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Carnegie resident turns 103

| Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Randy Jarosz | For The Signal Item
Mary Carlson, who recently turned 103 years old, sits on her favorite recliner at her home in Carnegie.
Mary Carlson, who recently turned 103 years old, sits on her favorite recliner at her home in Carnegie.
Mary Carlson shows off her letters from former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and current president Barack Obama, congratulating her on turning 100 in 2011.

Life has been difficult at times, but Mary Carlson of Carnegie wouldn't change a thing.

At 103, one of her earliest memories is that of a horse, a wagon and stacks of caskets. The bodies were on their way to burial after succumbing to the flu in 1918.

“We had nothing,” Carlson said. “There were outhouses and no running water.”

She was 7 and growing up in Conifer, a coal mining town in Jefferson County. A few years later, the Berteotti family moved to Bridgeville. Ultimately, Carlson, the middle child, would have five sisters and five brothers.

“I don't know why God took all of them,” she said. “They died young.”

She raised her four children — Fred, 82; Kathleen, 76; and her twin boys, Jim and John, 75, after Charles McCaffrey, her first husband, died. Following 32 years as a widow, she married John Carlson.

“I worked hard all my life and took good care of all my kids,” she said. “There's a lot of love among us.”

She quit school in the seventh grade to help support her family by washing chickens in a restaurant for $3 a week, walking the brick roads of the town and riding streetcars.

“I never drove a car, had a credit card or made charges in the department stores Downtown,” she said.

Her rule is simple: “If you don't have the cash, you don't buy it.”

Although she had to wait a while, she finally got to pursue a career in nursing and worked at it for 21 years. She retired in 1962.

Admittedly, she walks a little slower these days, but her morning routine is the same.

“I get washed, dressed and put the coffee on. Then, I make my bed. I always make my bed.”

Dr. Peter Dickinson, of the UPMC Medical Group in Carnegie, her longtime physician, prescribes few pills — a water pill, one for her blood pressure — but provides lots of attention when she needs it.

During a hospitalization in 2013, the occupational therapists wondered how she got in and out of the bathtub and how she put on her socks.

And don't ask her the secret for living a long life.

“If I had the secret, I'd make a lot of money.”

At 100, Carlson was tickled when she received greetings from three presidents — Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Those messages now are framed and shown to visitors.

In March, the staff of Gallagher Home Health Services of Carnegie surprised her with a birthday party. Vonda Balkovec of Bridgeville had been her registered nurse.

“It's exciting to listen to her stories of the old times and her family,” Balkovec said. “She's smart and quick to respond to everything.”

Balkovec finds the centenarian's energy to be amazing.

“I feel good. I don't feel old,” Carlson said. “Now, I'm working on 104.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5803 or

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