Q&A: Supercentenarian Vera Van Wagner On Living to a Really Ripe Old Age, Marrying the Love of Her Life, and Waiting For a Big Birthday Bash

Where does one of New York State’s oldest residents live? Right in the heart of Rhinebeck

Sixty may be the new Forty, and Ninety the new Seventy. So what does that make someone 110-plus? A member of a very small clique of “supercentenarians,” as the age group has been dubbed, according to Robert Young, Director of the Supercentenarians Department at the Gerontology Research Group, which tracks such numbers. The organization, which strives to reverse and slow aging, puts the total number worldwide at 600; only three are said to be 116-plus.

Rhinebeck’s own Vera Van Wagner is part of that elite club and thought to be Dutchess County’s oldest resident at 110; she was born May 24, 1904, and turns 111 in a few weeks. Her status has helped her earn entry into Wikipedia.

To toast the milestone, the Community at Brookmeade where Vera has resided at its Baptist Home for the last four years is throwing her a party four days after she passes that milestone on May 28. It’s also feting fellow resident Anna Mae Swenson, who will turn 106. (Ed. note: We profiled Ms. Swenson in 2013; read her story here.)

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Related: Meet Seven of the Valley’s Centenarians

Vera grew up in New York City with three siblings, all much older, and parents who ran an ice cream and sweet shop in Newburgh and then opened a second in Poughkeepsie. She married a fellow member of the Reformed Church there, Thurlow Van Wagner, in the church parsonage in 1933. The couple moved into in a Craftsman-style house they had a carpenter build at 16 Mountain View Road in Poughkeepsie. “They were two peas in a pod; he was the love of her life,” says niece by marriage Carol Beck, who still lives in a house two doors away from where the Wagners set up housekeeping. “They didn’t have children but had the love and attention of five nephews, their spouses, and children,” Carol says. And the couple both were busy, enjoying fishing together and their work — he as a plumber and she at Vassar College. Vera also loved playing the piano, gardening, and nursing sick birds back to health and caring for her own cockatiel Peewee. Thurlow died at age 95 in 1997. Vera stayed in their home with care until four years ago, when the family decided it was time for her to move to the Baptist Home.

In her new quarters, Vera attends some group activities, gets her red hair coiffed weekly, and on a recent weekday was sitting upright in a wheelchair watching a Frank Sinatra movie on TV with other residents. Wearing a printed shirt, dark slacks, and bright green jacket that look like she had borrowed it from the newest Master’s winner, she charmed us with her sense of humor, sweet smile, and responses to this reporter’s probably selfish question about the secret to living long and well. Here’s what she shared with us and social worker Thomas Hermans; we’ve edited her responses:

vera van wagnerVera Van Wagner at age 22 in 1926

BB: Are you looking forward to your birthday?
VVW: No, I’ll be an old woman.

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BB: Well, they’re having a party for you.
VVW: You shouldn’t have told me.

BB: Is there one secret to living long you can share?
VVW: Not dying.

BB: Any other secrets?
VVW: Not drinking or smoking.

BB: Where were you born?
VVW: New York.

BB: Where else did you live?
VVW: Newburgh and Poughkeepsie.

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BB: Do you remember the kind of house?
VVW: A nice bungalow a carpenter built.

BB: Can you tell us about your husband?
VVW: A sweet man, a nice guy.

BB: Did you have a big wedding and wear a white dress?
VVW: No. We eloped. (Niece said not true.)

BB: Did your family approve?
VVW: They liked him a lot.

BB: Can you share how you met?
VVW: That’s kind of personal. I stumbled over him.

BB: Did you have hobbies or what’d you like to do for fun?
VVW: We went fishing at Saranac Lake.

BB: What’d you catch?
VVW: Pickerel with bait.

BB: So did you go camping also?
VVW: No, that was too rough.

BB: Any hobbies you had on your own?
VVW: Play the piano, sing. I took lessons from Miss Taylor.

vera with family
Vera (seated, middle) alongside three generations of her family

BB: Did you work?
VVW: At Vassar College.

BB: What’d you do there?
VVW: In the information bureau.

BB: Did you like it?
VVW: I loved it. We went out for lunch and a walk.

BB: You’ve seen a lot of changes through the years — the phone, cars, computers. What kind of car did you first have?
VVW: An Oldsmobile, 1933.

BB: You also witnessed women getting the right to vote. Were you excited?
VVW: No, that didn’t impress me.

BB: Any foods you especially love?
VVW: Hot dogs.

BB: Did you enjoy them at ball games?
VVW: No, I don’t like sports.

BB: Why?
VVW: Too competitive.

BB: We’re entering a Presidential race. Any favorite candidates?
VVW: The one now. He’s nice.

BB: Well, I hope to be invited to celebrate your birthday.
VVW: So do I. (She knocks her head while speaking.)

And we wish you many, many more.

Tips to Improve Aging from the Gerontology Research Group:

  1. Follow a well-designed diet, exercise, drink adequate water.
  2. Replace any damaged body parts as you go along rather than wait.
  3. Know that ultimately, aging is the common denominator of multiple diseases; as people age they have a higher risk of getting cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.

Barbara Ballinger is a writer and author; her most recent book is the Kitchen Bible: Designing Your Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). View more of her work at www.barbaraballinger.com.

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