By Myron Love
The first two were an Icelandic couple who were both 100 years old, living in Winnipeg, and who had just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. This was something like 40 years ago.
While I no longer remember their names, what stands out for me regarding this story is that – after it was published in the Free Press – I sold the story idea to the National Enquirer. It was the only story I ever sold to the leading tabloid newspaper of its day. I was paid $300 U.S. just for the idea.
(After reading the story in the Enquirer, I was amazed at how fluent in English this couple seemed to be – because, when I interviewed them, their grasp of English was quite limited.)
Over the years, I have written numerous stories profiling individuals celebrating their 100th birthdays. Most passed away within a few months after their birthdays. There are two individuals, however, who were exceptional. Both Sophie Shinewald and Sam Baker lived for several years longer and continued to flourish almost right to the end. At the time of Sam Baker’s passing, at the age of 109, in December 2013, he was the oldest man in Manitoba.
A retired businessman, Sam had operated clothing stores in Yorkton and Brandon. I first met him about 10 years earlier through his participation in seniors programming at the Gwen Secter Creative Retirement Centre on north Main Street. My mother was also a regular attendee there. I recall when I interviewed Sam for the Jewish Post and News to celebrate his 100th birthday, he attributed his longevity to the many times that he had to go up and down stairs at his stores over the years.
I ran into him at one point – when he was maybe 105 – at the Asper Jewish Community Campus and stopped to chat. He was walking with a cane and noted that his knees were bothering him. He was also a little hard of hearing. I remember thinking that that was not so bad for someone of that age.
Sam seemed to have stayed in relatively good condition until about 108. I think that the last time I saw him was sometime in 2013 – perhaps in the summer – where he was being honoured by the Gwen Secter Center. By that time, he looked frail and was having some difficulty speaking.
It was also through the Gwen Secter Center and my mother that I got to know Sophie Shinewald. Sophie was a bit of a late bloomer in that it was only after her husband, Hy, died in 1984 that she became active at the Gwen Secter – and, boy, did she ever.
Sophie had lived a quiet life up to that point. She had lived most of her life in roughly the same north Winnipeg neighbourhood. She was a graduate teacher who worked in her early years in the fur business. After marriage, when her two children started school, she began a 16-year career as a substitute teacher in north Winnipeg. She also served as a member of the school board at Luxton School while her children were attending school there.
Soon after she began volunteering at the Gwen Secter Center, she became virtually indispensable. She was one of the volunteers manning the front desk. For many years, she used to go in early on Tuesdays and put up the tables for bridge. Whatever she could do at the Centre, she did.
“I have really enjoyed all the people I have gotten to know at the Gwen Secter Center,” she told me at an earlier interview in 2013 to mark her 100th birthday.
For her special birthday, about 120 members of her extended family came to Winnipeg from across Canada and from Los Angeles to celebrate.
A few months earlier, she had become the oldest recipient in Canada to be recognized with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for volunteerism.
In addition to her volunteer efforts at the Gwen Secter Center, Sophie, for years had taken it upon herself to organize movie nights Saturday evenings at the Rosh Pina Co-op, for the residents of the block where she was living, and some outside visitors. Every week, she would take the bus to the local West Kildonan Library and select a DVD to show, she says.
“A lot of people over the years enjoyed the evening,” she noted at that earlier interview.
The movie nights came to an end in 2011 when the block’s caretaker suddenly died. By that time, she recalled, the number of people attending the evenings had dwindled to very few and she decided – at the age of 98 to “retire” from the project.
Sophie passed away just four years ago at the age of 106. It was only when her eyesight began to fail that she seemed to have lost the will to keep going. Sophie attributed her good health and energy to good genes. I would add that a large element of luck is involved. And, I believe that it is equally important to remain socially active and connected as long as you can as both Sophie and Sam were.
For myself, I hope that I can live maybe not quite as long as my mother – who was almost 97 when she died – but close to that. Thus far, at 74, I have been fortunate not to have had any health issues other than the aches of aging.
In the end, the best one can hope for is to live to old age in relatively good health and move on to the next world quickly and painlessly when the time comes.