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Alumna Joins 600 U.S. Citizens as Supercentenarian

Alumna Joins 600 U.S. Citizens as Supercentenarian

Batavia, Ill. — When her birthday rolled around on Oct. 23, 2013, Mary Burford West joined a very exclusive club. Celebrating her 110th birthday, she became a supercentenarian. Of the 313.9 million people in the U.S., the Gerontology Research Group has verified that only 600 are supercentenarians.

When West joined the group, The Holmstad retirement community where she lives not only celebrated with a party and the traditional cake, fellow residents, staff members and volunteers made sure she had a birthday card for each of her 110 years. She ended up with a basket of 165 cards.

At 110, West lives in the skilled nursing center at The Holmstad. With the help of staff, she is out of bed and dressed every day. Her long white hair is neatly groomed, sometimes in the braided style she wore in younger years.

An only child who never married or had children, West has no known relatives. But in the 31 years she has lived at The Holmstad, she’s made lots of friends. Turning 110 turned her into a celebrity. “We had a much larger crowd than usual for our birthday party,” says Holmstad Life Enrichment Coordinator Karin Klockars. “When I went to pick up the cake, the bakery staff was waiting for me wanting to know about Mary. People have been stopping by for days wanting to meet Mary and congratulate her.”

Joining a history-making group on her birthday is appropriate for the former high school history teacher. West spent 44 years teaching high school history in Illinois. When she retired in 1969, West was chairman of the social science department at Proviso East High School, Maywood, Ill. In one of the highlights of her 31-year tenure at Proviso East, West chaperoned a delegation of Cook County high school newspaper editors on a 1947 trip to the two-year-old United Nations General Assembly in New York City. The group was briefed by Eleanor Roosevelt, John Foster Dulles, then secretary of state George C. Marshall and others.

West grew up in Fayette, Mo., a small town near Kansas City where her parents owned and operated a dry goods store. She graduated from high school in nearby Marshall, earned a bachelor’s degree at Missouri Valley College, Marshall, and a master’s degree from the University of Illinois, Champaign.

In 1981, 11 years after retiring, West moved to The Holmstad where she is known for her reading, writing and walking. Folks who remember West from her earlier days on campus describe her as being “classy” and “reserved” as she walked the campus in her elegant wool suits — but never a pants suit. West enjoyed watching the addition of trees, shrubs and flowers that beautified the campus’ landscaping.

She decided to help ensure that future Holmstad residents could have the same pleasure and set up a landscape and beautification endowment. Income from the endowment continues to fund West’s dream of ensuring “beauty for all who live and walk on our campus.”

“Mary walked all the time,” recalls Kathryn Schiller, a former Holmstad marketing director. “She walked downtown, around the neighborhood and on campus. And she was very thoughtful and genuine.”

West has long said the secret to her longevity is eating an apple a day. Judging from the miles friends and acquaintances say she walked every day, she understood the value of exercise as well.   



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