Every afternoon for years, at precisely 5 p.m., Rita and Henry Gibson would step out on the porch of their brick home on Utah Avenue NW to have drinks and "nibbles."
Within minutes, neighborhood children would arrive to share snacks and learn the lost art of conversation. Mrs. Gibson, an elegant, lively lady with sparkling blue eyes, high cheekbones and upswept hair, would engage in civilizing discussions until precisely 6 p.m., when she and her husband would retire indoors for dinner and the children would scatter to their homes.
Margaret "Rita" Biggins Gibson, 103, died Nov. 3 at Suburban Hospital, where she was recovering from a broken arm. She had heart disease.
Mrs. Gibson, a native Washingtonian and the neighborhood's surrogate grandmother, connected newcomers with the notion of the District as a home town, apart from its role as a capital of politics and government. Born at 34th and O streets in Georgetown, she lost her mother when she was 2 and was raised, along with her five older brothers and sisters, by her paternal grandmother, and later by her oldest sister.
The children spent many summers on her uncle's farm in what is now Rockville, where she learned to ride the family pony -- even up the stairs of the farmhouse porch.
In 1916, the summer she was 14, she was riding on the country road that was to become Rockville Pike when a grand automobile suddenly appeared. According to the story she often told neighbors, the pony spooked and would not move, forcing the auto to halt. When she finally convinced the steed to move, the auto revved up and passed by. As it did, a handsome older man lifted his top hat in greeting, and it was only then that she realized she had delayed the president, Woodrow Wilson, who was out courting his second wife.
She graduated from the old Western High School and attended George Washington University until she got a job at National Geographic in 1922. She married her oldest brother's best friend in 1927, and they went to Canada on their honeymoon. Upon their return to Prohibition-era Washington, they carried contraband alcohol back for friends and family.
By 1934, she and her husband discovered a new house on Utah Avenue, way out in the farmlands of Northwest Washington. It cost a formidable $12,500 because a caretaker was required to oversee the lonely structure. The Gibsons persuaded the builder to construct an identical house two lots away, for $10,000. They lived the rest of their lives there, attending the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, volunteering at Lafayette School and for the American Red Cross.
Elder Witt, who now lives in the $12,500 house, listened to and wrote down many of Mrs. Gibson's reminiscences.
"What always struck me about Rita, and this is completely at odds with what people think of someone 103 years old, is that she was completely contemporary," Witt said. "She had more marbles when she died than most of us have now."
Mrs. Gibson read voluminously, rereading some classics and borrowing large-print books when necessary. She refused to get cable television because, one neighbor suspected, she thought she might run into nudity; she had stopped going to the theater after a performance of "Equus" violated her sense of propriety. Yet she could tell bawdy jokes when she felt comfortable with the company.
A warm and generous neighbor, Mrs. Gibson was tolerant of the normal nuisances of daily life.
A next-door neighbor boy had a rock band, with a strictly enforced practice time that ended at 10 p.m., which was the Gibsons' bedtime. Linda Greider, the boy's mother, thought Mrs. Gibson didn't pay much attention to the noise, until one day she asked, "There's a new drummer, isn't there?" Astonished, Greider said yes, and asked how she knew. "She said, 'Well, I don't think he's any good.' She was about 80 when she noticed, and she was right -- he wasn't any good," Greider said.
Until most of her contemporaries died, Mrs. Gibson had a Wednesday afternoon bridge game that ended with elderly ladies slowly and carefully exiting, carrying leftover biscuits and aromatic treats in paper bags.
"One of our young Airedales got out, made a sweep through the yard and grabbed the bag right out of a woman's hand," Greider said. "Rita said, 'Mickey, come back,' and he did, which he never did. She had that kind of command presence."
In recent years, after a series of broken bones, Mrs. Gibson was unable to leave her home, where an old-fashioned yellow rose bloomed once a year outside her kitchen window and the yard featured long-lived irises and hydrangeas.
Her husband of 55 years, Henry J. Gibson, died in 1982.
Survivors include two sons, Henry J. Gibson Jr. of Nashville and Thomas J. Gibson of Golden, Colo.; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.