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At 101, John Nutter is 'the oldest ... of everything'

At 101, John Nutter likes things plain and simple. Which is why his daughter, Betty Fulton, drives him to Slye's Barber Shop on Montgomery Street. Once there, he can get his monthly haircut for $8 while taking in the relaxed, old-style atmosphere.

He would drive himself, he added, but he finally gave that up six years ago at the age of 95 — the same age he quit cutting his own grass. Still, he did manage to go sailing that same year.

Sitting in a rolling walker he refers to as his "Cadillac," the Silver Spring resident joked about his age.

"I sometimes wonder if I'm actually that old," he said. "They tell me I was born in 1911, and that's all I have to go by."

Nutter's daughter, Betty Fulton, of West Laurel, said that except for the double hearing aids her father wears, he's had no major health problems.

"Just repair work," she said, "mostly from his falls, because he was still going on roofs when he was 80."

Accessibility is a key reason why Nutter regards Fulton, 70, as the favorite of his three daughters, two of whom live in Florida.

"Betty, my middle child, is my favorite," he announced, "because she lives closest to me. I don't want for anything on account of Betty. She was always active around the home. She still cuts my grass."

Fulton said she enjoys playing Scrabble with her father — he wins almost all the time — along with taking him to eat at places like Bottom of the Bay and IHOP in Laurel.

"He took care of me my first 20 years; I can take care of him his last 20. It's a privilege," Fulton said.

A loving father

Looking forward to his 102nd birthday, Fulton reflected on the impact her father has had on the development of her character and how his conduct has informed her own role as a mother and grandmother.

"I try to live up to the way he raised us," she said. "I'd like to be half the parent that he is."

Fulton laughed as she described the close bond with her father.

"I'm the son he never had; I liked the same things he liked."

While her two sisters tended to stay indoors and focus on housework with their mom, Betty was outdoors in the sun, turning the spring soil to plant a garden. "When I was 13, he had a nickname for me: `Sweaty Betty the Grass-Cutting Nutter.' It was funny but embarrassing," she said.

Along with mowing the grass, she was also expected to wash both of the family cars every week. In return he gave her  "two bucks." Fulton said her family would often motor out farm-studded Route 29 to the sleepy crossroads of Burtonsville, where they would stop for ice cream at Seibel's Restaurant with its simple menu and one-room layout. Their junkets would also include swimming at the Laurel pool on lower Main Street.

Family vacations were always fun and memorable. One year, she said, her father piled everyone in their '55 Chevy station wagon and set out on a six-week, cross-country adventure.

"We went out the northern route and came back the southern route so we could see as much as possible," Fulton said. Along with glimpsing the Grand Canyon, the odyssey included driving to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., the week before it opened.

"We got to look through the gates, which was thrilling," Fulton said.

Other memories have helped shape and define her love and loyalty. While her two sisters signed up for piano lessons, Fulton plied a different path, opting for dancing instead.

"And he came to every recital, every ballet, with my mom," Fulton said. That held special meaning because that was a generation, she said, when "a lot of the fathers couldn't care less about their daughters being in ballet class."    

In 1960, when she was elected Most Athletic Senior Girl at Northwood High in Silver Spring, Nutter was typically supportive of her accomplishment, although he wasn't much interested in sports. Any success, Fulton said, underscored her father's mantra: "Take pride in what you do. If you can't sign your name to what you've done, don't sign it."

With three daughters underfoot, he took special care in watching their comings and goings with boys. If Fulton was late coming home from a date, "he'd be standing outside to let the guy know we were in deep do-do."

Top of the lists

Nutter finds himself at the top of many lists. Along with standing out as Slye's oldest customer, Nutter is the eldest member of his church, Woodside Methodist in Silver Spring, where he taught Sunday school for decades. He is also the senior member of his Masonic lodge.

Each year, George Washington University acknowledges Nutter during its graduation ceremony as the oldest living graduate of the school.

"I'm the oldest member emeritus of everything!" Nutter quipped, his voice strong, his gaze direct. "I intend to attend my 84th high school reunion," he added.

Nutter sleeps about 10 hours a night, arising at 9:30 a.m. Breakfast is typically a bowl of oatmeal, a scrambled or boiled egg, a piece or two of bacon, chicken livers and coffee.

"My appetite's pretty good. That'll last me till lunchtime," Nutter said.

"We read the Bible together, we sing hymns together, we pray," said Gloria McCormack, the nursing assistant who's lived with Nutter for more than three years. "I'm delighted to be in the family."

"It's Gloria's Jamaican cooking that keeps him looking this good," Fulton said, adding that her dad has never been hooked on junk food. "This is a person who never eats snacks. It's three meals a day."

Born in Philadelphia on July 17, 1911, Nutter, an only child, moved with his parents to Washington, where his father worked at the Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The high school graduation gift he got from his dad, he recalled, was a Model A Ford.

"I had a lot of fun with it. Then I turned it in for a 1930 Chevrolet. It had a rumble seat in the back."

He can recall when gas was 20 cents a gallon, a newspaper was two cents. "Now it's a dollar and a quarter," he grumbled with a dismissive wave.

And although he's a lifelong Republican, Harry Truman, a Democrat, was his favorite president.

Before receiving his degree in architecture at George Washington University in 1935, he applied for a job as a designer of small houses. Nutter was hired and paid $20 a week.

Later, he began designing houses for an emerging residential neighborhood in White Oak called Burnt Mills Hills. The plan was to construct 60 homes on mostly multi-acre lots. Nutter began that job in 1937, he explained. Less than a year later, he had designed more than a dozen residences, including the English Tudor-style house he still lives in. He said the house, which sits on a 1-acre lot, cost him $16,500.

To honor Nutter and the impact he has had on the neighborhood during the past 78 years, the civic association set aside a small piece of common area, planted flowers and installed a park bench, and named it "Nutter's Triangle."

Deepening a father-daughter bond

Dorothy, Nutter's wife of 65 years, died in 2001 of Alzheimer's disease at age 89. Fulton said her mom's passing sent shock waves through her dad, since her mom "waited on him hand and foot."

Nowadays, his day-to-day care is provided by McCormack and a weekend caregiver. However, since neither of them drive, Fulton steps in to provide his transportation to places like church, Masonic Lodge meetings or to glimpse the cherry blossoms, an effort that has deepened the father-daughter connection.

Fulton carefully monitors her dad's comings and goings, making sure he doesn't shake too many hands. A container of Purell hand sanitizer stands at the ready, she said, when she determines he's overdone it with the hand-shaking.

"I'm the wicked witch of West Laurel, because I'm overprotective," she said. If any members of his extended family are sick, "they're not welcome at Dad's," she added flatly.

With nine grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and four great-great grandchildren, "it's a mob when we get together on his birthday for a cookout," Fulton said.

Fulton recalled her father performing an impressive feat at his 100th birthday party in 2011. With his family encircling him, he named every one of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"Everyone was shocked," Fulton said.

Her father, she went on, never forgets to send birthday cards to each family member. At Christmas, he savors the tradition of sending cards to loved ones he designed himself.

According to the Center for Disease control and Prevention, the life expectancy for a man born in 1911 was 53; 50 for a woman. So what accumulated wisdom does Nutter have to dispense after 1,220 months on the planet?

"Keep on living," he advised, gesturing with his hands. "Be happy and don't worry about anything. Treat people like you want to be treated. If I can make it a couple more years. ... but if things go the other way, I feel very happy and blessed."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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