How does one manage to live 100 years?
“I think physical and mental activity, you need them both,” said Clifford Pedersen, who turns 102 in July. “I used to run a lot in road races, and I used to ski a lot in the winter. And as far as the mental, I do puzzles.”
Pedersen was one of 21 centenarians honored at a special luncheon in Seal Beach’s Leisure World retirement community on April 9. Each centenarian received a corsage and a city certificate of recognition from the mayor, Thomas Moore. More than 220 friends and family members attended the sold-out event, sponsored by the Golden Age Foundation.
About 60 of Leisure World’s 9,000 residents are 100 years old or older. Though the number of centenarians in the U.S. is growing, they are still relatively rare: the estimated 80,000 constitute only .02% of the population.
Their longevity is especially remarkable when considering the average life expectancy in their birth year: in 1919, it was 53.5 years for men and 56 years for women.
“It was not easy growing up 100 years ago,” Moore told the audience. “I'm sure that among you are thousands of stories that would fascinate all of us.”
Sporting a black fedora with “World War II Veteran” stitched on the crown, Pedersen recounted one of those stories with daughter Jo Maldonado at his side.
Before serving in the U.S. Army in Italy and Africa during World War II, Pedersen was part of 15,000 U.S. troops on board the liner and troopship RMS Queen Mary in 1942. In a tragedy that wasn’t publicly reported until after the war, the Queen Mary collided with an escort cruiser, HMS Curacoa, outside of Ireland, killing 337 crew members of the Curacoa. The incident has been called one WWII’s best-kept secrets.
When asked what advice he would give to live a good life, Pedersen said to “accept what comes your way without complaining too much.”
It’s an attitude characteristic of his demographic cohort, the “Greatest Generation.” People born between 1901 and 1924 are considered exceptionally resilient. Born in a time when electricity, cars, indoor plumbing, movies and radios were still catching on, they had to work through the crippling uncertainty of the Great Depression and the turmoil of WWII.
Gloria Serafano, who turns 100 on April 21 and attended the luncheon with her daughter Rose Marie Fenell, epitomizes the hardiness of her peer group. A second-generation Italian American born in Philadelphia, Serafano utilized resourcefulness, faith and a positive attitude to navigate the twists and turns in her century of life.
She left school at 15 to help her widowed mother support her four siblings and married at 18. After her first husband died in the early 1940s, Serafano struggled to make ends meet as a single mother of then-2-year-old Fenell.
A friend moved to California and urged her to come. Serafano got on a Greyhound bus and left the East Coast for the West. She found a job at an aircraft company in Downey, working as a real-life Rosie the Riveter. Though the term represented thousands of women who found work in manufacturing during the war, Serafano was an actual riveter, operating a riveting gun on P-38 bomber wings.
“Before the women's rights movement [of the 1960s and 70s], Mom was a modern woman ahead of her time and didn't let anything get her down,” said Fenell, who lives in Riverside County. “Wherever she went, she belonged and excelled.”
After the war, Serafano became a librarian for system development and engineering tech for the former Douglas Aircraft company in Downey. She found love and loss again, experiencing the deaths of three beloved husbands in her lifetime. When asked how she endured such difficulty and lived so long, Serafano credited her Catholic faith and her ability to love.
“I live by one word: love,” Serafano said. “Your whole life should be all about love; don't hate anybody, because if you hate anybody, you won't be happy. Take each moment as a precious moment to live.”
Aliese Muhonen is a contributor to TimesOC. Follow her on Twitter at @AlieseMuhonen.