As we await the return of Katherine Dean — who has no idea her co-workers at the National Council on Aging are gathering in the group’s break room — I ponder the wisdom of this endeavor: throwing a surprise party for a 90-year-old woman.
Isn’t there the risk that yelling, “Surprise!” at a newly minted nonagenarian might mean there won’t be a 91st birthday party?
“If you knew anything about this particular 90-year-old lady, you’d know she’s a very hardy and feisty 90-year-old,” says Brandy Bauer, communications manager for the council.
For the past decade, Miss Katherine, as everyone calls her, has been NCOA’s receptionist, the smiling and efficient face visitors see when they alight from the elevators on the fourth floor of the L Street NW building, the voice on the phone when people call in. The ruse to get her out of the office on this Tuesday afternoon is to send her on a seven-block walk to the White House, along with some of the council’s other employees, part of a regular “wellness walk.”
“She’s our point of inspiration, our exemplar,” NCOA’s chief executive, James Firman, explains as we wait. “We all learn from her.”
It is not uncommon, staffers say, to enter a room and see Miss Katherine standing atop a chair to replace a burned-out light bulb.
When the last big snowstorm paralyzed the District, employees phoned to say they would be working from home. It was Miss Katherine who took their calls. She was already at her desk, having arrived not much later than her normal start time of 6:15 a.m.
Before she left, she’d told her 65-year-old son, Michael Tucker Sr., not to leave the house they share in the Eckington neighborhood of Northeast Washington. The weather was too nasty for him, she said.
Michael Sr. is waiting for the party to start, too. He’s a onetime D.C. bail bondsman who also owned a District clothing store and barbershop. He retired seven years ago.
His mother retired once, too, but it didn’t stick. She worked for 50 years as a receptionist, dental assistant and bookkeeper for the Cohens, two brothers who ran a dental practice in Chevy Chase. Then she worked a few years for the dentist who bought the business from them.
“She retired for two or three weeks, then said, ‘I can’t stay home,’ ” her son explains. She enquired about volunteering a few days a week at NCOA. “The next thing you know, they hired her.”
And now, here she is — a slight woman in a white top, flower-print skirt and running shoes — rounding the corner and beholding the assembled crowd. Surprise!
Her birthday was actually Monday, so it is a surprise. A beaming Miss Katherine sits in a chair, and the speeches start.
“On a daily basis, she inspires us as a role model,” Firman says. “People can and do live well into their 90s, full of life and full of joy.”
From the look on her face, Miss Katherine is full of something else, too. She’s obviously flattered — there’s a congratulatory letter from Michelle Obama and a table full of pies to feast on — but she has the mien of someone who doesn’t like being fussed over. She makes a few playful jabs at Larry Gaither, the NCOA mailroom employee who helped secretly gather old photos from her family.
Because this is Washington, there’s a PowerPoint presentation. It details how much has changed since 1923, when the average cost of a car was $393, while also making clear what hasn’t: Miss Katherine.
“She’s always been a young spirit,” says her grandson, freelance writer Michael Tucker Jr.
I ask Miss Katherine what the secret to a long and healthy life is.
“I don’t have a secret,” she says with a shrug. She’s originally from Bermuda and is the last living of six sisters and brothers. Her father died in his 70s after being hit by a taxicab while riding his bike to his job as a stonemason. Her mother lived to 87. Miss Katherine suspects that her mother might have lived longer if she’d had something to do other than sit on her porch.
To Miss Katherine, nothing is worse than inactivity. Her son says she berates him whenever she catches him doing chores around the house, accusing him of taking away her exercise. Each weekend, she leads the family on a walk down the Metropolitan Branch Trail to Union Station.
“Ain’t no slow walk, either,” Michael Sr. says with a laugh.
Twice widowed, she is the mother of three sons (one is deceased) and has 10 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild.
I ask Miss Katherine if she has any plans to retire.
“No,” she says.
“There you have it,” her son says.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.