In terms of human achievement — for better and worse — the 20th century was a big deal. Among its contributions: the automobile, the Great Depression, two World Wars, NATO, Sputnik, The Beatles, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., JFK, gay rights, the Vietnam War, women’s suffrage, the Berlin Wall, the Watergate scandal. The list goes on.
For a few lucky Cincinnati-area centenarians, those are not events read in a history book; rather, it’s the story of their lives.
One hundred years ago, the average life expectancy in the United States was only about 50 years. Today, the average is 79.3 years and it is increasingly more common to hear of someone celebrating a 100th birthday.
This centenarian age group is growing faster than any other age demographic. According to 2010 census data, centenarians make up about .017 percent of the population, or 1.73 of every 10,000 people (compared to .0039% in 1910). Given those statistics, there could easily be a few hundred centenarians in the Cincinnati region.
In the next few decades, that number will continue to increase.
With a front-row seat for everything from the debut of rock 'n' roll to the nuclear arms race, our local centenarians have watched history play out before their eyes. And, with today’s senior adults maintaining increased health into later years, many are still healthy enough to tell the stories themselves.
Coming of age in 20th century America
Bob Doolan was born at home in 1917 in Cincinnati’s West End, two doors down from historic Crosley Field. As a boy, he was inspired by aviator Charles Lindbergh and decided he wanted to fly planes. He graduated from St. Xavier High School and enrolled in flight school in California in 1941. Then, like many of his contemporaries, his young adulthood was disrupted by World War II.
On August 12, 1943, Doolan’s B-17 airplane was shot down over Holland. He and his co-pilot made their way for Spain on foot, assisted by the Dutch resistance. But, a few weeks later, Doolan was captured and sent to a POW camp in Poland, run by the German Air Force.
Doolan recalls life in the POW camp, including the packages soldiers received from the Red Cross that contained food, cigarettes and other niceties from home. His memories are aided by an impressively detailed wartime log journal he kept while imprisoned. It contains photos, paintings, lists, names and more.
In early 1945, sensing that the war was coming to an end, Nazi soldiers marched Doolan and other POWs 54 miles through the snow to a railroad that took them to a different camp. This time it was run by the Gestapo.
This new camp was liberated on April 29 by General Patton himself. “Old ‘Blood and Guts’ Patton,” Doolan recalls. “He was bigger than life. He thought he was God. He looked like a god to us.”
Doolan and the other POWs made their ways slowly back home. After a few months of recuperation and after collecting two years’ worth of pay for his service, Doolan headed to Kansas City to see about a young woman he’d met before the war and to whom he had written often during his captivity. They married on Nov. 17, 1945, and moved to Cincinnati.
After the military, Doolan worked in insurance, then as a city tour guide. He is now a frequent guest lecturer at Mount St. Joseph University, sharing his experiences during the war.
For the past eight years, Doolan has lived at a retirement facility on the west side of Cincinnati. He’s very happy there, especially because the facility took such great care of his wife toward the end of her life. She passed away just a few months ago. They had been married for 71 years. He has three children and seven grandchildren.
Following the migration to Cincinnati
Mattie Walker was born in 1910, the granddaughter of a former slave in rural Georgia. She was one of seven children. Her father was a property owner, eventually owning as many as 100 acres of land, which meant he was one of only a few black men in the area who could vote.
Walker was married on March 10, 1939. After her husband served briefly in the military, the couple moved to Cincinnati and settled in the West End. They were two of the many African Americans migrating from the segregated South, seeking new opportunities.
“When we left the South, we thought it was going to be different,” Walker says. “But it was about as prejudiced here.”
Walker had been a school teacher in Georgia, but she wasn’t allowed to teach in Cincinnati. She took odd jobs like cleaning instead. Eventually, she was encouraged to start a new career as a nurse. She worked at Longview State Hospital until her retirement.
Likewise, her husband was a skilled car mechanic but was only allowed a position as a “lot boy” at a car lot. His boss would send cars home with him for difficult repairs when the staff mechanics couldn’t do them.
During those first years in Cincinnati, she remembers spending Sundays at Union Terminal watching the people come and go, seeing fancy new cars on display and watching the soldiers return home. Around 1960, the Walkers moved from the primarily African-American West End into a house in Mt Auburn where they were now only one of a handful of black families. But “moving up” was not always easy.
In the 1970s, Walker’s son worked at Christ Hospital, where he was only allowed back-end jobs like working in the kitchen, and wasn’t allowed to attend social events with the white staff. Her daughter worked there as well and had the same experience.
“She got so sick of people saying ‘She’s the first Black ever to work in the office,’” Walker recalls. But, she says, that’s just how it was back then.
Walker has two children and five grandchildren. Her husband died in 1978. She still owns that home in Mt. Auburn, although she stays with her children a lot now that she has stopped driving. Until very recently, she was active in the Mt. Auburn community, once serving as secretary of the community council. She also helped secure funding for a senior center in Mt. Auburn, which has since closed, and she has been active at the Over-the-Rhine senior center and at her church.
As Walker approaches her 107th birthday, she believes the world has changed for the better in her lifetime. “But there’s still a long way to go,” she says.
Treasuring the lifelong value of family and friends
Kathryn “Kay” McAlonan was born on March 13, 1915, and spent her early years at the base of the Pocono Mountains in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. Her parents were second-generation German immigrants.
Some of her earliest memories are of tea parties under the back porch with friends, drinking diluted tea at a table and chairs made by her father, who owned a dry-goods store in the small town.
At the encouragement of her parents, McAlonan attended college and became a nurse. She remembers her first interview with the head of nursing, Sister Rita. “I can still picture myself today in that little brown hat and brown suit,” she says.
At that time, nurses were held to strict guidelines of personal dress. During the interview, Sister Rita surprised her by pulling on her earrings to make sure she didn’t have her ears pierced.
McAlonan met her husband when he was a patient at the hospital where she worked. They were married in 1939 and, like so many of her peers, her husband went off to war. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge but rarely spoke about it afterward.
During the war, McAlonan worked as a dispensary nurse at the Cramp Shipyard in Philadelphia. She treated injuries — often burns and eye wounds — sustained by the men building ships and submarines. Later, she moved into occupational health, her preferred career path.
McAlonan’s husband died in 1997. A few years later, she moved to Northern Kentucky to be near her only son. He died about 10 years later. She now lives with her daughter-in-law. One of the greatest joys of her long life is her family and watching her four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren grow up.
For her 100th birthday celebration, McAlonan’s family treated her to an extravagant party, complete with a limo ride and dinner with friends and family from all across the country. It was a fitting tribute for a woman who, even to this day, writes dozens of cards every month to friends near and far.
The best and worst of growing old
All three of these centenarians seem younger than their years would suggest, which they all attribute to some combination of faith, blessing and fortune. They bemoan certain physical signs of age: poor hearing, memory loss and bad knees, but they appear remarkably healthy.
Staying active and social seems to be a key factor in their long, fruitful lives. It’s part of what McAlonan attributes to her health and long life. Take, for example, the warning she gave her daughter-in-law before she moved to the area: “Don’t think I’m going to come down there and just sit in a rocker, because I’m not. I wouldn’t be happy. I like people and I like to be active.”
Losing their independence has been especially difficult on Walker and McAlonan, whose social lives have taken a hit since they stopped driving. But Walker expresses satisfied surprise when asked about the best part of growing so old. “I didn’t think I was going to live this long,” she admits. “But I’m just happy I’m still living, that I’m not sick and I’ve still got my mind.”
Doolan, who still exercises regularly, wakes up feeling really good. “I am so lucky,” he says. “I enjoy life and life enjoys me, I guess.”
The lessons Doolan hopes to leave behind are simple: Do your best, even in the small things. Be cheerful. And, for the young men: “Get up and shave.” He says it will work wonders in preparing people for their day.
McAlonan’s advice is simple, as well: Be thankful.