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Aging gracefully: At 103, Gertrude Johannessen is 'content' with her life [Beacon-News :: BC-SRS-103YR-OLD-WOMAN:TB]

OSWEGO, Ill. - Perchance the makers of Ponds cold cream read this column, I'd like to offer a suggestion: Get a production crew out to Bickford of Oswego ASAP and shoot a commercial around one of the residents at this assisted living facility.

That's because Gertrude Johannessen, a long-time user of your vintage lotion turned 103 last week, but with her nearly flawless complexion, she could easily pass for someone at least a generation younger.

Now, I don't know if credit for Gertrude's incredibly wrinkle-resistant skin goes to the hundreds - thousands? - of jars of Ponds she's used throughout her long life. Or that she's got darn good DNA working in her favor. After all, brother Eric died when he was 100 and her brother Eddie lived to be 96.

"Mom's incredible looks," suggested youngest son Tom Johannessen, could also be attributed to the fact she hung out in greenhouses for most of her life, taking advantage of the healthy oxygen plants give off.

Gertrude's father Frank Schaefer founded Schaefer Greenhouses in 1926, and Gert, the middle child in his brood of eight, worked in this family-owned and operated business from the time she was a kid to well into her 80s.

Both Tom and his mom aren't quite sure of when it was she first tried to retire .... somewhere around age 78, they both agree.

"But then I'd get a phone call because they needed someone to come in and help," Gert added with a smile. "So I guess I really didn't stop working until about 84."

OK, so then maybe the secret to her age-defying looks and longevity is plain old hard work?

Gertrude nods in agreement. But she also puts "faith and family" up there, as well.

"I've been blessed," Gertrude, who celebrated a quiet birthday, told me during our visit in her small but cozy room at Bickford, where she moved four years ago after deciding - reluctantly - she could no longer live alone in her North Aurora home.

"It was hard ... very hard," she said of having to give up that independence she'd closely guarded for nearly a century.

Gertrude already had stopped driving a few years earlier because of failing eyesight. But on that one unforgettable day, at age 98, she was trying to get a roasting pan from the oven to the counter and almost dropped it. "That's when I decided, I can't do this anymore."

And so she applied the brakes to a life that had been going non-stop.

Gertrude quit school after her sophomore year at West Aurora High School when her dad gave her the option of coming to work full time as a bookkeeper at the greenhouse. While regretting that decision to end her formal education, she became proficient in every department of the family's thriving business, and especially enjoyed creating the terrariums, cactus and dish gardens that helped make this greenhouse, which moved from its original Aurora location to Montgomery in 1931, one of most successful in the Fox Valley.

I asked about memories that stick out from those days long ago, and she immediately brings up the day before she was to marry railroad man Art Johannessen when she was 23 years old. That's when a fire broke out in the Schaefer family home about a block from the Montgomery greenhouse. Despite the chaos, the young bride ended up borrowing a wedding dress from a friend and the ceremony was held as planned. She and Art had four children and when Tom, the youngest, was old enough for school, Gertrude returned to the family business.

"I had a very busy life," she says of those long days as a working mom. "By the time I got home and cleaned up and got dinner on the table, it would be time to put the kids to bed."

Gert and her husband never made it to their 50th anniversary. Art, a smoker, died from emphysema at age 70 and she's been on her own since then, gradually and painfully losing all her siblings and close friends "one after the other until they were all gone," she told me. "And that's not any fun."

In spite of a lifetime of eating what she wanted, including plenty of sweets, enjoying her cocktails and "probably doing things I shouldn't have done," Gertrude has been relatively healthy except for a minor heart attack at age 88 that didn't seem to slow her down all that much.

Tom shows me a bottle containing her daily medication: There are three pills at the bottom, two of which, he informs me, are vitamins.

All that being said, more than a century of living is going to take a toll. Worsening arthritis and knees that are now "bone on bone" meant replacing Gertrude's walker with a wheelchair. As her eyesight and hearing continue to fade, she's had to forgo television, even reading. And her memory, once sharp enough to take on all contenders during those memory games during the center's activity times, has started to slip.

But Gertrude is grateful for her family - her four children, 10 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and 11 great-greats - many of whom try to visit as often as possible.

"Things change ... Everything is more difficult now," she said. "But I have to be content with my life. And I am.

"I was able to do what I wanted for so long, so how can I complain?"

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PHOTOS (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): SRS-103YR-OLD-WOMAN