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Housemates celebrate 100th birthdays
by Rebekah L. Sanders - Jun. 28, 2008
"The Arizona Republic" 

June brought two remarkable events to one unconventional Buckeye "family." Esther Williams and Katie Wedgworth, both part of a tight-knit bunch at Jolley Family Assisted Living Home, turned 100 in June.

"I never dreamed I'd ever be this old," said Williams, dressed in sparkly earrings and a silvery satin top, at her 100th birthday party last week. She was cracking jokes and telling touching memories to the 20 family members and friends gathered to mark the milestone. Just a few days later, Wedgworth, nicknamed Grandma by the other residents, was blowing out candles on the strawberry cake baked for her own special occasion. "Thanks for wishing me 'Happy Birthday,' " Wedgworth told a niece on the phone, bragging that she still was able to walk around the house.

For one day each, Williams and Wedgworth gained celebrity status among their housemates, though Williams was quick to point out on Wedgworth's birthday, "I beat her to it!"

Fay Jolley Webster, who owns and runs the assisted-living facility in Buckeye with her husband, said she felt honored to know Williams and Wedgworth. "It's rare to meet anyone who's 100 and to have two in the same month in this home is amazing," Webster said. 

The number of centenarians in the United States is growing, according to Lynn Peters Adler, founder and director of Phoenix-based National Centenarian Awareness Project. The U.S. Census Bureau in 2000 reported 50,000 people over 100 years old. It recently revised the number to about 84,000, a 68 percent increase, she said.

In Arizona, more than 700 people have passed the century mark. "It's a great distinction for people to live to 100 or more," said Adler, whose foundation rewards centenarians with certificates and advocates for greater involvement of seniors in society. "Centenarians are role models for the future of aging. They have the most wonderful spirit." 

At the birthday parties, Williams' straight-faced humor and Wedgworth's loyalty to family were on full display. When Laurie Burgess, a 46-year-old Chicago lawyer, spoke of her grandmother's reputation as a "card shark," Williams didn't skip a beat.

"We played Rook all night long to 7 a.m." Williams said, recounting an overnight visit to Burgess' sister and her dorm friends at Wheaton College when she was in her mid-70s. "The other four went to bed and missed their classes," Williams said. "I got up, took a bath and went to breakfast."

Friends and family told stories about the former elementary-school teacher, Scrabble lover and avid TV tennis watcher, who packed her belongings into a convertible red Mustang and moved to Arizona at 63 and received her first passport at 95.  

"Esther's a jewel," said Konnie Smith, Williams' massage therapist and friend. "You just can't help but love her."

Wedgworth was the center of attention on her birthday as well. She talked fondly of the family farm in Virginia, her mother's pansies and snagging her first boyfriend when she was 6.

"All I wanted was Charlie Mayer. He was a real cute kid," Wedgworth said. Wedgworth, a homemaker who lived in Palo Verde near Buckeye for decades with her late beekeeper husband, spoke in detail of her family with obvious pride.

"My granddaughter plays tennis in Oregon . . . Mark's learning more and more about the computer business . . . Lauri is a computer designer for Intel," she said, ticking off her grandchildren's accomplishments.

Later in the day, a bevy of them arrived from out of state to celebrate: Mark Wedgworth and Jeri Fredell, with their spouses and Wedgworth's four great-grandchildren in tow. On a day that might justify extravagant gifts, Wedgworth received her one 100th birthday wish: seeing her beloved grandchildren.


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