story and photo by Josh Taylor Souza
special to The City Wire
FAYETTEVILLE— Grace Ettinger of Fayetteville, has the look of an All-American grandmother: Soft-spoken voice, shiny gray hair, blanket draped across her legs as she rocks back and forth in a blue LazyBoy.
Next to the bedside she keeps a giant scrapbook that carries nearly as much history as the King-James Bible that lies next to it. More than a hundred years’ worth of history to be exact and even at her advanced age — 101 — Ettinger can account for every clipping and picture in the oversized album.
“I have seen this country go from buggies and wagons to cars to the moon and beyond,” joked Ettinger. “Things have changed a lot since I was a little girl. Heck I remember when my family got our first telephone. I can still remember the number too.”
The St. Louis native will celebrate 102 birthday’s Sunday (Aug. 5) and continues to stay as active as her body will allow. Ettinger, who lived in the Siloam Springs area for more than 30 years, has been a long-term care resident at Katherine’s Place in Fayetteville for the last two.
“She is very energetic and she is always trying to get involved with the other residents,” said primary caregiver Teresa Bardwell. “A lot of the time when we have patients who are as advanced in age as (Ettinger) they lose most of their mental capabilities, but she is able to recall anything from her past and tell you about it. She is just full of life.”
Ettinger was one of the 53,364 centenarians counted in the 2010 U.S. Census. The number of 100-year-olds increased 5.76% from the 2000 count. One out of every 5,786 people was a centenarian in 2010. While men and women are both living longer, the centenarian females outnumber the males four to one, according to the Census Bureau report dated November 2011.
Roughly 17,200 or 32% of the centenarians alive in 2010 were living in skilled-nursing facilities, like Katherine’s Place.
Longevity experts like Lynn Peters Adler, author founder of the National Centenarian Awareness Project, have noted there is no one model centenarian and not one road to 100. Adler notes on her website that while the spirit of active centenarians has remained consistent over the past 25 years, she has found the health, vitality and activity level of more centenarians has improved over time.
While Ettinger recently began using oxygen to assist breathing, she passes the time quilting or doing embroidery when she’s not involved in Bible study, reading or watching a little television — an invention that didn’t come along until Ettinger was 15 years old.
She remembers seeing her first car as a child and says she only knew one person who was able to own one at the time.
Ettinger and her late husband Edwin were married 46 years and had six children together, all of whom attended John Brown University. They went on to have 21 grandchildren and 46 great-grandchildren.
“Most people don’t have much when they get married, but when (Edwin) and I got married it was the start of the great depression so we really didn’t have anything,” said Ettinger. “It was tough for most people back in those days, but (Edwin) and I always had each other.”
The Ettinger family tree was nearly cut in half when Grace was diagnosed with tuberculosis shortly after becoming pregnant with her third child. Doctors advised her to terminate the pregnancy because of the complications childbirth would cause in her weakened condition. Experts only gave her a 50/50 chance of survival.
“I was diagnosed with tuberculosis at around age 23 and it was a very scary for all of us because in that time it was more common than cancer and just as deadly,” recalled Ettinger. “My mother died from it when I was 13 so that made it even more scary. The doctors did not want me to have my baby, but doing otherwise would be against my beliefs so Edwin and I decided to take our chances. They said I would die if I had the baby, but I just put it in God’s hands and had faith it would work out.”
Not only did Ettinger survive the childbirth, she went on to have more children. The Ettingers eventually went on to join the mission field. Grace and Edwin opened their home to traveling missionaries from across the world, never charging a single tenant for room or board.
The friendships formed over a long history of harboring missionaries prompted the Ettingers to join a mission project in Africa that lasted more than three years.
“I remember we were down to our last 25 cents while on the mission field in Kenya, our social security checks had become lost in transit and we didn’t know what we were going to do. Then out of the blue we got a letter from a cousin in St. Louis whom we hadn’t spoke with in years. There was $100 inside, which was more than enough to hold us over until our checks finally got there a month later,” Ettinger said.
She remembers being asked to join a mission trip in New York after all the years of opening her home to people, but said “in the beginning I didn’t want to travel as a missionary unless I could do it on my own money." Ettinger said she turned down the offer to go to New York two times before she finally felt the call (from God) to go.”
She fell and broke a hip last year which has been slow to heal but this enterprising lady spends the bullk of her time quilting and exercising her mind. She enjoys reading more than watching television and frequently speaks with her younger sister Lucy, who is 91 and going strong.
“I guess they will have another party this year, don’t know what they have planned for me, guess I will just have to wait and see," Ettinger says of her birthday this Sunday. “Last year over 100 people came to help me celebrate 101.”