Born: Feb. 2, 1890. Resident of Columbia. Died: April 27, 1999.
When Meritt M. Burnett died of prostate cancer in April--three months after his 109th birthday--local TV stations and newspapers took note, recalling his long life, quick wit and eternal optimism. An Internet page for cigar smokers even ran an obituary, extolling Burnett's nearly lifelong two-cigar-a-day habit.
Born in the 19th century, he nearly made it to the 21st, this son of an ex-slave and grandson of Cherokee Indians. Raised in a dirt-poor midwestern farm family and educated to the sixth grade, he nevertheless became a sharp-eyed witness to the technological leaps of the 20th century.
Meritt Burnett was born in Bloomingdale, Ind., in 1890, six years before Henry Ford built his first automobile and 10 years before Wilbur and Orville Wright attempted their first airplane. Burnett's life encompassed the development of both, spanning the creation of everything from talking pictures to Pentium chips. He saw one man jubilantly walk on the moon, and heard another describe, firsthand, the horrors of slavery.
He watched the Jazz Age light up the country, the Depression drag it down, two world wars test its might, the Internet seize it by the collar. He outlasted Jim Crow and school segregation: In his lifetime, black Americans moved to the front of the bus, put on major league baseball uniforms and ran for president.
But there was more to his life than just watching others. Described as "strong-minded and charismatic" by his son, Meritt W., "he was a very concerned man, not just with the family but with everybody. He was able to get along with just about anybody, and he would always give advice to people."
With a less-than-promising start in life, he needed charisma to survive. His family most remembers his determined optimism--forged, no doubt, in his early years when nothing came easy.
"Don't say you can't do things or you can't afford to do things," he would tell his son, "because when you say you can't, it stops right there. But if you ask yourself a question, then you can move forward."
The youngest of seven, Burnett lost his mother when he was an infant. Farm life was unrelenting, and Burnett was put in the fields at age 6 to pick tomatoes for a nearby canning factory. He got 6 cents a bushel. "Isn't that terrible?" he would later ask.
He left home when he was 9 to live with a nearby Quaker family. He'd hoped to get more schooling, but the family had other ideas and sent him back to the fields. At 14 he moved on, finding work first as a bellhop in Oklahoma. By 1938, he had relocated to the District to help a cousin who had a restaurant in Southwest. Years later, he got a job at the Reconstruction Finance Bank, now the ExportImport Bank, where he worked for about 20 years and became head messenger, retiring in 1960.
Burnett spoke frequently of his poor but proud ancestry: of his grandparents, who hid runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad for 20 years; of the former slave he met as a boy who told shocking stories of being chained in a barn and used for breeding.
His lack of formal education--a major disappointment, relatives said--didn't stop Burnett from dispensing advice to the young Howard University students who rented rooms in his home: Invest your money, he told them, and do everything in moderation.
By all accounts, he reveled in the modest fame his advanced age brought. At his 100th birthday party, he danced gaily with a succession of women, then deadpanned to the crowd: "I won't tell you the story of my life. It's too long."
He loved attending lunches honoring centenarians, especially when he was the only one there--as he often was--not in need of a wheelchair.
Just last year he pronounced himself the "happiest man in the world. . . . [I] never had it rough and never been sick. I'm one in a million."
Always blessed with good health--his first visit to a doctor was in 1985, at age 95, and he got a clean bill of health--Burnett was shocked to learn three years ago that he had prostate cancer. He underwent surgery last December but never really recovered, his family said. A few months later, he was transferred to a nursing home, where he died April 27.
Twice married and twice widowed, Burnett leaves behind, in addition to his son, a host of nieces and nephews and one granddaughter, Imani. Just 2 years old, she will be his link to the 21st century.