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Mary Christian, 113; Was Oldest Person in U.S.

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Times Staff Writer

Mary Christian, who for five months bore the distinction of being the oldest American, died of pneumonia Sunday at a nursing home in San Pablo, a community near San Francisco. Born when Benjamin Harrison occupied the White House and Queen Victoria ruled England, she was 113 years and 312 days old.

Christian was certified as the longest-living American in November after family members offered documentation of her age to the Gerontology Research Group, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization of scientists and physicians who study aging.

She was considered a “super centenarian,” one who has lived to be 110 years or older. The gerontology group now recognizes 45 living super centenarians, who are listed on its Web site (www.grg.org).

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Until her death, Christian was considered the fourth oldest person in the world, outlived only by two 113-year-olds with earlier birth dates in 1889 and a 115-year-old -- all Japanese women. The oldest American is now Elana Slough, a New Jersey resident who will be 114 on July 8.

The extremely old seem to share some common traits, said Dr. Stephen Coles, a UCLA researcher who co-founded the Gerontology Research Group. They are industrious, have an abiding sense of purpose in life and are not overweight. They also may share particular genetic traits.

But when super centenarians are asked why they have lived so long, the answers tend to be quite contradictory. “They really don’t know,” Coles said.

Christian once attributed her longevity to manual labor, recalling for an interviewer that her Portuguese immigrant father led her to the family potato patch when she was 9 and handed her a hoe.

A Massachusetts native who moved to San Pablo in 1900, she worked most of her life, starting in 1905 when she was hired to label cocoa cans and make candy at Van Amden Chocolate Co. That job ended when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed the factory.

She later became the second telephone operator for Pacific Telephone Co. in Point Richmond, worked in the cafeteria of the Standard Oil Co., and for 13 years operated the elevator and worked in men’s clothing at Albert’s department store, which became Macy’s.

She retired from Macy’s in 1954. She later became a nanny and worked until 1971, when she was 81.

She used neither cigarettes nor alcohol, and enjoyed a hearty diet.

“Meat and potatoes, that’s what I like to eat. And broccoli,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle last year. She also was fond of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Twinkies.

Known for her independence, she lived by herself in a Richmond apartment until she entered a nursing home 11 years ago at 102.

She also had a feisty streak.

When George H.W. Bush, who has the same birthday (June 12), was president, he sent her a congratulatory birthday message. Christian sent it back “because she didn’t like the way he was hurting Social Security,” Faye Eaton, who was married to one of Christian’s grandsons, told the Chronicle last year.

Married to O.R. Christian in 1907, she gave birth to two sons before the couple divorced in 1922. She outlived her sons and seven siblings. She is survived by grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Family members, who called her Aunt Mae, began to search for proof of her age last year after reading that a Florida man, John McMorran, was next in line to be named the verifiably oldest American. McMorran, born on June 19, 1889, was one week younger than Christian.

The relatives scoured the Internet for sources and spent hours on the telephone, finally amassing enough proof to send to the Gerontology Research Group.

A member of the group paid Christian a visit late last year and found her in frail health, nearly blind and unable to hear well. Yet she was reasonably alert and able to communicate with relatives once she recognized their voices.

After examining the documentation, which included a marriage certificate, a Social Security Administration letter confirming her birth date and a 1900 census record, the group concluded that Christian was the birthday champion of the United States.

“I’m the oldest woman in the United States,” she proclaimed from a reclining wheelchair at a news conference in November.

“I feel good.”


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