It's not often that one receives a standing ovation for being old. But that is what Walter Casey Jones got when he appeared before an audience of about 60 senior citizens at Wisconsin Avenue Nursing Home in Georgetown last Saturday.
Jones has broken all the rules of growing old. And after a life of wanderlust and adventure, he spends his time sharing the wisdom gathered during his 109 years by giving pep talks to the elderly.
For nearly a century the spry, blue-eyed Jones has wandered America living the life of a hobo. Since he ran away from his south Georgia home at the age of 15, Jones has lived on the road, hopping trains from town to town, working whatever jobs were available.
Since 1975, Jones has been visiting nursing homes and senior citizens' centers throughout the country. He figures he has learned a few things during his long life that he can share with the "kids" he meets. "I want senior citizens to realize that if you got grit enough you can do anything," Jones said. "My goal is to get them interested in going out and doing something."
Jones was invited to Wisconsin Avenue Nursing Home by activities director Amelia Vahovich. "I wanted the residents to come out of their rooms and become involved," said Vahovich. "Mr. Jones is something special because he is a part of real life from the outside. He is something more than just entertainment, he is a person they can relate to."
The Rev. Charles S. Pryor, a three-year resident of the Wisconsin Avenue home, found Jones' talk "exalting." "Put it this way," said Pryor, who was 94 on Tuesday, "he makes 15 years down the road seem a whole lot brighter."
Jones told his elderly audience that his wanderlust has propelled him through more than 500 jobs, from mule skinner, train engineer, carpenter and farmer to magician, dog catcher, constable and magazine salesman.
But in recent years Jones has settled down, abandoning freight-hopping for the cozy comfort of a battered Dodge motor home. He lives on his Social Security income, usually earns a modest speaker's fee for his talks and even hawks printed "souvenir" programs with his picture on the front for $1.
Jones walks slowly with the aid of a hook-handled wooden cane, and most of his white hair has fallen prey to the passing years. But few in the audience would have guessed that the man standing before them in the rumpled black suit and frazzled tie was born four years before Custer fell at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
A check with the Washington State Licensing Bureau in Tacoma confirmed that Jones, who was born April 5, 1872, holds a valid driver's license that expires in April. Officials at the national Social Security records office in Baltimore confirmed his birthdate.
First off, Jones told the crowd of senior citizens, he had no magic words to explain why he has lived so long. If they wanted the real explanation, he said, they would have to ask the "man upstairs." "He," Jones said, pointing heavenward, "has taken good care of me."
But Jones said he's had his share of pain: "Four years ago I had a broken hip and cataract implants in both eyes. Today I walk fine and my vision is 20/20. Pain is part of life, no one can avoid it; but you can get through any darn thing if you make up your mind."
Mental toughness, Jones claims, has helped him live as long as he has. He believes that worrying kills more people than anything else.
"Thoughts have a lot to do with your health and appearance," he told his eager audience. "I don't worry about nothing. Worrying is like putting the brakes on when you're going uphill. It holds you back." Jones cited his late wife as an example. "My wife worried all the time. If there was nothing to worry about, she'd invent it. And she died a young woman of pneumonia at 85 ."
Charlie Scaparro, a 76-year-old nursing home resident who has lived in the District his entire life, said Jones' pep talk was rejuvenating.
"He's one out of a million," Scaparro beamed. "I admire a tough man. I'm tough, too, but compared to him I'm a young man."
Scaparro's left leg was paralyzed by a stroke several years ago and now he spends most of his time in a wheelchair. But he isn't discouraged.
"Little by little I'm learning to walk again," he said, shifting forward in his chair. "You can bet I'll be walking soon."
Jones won another admirer on Saturday. "I think what he is doing is great," said 76-year-old Kenneth Bruce. "I get very emotional about these things, though. I had to leave the room before he finished speaking."
Bruce was a professional artist until he suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body in 1974. He has lived in the Wisconsin Avenue nursing home since 1975.
"I never even considered painting again until about two years ago," Bruce said. "I decided then that I wanted to do something again. I was tired of sitting around."
Bruce has taught himself to paint with his left hand and estimates that he has painted over a thousand watercolors since.
"I was awful with my left hand at first," sighed Bruce. "I've improved, but I doubt I will ever paint as well as I did with my right."
Bruce gazed reflectively across the empty room in which Jones had spoken.
"Well, you never know though," he said. "If I live to be 109 I'll have plenty of time to practice, won't I?"