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Woman, 104, Links Longevity, Independent Streak

July 31, 2008

By Kenneth Knight, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

Jul. 31–UNIVERSITY AREA Although she’s not willing to stake her life on it, Althea Schafer, 104, suspects the fact she never married has contributed to her longevity.

Schafer, a resident at St. Joseph’s John Knox Village, said she always cherished her independence, so marriage was never in her plans.

Euna Brown, 100 and a friend of Schafer at John Knox Village, never remarried after her husband, Joel, died in a traffic accident in 1947.

Both women were among eight female residents honored Thursday at the continuing care retirement community at 4100 E. Fletcher Ave. as centenarians or being within a few months of turning 100. They dined on filet mignon, grilled vegetables and loaded mashed potatoes. Banana flambe was served for dessert.

Three other residents who are 100 or older did not attend the luncheon celebration for health reasons. This is the second celebration for centenarians at the retirement community in the past three years.

Gary West, executive director at John Knox Village, said all of the centenarians at his retirement village are women and most never had children.

A University of South Florida professor said studies on aging confirms that women appear able to survive alone after marriage or without a significant partner better than men.

“There is some indirect evidence that women have greater longevity after a marriage ends, by becoming a widow or getting a divorce,” said Larry Polivka, director of The Policy Center on Aging at USF.

“This is evidence that’s been around a while.”

But probably not as long as Schafer.

She was an 8-year-old girl aboard one of the cruise ships to reach the survivors of the Titanic, the day after the cruise liner sank in the Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912.

Schafer said her memories of the rescue are clouded.

But she does recall her independent streak as a child growing up in Cumberland, Md. Her desire to be her own person grew as she did. Her parents, William and Cora Schafer, accepted it.

“That’s one reason I didn’t get married,” Schafer said. “I’m too independent.

“I had three proposals and turned them all down. I knew they wouldn’t work.”

Although she couldn’t remember the year, Schafer moved to Florida as a favor to her baby sister, Marie.

“My sister said she wouldn’t come unless I came down,” she said.

She moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, who loved playing golf and bridge.

“Their interest was entirely different from mine,” Schafer said.

John Knox Village officials said Schafer has lived at the retirement community for more than 25 years.

Brown has been a resident for 25 years, said Laurie Ferguson, activities director at the retirement center.

Their paths could have crossed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where they both worked when they were younger, but they don’t recall meeting there.

Schafer said she was a nurse at Walter Reed; Brown was the Army’s first executive housekeeper at the medical center. Brown gave up nursing in 1942 to open a business with her husband in Kansas City, Mo.

Neither Brown nor Schafer have children.

Brown said she has enjoyed life just “being able to be myself. I didn’t want to get married again. I almost did a couple of times.”

Brown said she enjoys traveling. She has visited all 50 state capitols.

She has photo albums full of memories of her travels. She carried a folder Thursday that included an 8-by-10 photo of her as a young women and newspaper clippings of her career in nursing and as a businesswoman.

“I [have] lived a normal life,” Brown said. “I worked hard when I worked and played hard when I played.

“I still pretty much do what I please.”

Reporter Kenneth Knight can be reached at (813) 865-4842 or kknight@tampatrib.com.

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