honor to share this event with them,” Daley said. “They’ve seen so much in their lifetime, they have so much knowledge, so much history. I hope all of us are able to follow in their footsteps.”

Kevin McGee, president and CEO of Smith Senior Living, which sponsors Smith Village in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood and Smith Crossing in Orland Park, said, “It’s only fitting that we honor these residents’ strength and grace.”

Though they share a common milestone, the honorees were also recognized for their individual interests and talents.

There’s Grace Graffeo, who was a real-life Rosie the Riveter during World War II and who once owned a tavern. She now goes by the nickname Miss Hollywood because she wears sunglasses all the time.

There’s jazz aficionado James Williamson, 102, who is always dressed to the nines.

And at 101, there is Cubs fans Harold Altman, who remains forever hopeful his team will make haste in their bid to win the World Series.

Norby, a lifelong South Sider, was a dancer through her teens and early 20s. She belonged to a troupe of five girls who came on stage at local movie houses and danced, Rockettes-style, during intermission.

“We were regulars at the Tivoli, the Stratford and the Normal theaters,” she said. She was also a member of the opera club at Lindblom High School.

She recalled how her mother would pack a freshly cooked pork roast in a sack and the family would carry it on the street car to their friends’ home on the North Side.

“We’d all sit around the piano and sing German beer songs,” she said.

Though she is transported via wheelchair, Norby says her only health challenge these days is macular degeneration, which limits her eyesight.

“Other than that, everything is good,” she said.

Ann McGowan is the honorary leader of the pack. At 105, she is not only still active, she’s spry. She’s a regular at Bingo sessions and continues to be a source of information about happenings around the community, said Emily Eisinas, life enrichment director.

Marti Jatis, executive director for Smith Village, said McGowan now holds the record for the oldest resident at the South Side facility.

“She’s still very prominent in this community,” Eisinas said. “She likes to be involved in everything. People here count on her opinions and ideas.”

Kutschke has held the title of Scrabble queen for some time now, a feat she attributes to her love of words and writing. She’s written a number of stories in her lifetime, purely for her own pleasure, she said.

“All fiction,” she said.

Together with soon-to-be centenarian Monica Joria, also a resident at Smith Village, Kutschke wrote a poem that was read to the crowd that gathered to help the honorees celebrate their special day. It was called, “Musing on 100 Years,” and ended with the prophecy that this “could happen to you, too.”



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