By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Daytona Beach News-Journal on August 8, 1999.

ORANGE CITY -- They've grown old as the world waits to become young again.

At the edge of a new millennium, a symbolic new beginning, some still remember the "other century" the time before computers, cars and circuit breakers.

A new century may be close at hand, but centenarians those who've lived more than 100 years have seen a calendar flip like this before.

Cars have replaced horses, airplanes have eclipsed trains, computers have taken over for typewriters and calculators. Centenarians have lived through Black Monday and Black Tuesday, through World War I and World War II, have seen the Berlin Wall go up and come down.

Gathering a century's worth of memories is no longer as uncommon as it once was. According to the Census Bureau, life expectancy at birth has jumped from 47 years to 76 years over the past hundred years. In the past 50 years, the number of centenarians in the nation has increased from about 3,700 to just over 60,000 and the number is growing.

Those centenarians who will come of age in the next few decades will have their own memories to share. But some stories can only be told by those who have already reached three digits, such as three West Volusia residents including Everett Burkman, who saw France from the trenches of World War I.

The Great War

"The battle's tumult rent the night in roaring, maddening shrieks," Burkman wrote in a poem about his time in France. "Of shells and men thrown in the fight the dark was gashed with streaks."

Burkman's childhood growing up on a peaceful Staten Island farm was much calmer, as he played in the fields and woods around his home.

"Hunting and fishing," the 100-year old said recently when asked what he did as a child. "Hunting and fishing."

Rollicking around the farm let Burkman develop skills that served him well when he signed up to be sent to Europe. The young, pipe-smoking private had no battle experience and wasn't a marksman, his enlistment record said, but his horsemanship "was very good."

Burkman, who enlisted with his friends because it "was the thing to do," remembers being more excited than afraid.

He said he received a citation for cour age under fire when he was discharged in 1919. Now living at John Knox Village in Orange City, Burkman returned from the battlefields of the Great War to join the family jewelry business on Wall Street, working there as a diamond expert throughout his adult life.

Years ago, Burkman revisited areas where he had fought and was thanked by residents. They were very happy that we came," he said. "I didn't mind it. We were only doing what was right."

World War I was a pivotal experience for many who are on the cusp of living in their third century, shaping the world these young men and woman would grow up in.

"(World War I) in many ways set up the 1920s with the mar ket economy and cultural freedom," said Paul Jerome Croce, an associate professor of American Studies at Stetson University. It brought a lot of young people out of provincial settings into a more cosmopoli tan way of life."

Shifting society

Cultural changes that swept the country were sparked by the Great War. The removal of soldiers from the workforce prompted women to work outside the home and led black workers to move north.

"It encouraged that whole spirit of social change and progress," Croce said.

Such social progress was embraced by Ruth Thompson's family. Back in the early 1900s, Thompson's family focused on her education, preparing her for a modern world very different from the time of her childhood in Ohio.

Her father, a former school teacher, "would question you to the nth degree," she said, remembering homework sessions where he reviewed each subject with her in detail.

Those drills enabled her to go to college at a time when it was not common for women.

"There were not as many as now, that's for sure," she said. You had to be really prepared if you wanted to go."

Thompson, who is 101 and also lives at John Knox Village, earned a degree in nutrition from Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, going on to teach food and nutrition at high schools and for governmental programs.

"They pushed me around wherever they needed help in learning what to eat," she said. "Teaching nutrition was my forte."

How to live to be 100

Her training in nutrition is what has kept Thompson going this far, she said. A healthy diet and regular exercise, she said, are the key to a long life.

"I've kept as active as I could," she said. "I never quit, except when I got the flu once."

Even now Thompson can't keep still, walking the halls of John Knox several times a day. "I can't complain about a thing except I'm a little slow," she said.

Old age experts agree with her about the importance of nutrition and exercise.

"Only about 30 percent of the characteristics of aging are genetically determined," said Dr. James Rowe, a gerontologist and president of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.

A study of Florida centenarians by the Florida Geriatric Research Program in Clearwater showed that most 100-plus individuals ate "in moderation" and never smoked.

"It is evident," wrote Jo Ann Warden, the program's editorial associate, "that a past healthy life helps to prevent extensive disease and problems in centenarians, and they live their lives after 100 in a relatively healthy way."

Robert Strawn can testify to that.

"I've lived about as clean a life that could be lived," said Strawn, who turned 100 last November.

Strawn had a strict upbringing, with a father who neither smoked nor drank. The centenarian continued that tradition, as well as never drinking coffee or eating desserts.

Besides healthy living, Strawn thinks he has one other reason he's been able to live so long: the color of his eyes.

He relies on experience more than science. Blue-eyed Strawn is joined in his old age by his 94-year-old baby brother. Theodore also has blue eyes, while the two brothers who have passed away both had brown eyes.

A track star who almost went to the Olympics in 1920, Strawn grew up in the days before cars. Many of his happiest memories revolve around horses: his days caring for the family's riding horses, buying his first horse, roping cattle.

His DeLand home provides testimony to this interest: Pictures of Strawn and relatives with horses dot his living room; bookcases are filled with volumes by American West painter Frederic Remington and tomes with titles like "Tales of Old Time Texas."

When he joined the family citrus, cattle and timber business in DeLeon Springs in 1920, Strawn lived the life of a Florida cowboy: roping cattle, shoeing mules, competing in rodeos out west.

He doesn't ride the range anymore; however, age and blindness have slowed down Strawn slightly.

But Strawn still tours his property and travels with his cattle when they go to market. An interview last week was interrupted by phone calls about the business, with Strawn answering questions and arranging trips to deal with problems.

"I'm still the head man," he said. "I direct the operations."

And such an attitude, experts say, might be the most important secret of growing old.

"Don't sit on a couch," urges Dr. Robert Butler, president and CEO of the International Longevity Center-USA. "Old age should be saturated with dreams. Older persons should be active guides, mentors, models and critics."

Strawn agrees, saying he has no intention of leaving the business he loves.

"I still haven't retired yet," he said. "I enjoy doing my part."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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