Correction to This Article
An Oct. 2 Metro article about centenarians, as well as an accompanying photo caption, incorrectly identified the Rev. James Martin as the Rev. Joseph Martin.
Joie de Vivre
District Set to Celebrate 42 Centenarians

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2006

When they were born, Roosevelt was president -- Theodore Roosevelt.

Oklahoma was not yet a state, and a pound of sugar cost less than a nickel. The average life expectancy in the United States was 47 years.

But these folks have lived far beyond that, spanning most of one century and moving carefully into the next. They are the District's oldest residents, 100 years and still going, the vanguard of an increasingly older population, with memories dating to the early 1900s and present-day lives that range from quiet to very busy.

On Thursday, they will be honored at the District government's 20th annual party for the city's centenarians. Last year, there were 25 special guests; this year, 42 are expected, including returning honoree Marjorie Johnson, 101, who fusses that "I don't like publicity."

"Goodness gracious, y'all act like I'm the oldest thing that ever lived," said Johnson, who will not leave her Northwest apartment unless she is immaculately turned out in hat, gloves, wig and heels.

In the 2000 Census, 160 District residents had passed the century mark. Maryland had 779, and Virginia had 1,060.

Centenarians are one of the fastest-growing groups in the U.S. population. The Census Bureau estimates that between 69,000 and 81,000 residents are 100 or older, and the number could double every 10 years.

Gerontologists say several factors are at work in determining longevity: genetics, lifestyle and a population that in general is living longer.

Helena Day Kirkland, 102, taught for 50 years in the D.C. public schools and still enjoys an active social life that includes dinners at the Willard Hotel, the Hay-Adams and Pier 7. Her eldest sister lived to be 107, she said.

"Sometimes I can go from room to room and not remember what I'm there for, and yet I can remember things way back when I was 5 years old," said Kirkland, who lives alone in a Northwest apartment and has a precise and elegant way of speaking. "Of course, I have friends who are much younger than I am, and they say they do the same thing."

Kirkland does not appear to be too forgetful, however, as she converses brightly about her church work and extensive travels, the Christmas luncheon she hosts each year for 30 of her closest friends and her opinions on what she calls "the expanding civil war in Iraq."

Others say the explanation for their longevity is much a matter of fate.

Marjorie Johnson credits "the man upstairs."

"He's brought me a mighty long ways, as you can see, through seen and unseen days," she said.

Every Sunday, Johnson, a small woman whose cheeks are still round and smooth, settles into her pew in the seventh row at Union Wesley AME Zion Church in Northeast long before the service begins. A church van picks her up at the senior citizens complex where she lives.

"I think it's disgusting people coming into church late like they do," she said. "I guess they do that everywhere. But they get to work on time, don't they?"

Johnson delivers her starchy opinions with a twinkle in her eye. Sitting in her compact one-bedroom apartment on a recent afternoon, she complained about "all the junk" she has and said she does her cooking "in that little two-by-four over there," indicating a tiny kitchen. Family photographs cover tables and walls.

Johnson blames "my bigmouth niece" -- Mary Helen Dove of Silver Spring, who drives her to the grocery and on other errands -- for all the attention. Johnson has "no idea," she said, what she did to account for her long life. Asked if she uses a walker or a cane, she replied that she was "insulted" by the question.

Johnson, born Sept. 18, 1905, was the eldest of 13 children, nine of them surviving, who grew up near Potomac. She worked for years as a domestic at the Willard Hotel and married Samuel Johnson, who drove a cement mixer. They had no children.

Johnson wishes she could remember more -- about her life, about the way Washington used to be. But dates and times and episodes are just too hard to untangle.

"I'm getting so forgetful I could just cry sometimes," she said. "I was the oldest, and all my people always said, 'Call Aunt Marjorie. She don't forget nothing.' They thought I knew everything. But now, I don't even know my head from my heels."

Life Is 'Great'

The Rev. Joseph Martin sits in his favorite recliner in his room on the Georgetown University campus, wearing his priest's collar and a Hoyas baseball cap. The Washington Post's Sports section lies across his lap. At 104, with his eyesight still fairly good, Martin spends most of the day reading about sports and the front page of the New York Times.

A tall, thin man with a sweet smile and a feathery voice, Martin admits he does not always retain everything he reads. But for a while on his good days, he regales nursing assistant Felicita Nkem with reports on how the Phillies or the Redskins are doing.

"I love to see him, and he loves to see me," said Nkem, who has known Martin for four years. "His face just lights up when I come into the room."

Martin, who entered the priesthood in 1921 at 19, is the world's oldest Jesuit, according to the Rev. John Langan, rector of the Georgetown Jesuit community. He said Martin also probably qualifies as the oldest living military chaplain. From 1941 to 1945, he served in the Army Air Corps in northern Africa and Italy, participating in the 1944 Allied landing at Anzio.

It was one aspect of a full career that often combined his two loves, religion and athletics. A coach and player in several sports, Martin believes his active lifestyle contributed to his longevity. "I was always playing," he said, with some difficulty, "always playing every sport."

Born Aug. 30, 1902, in northeastern Pennsylvania, Martin's early life centered on the church. His father directed the church choir, he said, and he and his older brother were altar boys.

As a priest, he was "something of a utility infielder," Langan said, with a variety of responsibilities. Martin taught school in the Philippines in the late 1920s, served as Georgetown's assistant athletic director in the 1930s and guided a parish in Northern Virginia. In 1958, he oversaw the fundraising and construction of a Jesuit retreat in Faulkner, in Charles County. He retired to Georgetown in 1974, and now lives in the assisted-living section of Wolfington Hall.

These days, he enjoys the simple delights of his day -- his decaf and oatmeal at breakfast, his newspapers, evening Mass. A physical therapist visits him several times a week, and he obligingly takes a few steps into the hallway. He has no immediate family but gets a few visitors from the old days.

He has no complaints, he said. His life is "great."

Helping 'Along Life's Way'

Helena Kirkland regrets to admit that she has been "remiss" lately in writing her thank-you notes. She usually dispatches them promptly, written in fine penmanship on stationery decorated with her personal symbol -- a long-stemmed red rose. Her friends always give her red roses on special occasions, she said, and the lipstick she wears is a bright rosy red.

A recent bout with congestive heart failure put her in the hospital for a few days, she said. And although she is "feeling much better, thank you," catching up on everything has her temporarily "overwhelmed."

Kirkland, who sets aside her walker with a flourish to take the last few lively steps to her chair, is a tiny, regal woman who likes to do things properly. As a longtime kindergarten teacher at William Syphax School in Southwest Washington, she emphasized manners as well as grammar.

"They say I was an outstanding teacher," said Kirkland, who received a bachelor's degree from Howard University and a master's from New York University.

"I was an old, practical, down-to-earth language arts teacher. I insisted on children talking beautifully. I would tell them to stand up and say what you have to say, don't be afraid to say it and say it distinctly. If the word is 'winter,' talking about the season, don't say 'winner.' And if somebody is giving you something, you are always grateful to the extent that you say, 'Thank you.' "

Kirkland was born March 9, 1904, in Southwest Washington, the youngest of six children. Her father was "a gentleman's gentleman," she said, for David Lynn, the architect of the Capitol. Her mother was a housekeeper for a family at the Navy Yard. One family member observed the young girl teaching her dolls and encouraged her to become an educator.

In 1923, she married Ernest Kirkland, her childhood sweetheart, who worked on high-wire construction projects. "We had sparks of happiness versus episodes of dissent," she said, about their 1946 divorce. Although the couple had no children, Kirkland believes she influenced hundreds in her classroom "in the expanse of years." She also is proud of the adult students she taught to read and write.

Kirkland, frankly, enjoys the attention her age has brought her. Last year, she was at a Patti LaBelle concert when the singer learned a centenarian was in the audience and invited Kirkland onstage.

"She hugged me and asked what my favorite song was," Kirkland said.

"And I told her, 'If I can help somebody along life's way, if I can do something in any way, then my living will not be in vain.' That's my favorite hymn."

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