For Gertrude Baines, reaching 115 isn't old hat
The longtime resident of Western Convalescent Hospital is the world's oldest living person. She marks the milestone with best wishes from politicians -- and a cooler full of Dodger dogs.
Melvin Daignault, left, wishes Gertrude Baines a happy 115th birthday at Western Convalescent Hospital. When the Shellman, Ga., native was born, Grover Cleveland was president and the U.S. flag had only 44 stars. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times / April 5, 2009)
Gertrude Baines, who holds the record as the world's oldest living person, celebrated her 115th birthday Monday, as a crowd of well-wishers that included President Obama and the Dodgers sent their regards.
Plaques, certificates and flowers were presented to the longtime Western Convalescent Hospital resident from high-ranking politicians, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But it was a cooler packed with one of her all-time favorite treats -- Dodger dogs -- that got her most excited.
"Ha!" she exclaimed as her beloved caretaker, Cynthia Thompson, told her about the frankfurters.
It was a day like no other for Baines, who has already endured a year of unprecedented attention.
The Shellman, Ga., native became the world's oldest living person on Jan. 2 after a 115-year-old Portuguese woman died, according to the Gerontology Research Group, which validates claims of extreme old age.
Baines has taken the title in stride, humoring admirers and not quite understanding what all the fuss is about.
Such was the case Monday as more than 100 guests poured into the West Adams hospital to honor yet another one of her birthday milestones. Center officials spent months planning the event, which was expected to make headlines worldwide. As Baines was dolled up in her room, bow-tied valets greeted guests at the entrance to the modest hospital. Laminated programs bearing Baines' image, along with congratulatory wishes from local businesses, were handed out to visitors.
Guests crammed elbow-to-elbow inside a small reception room, with some sitting on the floor. Politicos and their aides crowded in the hallway to await the birthday girl.
When Baines' roommate, Mattie Zittle, 94, was wheeled into the room, everyone clapped and hollered, thinking she was Baines.
"It's a decoy!" one journalist shouted as the paparazzi-like pool of photographers snapped away.
Then the real Baines rolled in. A vision in pink and pearl earrings, Baines was propped up in bed by a flowery pillow.
Baines smiled and looked around the room, now and then closing her eyes as her pastor, followed by a succession of elected officials, took the microphone.
In a letter, Schwarzenegger called her a "national treasure" and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) called her "a beacon of hope and joy."
The former maid outlived every one of her relatives, including her daughter, who died of typhoid at the age of 18. When Baines was born, Grover Cleveland was president and the U.S. flag had only 44 stars.
Next in line for the world title is 113-year-old Kama Chinen of Japan.
"All of us can only hope to reach that pinnacle," L.A. City Councilman Bernard C. Parks said.
Many praised Baines' health and promised to return for her 116th birthday.
Though Baines has enjoyed stable health in recent years, lately she has struggled with her appetite and shed a few pounds.
"We've seen her health decline a bit, but she's a very strong woman," said hospital administrator Emma Camanay.
After a two-tiered, lemon-flavored birthday cake was wheeled in, and everyone sang to Baines, the guest of honor bid everyone farewell with a smile.
Then she was off to her room to do what she does best: nap.