The Witherspoons were strict Methodists. "My father said a prayer every night and every morning," his daughter Bena says. "I remember him praying 'We are thine and all we have is thine. Even the cattle on the thousand hills are thine.'

"I didn't know what that meant, but I do now."

Bena Witherspoon Cooper has murmured that prayer for most of her 102 years. It links her with parents who farmed the land outside Florence, S.C., after the Civil War, and with her husband Elliot, who was killed in a railroad accident near Richmond in 1937, and with her three adopted children, whom she has also outlived but expects to see at the final gathering.

Cooper, who lives in Northeast Washington, has reached the age when one is regarded as an oracle as well as a child. People ask for wisdom and reward you with soft food. Yesterday, in the Diplomat Room at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, Cooper and 14 other centenarians received the royal version of that treatment. Beneath the glare of television lights they shared memories in sound-bite-sized parcels, then lunched on salmon mousse, whipped sweet potatoes and spinach souffle'.

They were saluted by E. Franklin Williams, director of the National Institute on Aging, who said they had demonstrated "how safely and enjoyably we can all live into very, very late years."

When the meal was over, Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), patron politician of the elderly, rose to point out there were 13 women and just two men in the gathering. "It is not unexpected or unusual the Lord would think more of the women than of the men," he said.

There are 25,000 centenarians in America, Pepper said, and experts estimate there will be 100,000 by the turn of the century. His primary concern is ensuring that these people be adequately cared for.

"The United States and South Africa are the only industrial nations in the world that do not have long-term health care programs," he said. "I think we can improve our company by improving our program."

In closing, Pepper, 87, said, "a young fellow like me" was happy to bid a merry Christmas to "those whom the Lord appreciates the most."

Perhaps what the Lord appreciates is the way they've kept Him entertained. Lucille Johnson, the oldest member of the group at 107, walked a tightrope for the Barnum and Bailey circus. Vito Costanzo, 100, made clarinet reeds for Benny Goodman and led Vito's Blue Owls Band.

They did not lead famous lives, but the famous made cameo appearances. Mary Bryan, 102, saw William Jennings Bryan walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. Eleanor Ayers, 100, heard her neighbor Harry Truman play the piano as a young man in St. Louis. Elsie Faye Patton, 100, met Gen. John Pershing while she worked in the Patent Office. Dr. James Madison Moser, 100, saw Walter Johnson pitch when there were real Senators in Washington.

Mostly, they bore witness, some in a fashion more harrowing than others. Annie Grant, 102, was married for 79 years to John Grant, the first black man to retire with full benefits from the Smithsonian Institution. He died three years ago at the age of 108. She is retired from the Navy Yard and is the "mother" of the New Bethany Baptist Church at 10th and N streets NW.

Moser, who retired from his pediatrics practice at age 85, saw the Wright brothers demonstrate their airplane over Alexandria in 1906. "I was in high school and I rode my bike over," he says. "They had to try it four or five times to get it up. At that point they didn't have a contract with the Army, but then after that demonstration, they did."

He ranks the advent of air travel as one of the three greatest events of his life.

"The automobile, that was a breathtaking thing, the horseless carriage," he says. "And of course the coming of the airplane and Halley's Comet {which he's seen twice}. The first time I saw that, it was just a gorgeous sight. The whole sky was illuminated. This time it wasn't that big a thing."

The University of Maryland Chorus serenaded the centenarians with Christmas carols, then closed the program with "Auld Lang Syne." Moser joined in with a wavering baritone.

"That's the saddest part of my life right now," he said. "I have one friend, one colleague. That's all that's left of all my fraternity brothers and college mates. I just realize, every day when I wake up, that I can't believe my luck."