When people asked Ella May Stumpe how she managed to live so long, she often joked that the secret was her sweet tooth. But friends say it was her unusual ability to adapt to a world that had changed in so many ways since 1895, the year she was born.
Stumpe, a legend around Frederick, died Tuesday at 110 at the infirmary of the Record Street Home, a women's assisted living facility in downtown Frederick. Born July 12, 1895, she lived through the presidency of Grover Cleveland, two world wars, the influenza outbreak of 1918, the Depression, and the cultural revolutions ushered in by cars and computers.
She smoothly adjusted to the changing world throughout her life, remaining mentally agile to the end. When her father bought a Model T Ford in 1910, Stumpe, the 15-year-old daughter of a North Dakota pioneer family, learned how to drive it. In 1994, she became the oldest student to take a class at Frederick Community College.
The course was Microcomputing Fundamentals. She was better prepared than the college, which had trouble registering her because its computers couldn't process the year she was born.
"I was a College Student and I was in a strange World," Stumpe wrote in her autobiography, "100 Years, My Story," published when she was 98. "I entered the Classroom followed by the Photographer, who lined up for more pictures as I sat arranging my study material. I try to concentrate on what Miss Stroud is saying about Formatting Disks; knowing that the students have no clue as to what all this 'fan-fare' is about."
In her book, she reminisced about growing up on a homestead wheat farm, mixing socially with boys and her experiences with world events. She was not able to celebrate the end of World War I, she recalled, because she had caught the Spanish flu and was quarantined.
She survived, and even very late in life she was reluctant to take prescription drugs, choosing only vitamins that she had picked. In later years, she painted, played bridge, wrote and knitted. She came to Leisure World, a senior community in Silver Spring, in the late 1960s, having been a teacher, manager of an executive dining room, drugstore manager and county clerk. She was married three times and had five children, three of whom have died; 14 grandchildren; 26 great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.
She later moved to Frederick to live with the family of Sue Ann Wilms, who was one of her best friends and helped organize a three-day bash when Stumpe turned 100 in 1995. The next year, Stumpe moved to the Record Street Home.
"We didn't really think that our friendship would last very long," Wilms, 65, said in an interview. "She was about 80 when we met."
The two stayed close despite their 35-year age gap. Wilms and others said Stumpe was a strong-minded woman who, despite her ability to change with the times, did not entirely approve of the way things were changing.
"A lot of her strong will was backed by conviction," Wilms said. "If she felt that something was right or wrong, she stood by it. . . . Morals were very important to her, and she did not hesitate to take a stand on them."
A devout Christian, Stumpe strongly opposed smoking and drinking and didn't like the frantic pace of modern life. "From the Pinnacle of my advanced years, I see no end in sight for recovery from this mad race to improve, 'What was already pronounced good,' " she wrote in her book, paraphrasing from the Bible.
Yesterday, the Record Street Home, where she lived her last nine years, was decorated for Beachcomber Week, and everyone wore leis of artificial flowers.
"She was the light of my life," Peg Stahler, the home's director of nursing, said. "She shared such wisdom with everyone she had contact with."
Stahler recalled a woman who grabbed life with both hands -- and even her feet. She would walk from the front to the back of the senior facility -- a distance of 300 feet or so -- three times a day, hoping to stay fit, Stahler said.
When she became too frail for that and used a wheelchair, she kept up the exercise, pulling herself along with her feet.