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Pittsburgh woman, 109, says she has 'lived the right kind of life'

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By Drew Fitzgerald
Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009

After more than a century of witnessing history, Evelyn Kozak's life lesson is simple: Love trumps all.

Kozak, who came to Pittsburgh about a decade ago, was alive during New York City's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 and the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. She predates such marvels as the Golden Gate Bridge and Lincoln Memorial, and Pittsburgh institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University.

On Aug. 14, Kozak will celebrate her 110th birthday in Squirrel Hill surrounded by dozens of relatives, from her 88-year-old daughter to her youngest great-grandchildren.

City Council President Doug Shields proclaimed her the oldest living Pittsburgher on Tuesday -- she could be the oldest person in Allegheny County -- but when her family describes their matriarch, her age is not a point of pride as much as the values she instilled in them.

"We knew that we should never take anything that didn't belong to us, and we should never say anything that wasn't true," said her daughter Ruth Terner, 81, of Oakland. "It was ingrained in us since childhood. Her family was always No. 1 to her, and still is."

She moved to Pittsburgh from Florida several years ago to be nearer to her daughter and lived in an apartment with the help of a caretaker. But at age 104, she moved into the Charles M. Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Squirrel Hill, where her sense of honesty stood out to the staff, said Kathy Fuller, spokeswoman for the center.

"She is a treasure not because of her age, but because of who she is," Fuller said. "She is able to whittle it down to what's important in life -- it's about love, honesty and integrity."

With three surviving children, 10 grandchildren and 16 grandchildren, Kozak spends little time reflecting on why she was blessed with longevity.

"I didn't strive just to keep living, but I guess I lived the right kind of life," Kozak said. "I was never jealous or envious. Money was never a big part of my life."

Born to a successful factory owner in 1899, Kozak had her share of misfortune, including growing up during an era when education was considered a frivolity for women. Though she was the valedictorian of her grammar school class in Brooklyn, Terner said, Kozak never received a high school diploma.

Instead, she devoured books and newspapers for the rest of her life.

Kozak read works as diverse as "Love in the Time of Cholera" to various histories of the Titanic, which sank when she was 13.

"She used to go up to her attic with an apple and a piece of chocolate and go up there and read, because if they found her, she would have to baby-sit all the young children," Terner said.

Kozak said she spent many years studying the heartbreaking stories of the steerage passengers who died with the luxurious ship, as well as the brave few who sacrificed their spots on lifeboats to save others.

The story of Isidor and Ida Straus, two wealthy passengers who went down with the ship together, represented true love to Kozak. Isidor refused to board a lifeboat before other men, and Ida refused to be separated from her husband. She gave her fur coat to her maid and stayed with him.

Her eyesight is too weak now to continue reading -- a consequence of old age she called her "worst affliction" -- but she said she considers herself lucky for the love of her descendants.

"Love surpasses everything," she said. "Without that, really, you could have beautiful cars, furs -- everything. ... But if you don't have that, you really don't have much."

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