He walks slowly with the aid of a wooden, hook-handled cane, and most of his white hair has surrendered to the passing years. But few people would guess that the spry man in the rumpled black suit and cowboy hat was born four years years before Custer's Last Stand.
Walter Casey Jones is a wiry man of medium height, who bears a definite resemblance to Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. He sports a mustache and sparse goatee and has blue eyes that sparkle behind rimless glasses when he talks. And he does talk -- a lot.
Jones is a man with a mission. Like a preacher spreading the word of God, he travels around the country giving pep talks to the elderly.
Last Saturday, residents of Iliff Nursing Home in Dunn Loring looked at Jones with awe and bewilderment as he spoke. He later described them as being "mostly young men and women." Jones was not being facetious -- you just tend to think that way when you're 109 years old.
Jones figures he has learned a few things during his long life that he can share with the "kids" he meets. So for the last six years he has been driving his battered Dodge motor home across America, stopping to speak at senior citizen centers, nursing homes, schools and just about anywhere else people will listen.
He drives a few miles each day, sleeping in his motor home in shopping center parking lots at night -- always with permission. ("They know the longer you stay, the more groceries you'll buy.")
The journey began in 1976, after the death of his wife of 52 years. "I was 104 years old and still going strong," Jones says. "I wanted people to know that if you got grit enough you can do anything. My goal was, and still is, to get people interested in going out and doing something."
He does that by talking about himself. He also sells brochures for $1 -- he calls them souvenirs -- that tell his story, and he is paid for his talks. He received $65 for speaking in Dunn Loring. That money, plus Social Security, keeps gasoline in his motor home and food in his stomach.
Jones has driven his motor home -- at times somewhat precariously, he admits -- through every state but Hawaii and Alaska. Except for "a few minor scrapes in parking lots here and there," he said he gets around without much difficulty. A check with the Washington State Licensing Bureau in Tacoma confirmed that Jones holds a valid driver's license. Jones was born April 5, 1872, according to the licensing bureau and officials at the national Social Security records office in Baltimore.
"He is as safe a driver as the majority of the people you see on the road," said Phillip Tennyson, a writer who is working on a biography of Jones.
"He is a total inspiration in eliminating our stereotypes of older people," Tennyson said. "To the elderly, especially the independents, he is a saint."
Tennyson and his research assistant, Marsha St. John, have been following Jones on his cross-country treks since they met him last January in Gainesville, Fla. Tennyson estimates that he has taped more than 100 hours of conversations with Jones.
Jones has more tales than he could ever tell.
Since he was 15, when he ran away from home, until the day he was married 37 years later, Jones has lived his life on the road, hopping trains from one town to the next, picking up whatever jobs were available.
He calls himself a hobo, and is quick to point out the difference between a hobo and a tramp. "A hobo," Jones told his Dunn Loring audience, "is a working person. A tramp doesn't work. I have always worked, even during the Depression when I sold magazine subscriptions from a trailer. If my customers didn't have the money, I'd trade them for eggs, fruit or chicken. I managed to keep out of the bread line."
Keeping one step ahead of the bread line has propelled Jones through a multitude of jobs -- more than 500 in his lifetime, he says. He has been a mule skinner, train engineer, carpenter, farmer, magician, dog catcher, constable and magazine salesman, to name a few.
Jones says the key to his long life is that he has never stopped moving. He claims only two things have ever slowed him down, and then only temporarily: A heart attack he suffered more than 20 years ago and his wife's death. Jones says he looks and feels better now than when he was 60.
But if his audiences are looking for the secret to a long life, they won't get it from Jones. He tells the curious crowds that line up for questions and autographs after his talks that there is nothing magic about staying healthy, although "thinking clean" has always worked for him.
"Thoughts have a lot to do with your health and appearance," he told one woman in Dunn Loring. "I don't worry about nothing. Worry don't do you no good." Jones cited his wife, who was 25 years his junior, as an example. "My wife worried all the time. If there was nothing to worry about, she'd invent it. It would make her sick inside."
But Jones does have a few tips: Abstain from drinking, smoking, overeating -- and war, if you can help it. All of which, by the way, Jones has managed to do.
Jones also is a vegetarian; he says meat is too hard for him to digest.
As for the senoir citizens he meets throughout the country, Jones has an observation: They worry about death too much.
"The important thing is not that these people add years to their life," he says, "but that they make the most of the years they have."
And death certainly doesn't worry Jones: "I made my peace with the Lord a long time ago. When he calls me, I'll be ready."