114 years — and counting …
Lake City farm wife is oldest Iowan, 3rd oldest American
LAKE CITY — Age may be just a number, but now that Bessie Hendricks has turned 114, her numbers definitely deliver the wow factor. Born Nov. 7, 1907, the longtime Lake City resident is the oldest living Iowan. She’s the third oldest living person in America, notes her family. She’s also the 14th oldest living person in the world, according to the Gerontology Research Group’s data from October 2021.
“Mom is doing well, and we got to see her for awhile today,” said Leon Hendricks, of Lake City, on Saturday.
Hendricks, who lives at Shady Oaks Care Center in Lake City, spent some time celebrating with her children, including Glenda, Joan and Leon. The siblings also remembered their late brother Ron, as well as their sister Shirley Hunziker, who passed away in September 2021.
When she turned the big 1-1-4, Hendricks received a star-shaped, mylar Happy Birthday balloon, a pink rose and some other treats. Her vibrant, pink crown with the words “Happy Birthday” added to the festivities.
“Mom doesn’t really talk much anymore, but she was looking around and seemed to enjoy it when we were together,” said Glenda Hendricks, of Lake City.
Supercentenarians remain rare
Hendricks is a supercentenarian (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 U.S., 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.
In the U.S. and other industrialized nations, centenarians (people 100-plus years old) occur at a rate of about 1 per 6,000. Eighty-five percent of centenarians are women, and 15 percent are men. Supercentenarians like Hendricks occur at a rate of about 1 per 5 million.
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 noted in 2017 that there were about 350 supercentenarians worldwide.
A youthful spirit can’t hurt, either. When Hendricks turned 111, she said she was 18 when people asked how old she was.
Hendricks has always had a knack for not letting stress bother her, says her family. This supercentenarian has lived through the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, World War 1, the Great Depression, World War II and now COVID-19. When she turned 110, she shared her best advice to live a long, healthy life. “Work hard.”
embraced farm life
While 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.
Hendricks was born on a farm in Carroll County a few miles southeast of Auburn on November 7, 1907. 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 due to 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 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, recalled her family.
After Paul and Bessie married on June 27, 1930, at the Woodlawn Christian Church in Lake City, the couple lived in the tiny Calhoun County town of Rands for nearly three years. Paul Hendricks worked at the grain elevator and train depot, in addition to running a small store. The couple’s 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.
Live life to the fullest
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 more than 90 years.
Hendricks has been blessed with a long, healthy, productive life, agree her family and friends. With no major illnesses and just a few medicines in her daily routine, Hendricks amazes her health care providers. Her physician, Dr. Derek Duncan, of Lake City, has called her his “miracle lady.”
Ironically, Hendricks shared some candid advice a number of years ago when asked about her secrets to longevity.
“She said, ‘Stay away from doctors,'” her daughter Glenda said.
If Bessie Hendricks were still sharing advice, she’d probably encourage people not to pass up dessert — especially birthday cake.
“Mom still loves her sweets,” Leon Hendricks said.