At 111, Lake City woman is oldest Iowan
LAKE CITY — Ask Bessie Hendricks how old she is, and her answer is quick and decisive when she says 18. Maybe that’s her secret to celebrating her 111th birthday.
Hendricks has always had a knack for not letting stress bother her, says her family. She also has some advice on how to live a long, healthy life.
“Hard work,” said Hendricks, who celebrated her 111th birthday at Shady Oaks Care Center in Lake City, where she has lived since 2010.
Her other secret?
“She said, ‘Stay away from doctors,'” said her daughter, Glenda Hendricks, of Lake City, who noted that her mother takes hardly any medication, other than a blood pressure pill and a thyroid medicine.
Bessie Hendricks also eats what she wants and doesn’t pass up dessert — or birthday cake.
“Mom loves her sweets,” said her son, Leon Hendricks, of Lake City.
Bessie Hendricks, who is the oldest person in Iowa, is a supercentenarian, which is the term for people who live to their 110th birthday and beyond. It’s an elite group. While there are approximately 60,000 centenarians — people who have reached their 100th birthday — in the United States, in 2017 there were only about 70 supercentenarians in America, according to Dr. Thomas Perls, a professor of medicine who directs the Boston University School of Medicine’s New England Centenarian Study.
Perls’ research is uncovering the secret life of supercentenarians. Studies show that once people live beyond 100, the older they become, the less time they’re likely to spend with age-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease, dementia and stroke. They’re also more likely to remain physically and mentally sharp for a greater proportion of their lives than folks just 10, 20 or 30 years their junior.
Living to 110 and beyond is largely genetic, said Perls, who is very interested in talking to the Hendricks family about the New England Centenarian Study. After all, supercentenarians like Bessie Hendricks are an exclusive group.
“Worldwide there are about 350 supers,” Perls noted in 2017.
Hendricks embraced farm life
While Bessie Hendricks has achieved a milestone few people in the world ever reach, her beginnings were much the same as countless Iowans more than a century ago.
On Nov. 7, 1907, Hendricks was born on a farm in Carroll County a few miles southeast of Auburn. She was welcomed by her parents, Hugh and Mattie (Clark) Sharkey, along with older siblings John, David, Laurence and Ethel. A younger sister, Anna, was born in 1910 after the family had moved in 1908 to a 160-acre farm two miles east and one mile north of Lake City in Calhoun County.
At age 5, Hendricks began attending first grade — there was no kindergarten — at the country school across the road from the family’s farm. When she wasn’t in school, she helped with chores at home.
“We kids were always getting into mischief when the folks were gone to town,” Hendricks recalled in her memoirs, which she wrote in 1998-1999 while in her early 90s.
One day Hendricks and her siblings decided to make taffy candy.
“Oh yes, it was good, but we couldn’t eat it all, so we had to get rid of it before the folks came home,” Hendricks recalled. “So guess what? We took the taffy to the barn and fed it to one of the horses by the name of Fox. We sure had a laugh, watching him wallowing his tongue around that candy, but he got rid of it.”
By the time Hendricks entered seventh grade, the local country school was closed to due lack of pupils, so Hendricks attended Central School in Lake City.
A more profound life change would occur, however, when Hendricks’ mother passed away from illness on July 2, 1921. Suddenly 13-year-old Hendricks had to assume many more household responsibilities.
She continued her education, however, and graduated from Lake City High School in May 1926. A little over 90 years later, she attended the all-school reunion in Lake City in the summer of 2016.
“She enjoyed it,” said her daughter, Glenda Hendricks.
During her high school years, Hendricks completed a normal training course that allowed her to teach country school following her graduation. Starting in the fall of 1926, she taught country school in the Lake City area for four years.
Hendricks had 21 students in school during her first year of teaching.
“That was considered a big country school,” said Hendricks, who noted that some of her older students were nearly her age.
Did she enjoy teaching school?
“Well, sure I did,” she said.
Just before she started her last year of teaching, Hendricks attended a dance in Lohrville one evening with a friend named Art Hendricks, who had an older brother named Paul.
“While she came to the dance with Art, she left with Paul,” said Hendricks’ daughter, Shirley Hunziker, of Lake City.
After Paul and Bessie married on June 27, 1930, at the Woodlawn Christian Church, the couple lived in Rands for nearly three years. Paul Hendricks worked at the grain elevator and depot, in addition to running a small store. The couple’s first two daughters, Shirley and Joan, were born during this time.
In March 1933, the young family moved to a farm east of Lake City that would be the Hendricks’ home place for the next 47 years. The family expanded to include Roland (Ron), Glenda and Leon.
“We worked hard on the farm,” said Bessie Hendricks, whose husband raised crops, hay, cattle and hogs, while she grew a large garden, canned up to 800 quarts of vegetables and fruit a year and served as a 4-H leader.
You are my sunshine
After Paul and Bessie Hendricks retired and held their farm sale in 1979, they moved to a home in Lake City in July 1980. The couple were one month shy of celebrating their 65th anniversary when Paul passed away on May 25, 1995.
“He was a wonderful man,” Hendricks said.
In her later years, Hendricks stayed busy helping her family with various projects, including processing 500 chickens one summer. She was also active in the Woodlawn Christian Church, where she has been a member for 92 years.
Today, Hendricks is comfortable with her life at Shady Oaks, where her family visits often. She relishes good meals, sleeps well and enjoys visits from her nine grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren, 42 great-great-grandchildren and seven great-great-great-grandchildren. With no major illnesses and only a couple prescription medicines in Hendricks’ daily routine, her physician, Dr. Derek Duncan of Lake City, calls her his “miracle lady.”
Hendricks needs little prompting to sing “Happy Birthday” or “You Are My Sunshine.” When a family member posted a 2017 video on social media of her singing “You Are My Sunshine,” the post went viral. People across the nation who saw her video sent hundreds of birthday cards and letters to her at Shady Oaks.
“I think it’s awesome to have a great-great-grandma who is 111,” said Myra Patterson, a certified nursing assistant at Shady Oaks. “People can hardly believe it.”
Perhaps having a song in her heart is one of the secrets to Bessie Hendricks’ remarkable life.
“I love Lake City,” she said back when she turned 110. “I feel good, and I take it day by day.”