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Retired teacher, 108, offers advice on growing old

| Friday, Dec. 24, 2010

If you want to make it to 108 years old, Bess Higgins has three pieces of advice.

No. 1: "You have to watch your health."

No. 2: "Live a day at a time the best you can."

No. 3: "I hope you trust in God. He'll take care of you."

Higgins, born Dec. 23, 1902, in Concord Township, Butler County, turned 108 yesterday. She celebrated with friends and family at Concordia Lutheran Ministries.

Even Santa Claus stopped by. When he asked her age, Higgins joked, "I'm 88."

Higgins has witnessed firsthand more history than usually is written in a single textbook.

But the personal memories — such as seeing her daughters work as nurses and her son at NASA — are the most special.

Higgins taught at a one-room country schoolhouse, attended Butler Business College and graduated from Slippery Rock University with a degree in education.

Higgins was in her late 20s and early 30s during the Great Depression.

"You just worked hard," she said. "Everybody had to work hard and do the best they could."

She was 18 years old when the 19th Amendment was passed, granting women the right to vote.

"We were all quite excited about that."

She married Frank Higgins in 1933 and had three children — Rodney, who lives out of state; Marilyn Davis, who lives in eastern Pennsylvania; and Suzanne, who died in 1999.

She's become a grandmother seven times and a great-grandmother four times.

She's the oldest resident of Concordia and still lives in its independent living quarters.

Today she's nearly blind and can only read the news a little. But she has a machine to help — and she stays grateful.

"I'm thankful to God for the little bit of light I have."

Higgins uses a walker or a motorized scooter to get around.

In her younger years, she played the piano, taught literacy in jails, volunteered with Meals on Wheels and traveled to all but 10 states.

"Pennsylvania, of course, is better than any one else," she said.

Higgins golfed at Stoughton Acres Golf Course until she was 95 years old.

She stopped driving at 101 years old.

She traveled to the Greek islands at age 91 and told her daughter that some people couldn't keep up.

Daughter Marilyn Davis, who made a six-hour drive for the birthday party, calls her mother a "tough cookie."

"If she can live to be 108, I can drive here for her birthday," said Davis, 72.

Higgins' husband, Frank, died in 1985. Davis remembers her father talking about growing up in a world without electricity and without indoor plumbing. Eventually, though they lived to see a man walk on the moon.

"I had to have lived in the greatest time ever," Davis remembers him saying.

Higgins' niece, Barb Brown, said the centenarian is a lifelong learner. She picked up a cell phone and used it a few years ago.

It's her mother's spirit and outlook that have helped her make it to 108, said Brown, of Mars.

"I think that generation was a tough generation," Davis said. "They learned to be resilient."

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