John and Ruby Hill are still an item. Even though they are both 100 years old and have been married for 71 years, their bond remains fresh, accented with sweet, not-so-subtle notes of flirtatiousness.
Asked how they hooked up in 1941, John, born in Arkansas on April 18, 1912, about the time of the Titanic disaster, had a ready response.
"She was huntin' a boy," he said plainly, not taking his eyes off his bride, born 22 days after her mate in rural Kentucky.
This pointed accusation drew a burst of feigned ire. "I don' know what you're talkin' about," she pleaded, shooting him a long, lingering glance from her wheelchair.
The bright, affectionate repartee took place early one morning inside their cozy third-floor apartment at Vantage House, an assisted-living center in Columbia, where the couple has lived for the past 10 years.
John and Ruby met in New York City. He was working in the hotel business; she was a secretary to oil baron Winthrop Rockefeller. Their first date was to the top of the Empire State Building.
"She was just a city girl trying to show me New York," John recalled. "We had a lot in common. We both liked to travel."
Their wedding took place on Feb. 1, 1941 in Manhattan, at the Church of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal parish famously known as "The Little Church Around the Corner." Their honeymoon was spent across the Hudson River in New Jersey. "We went deep-sea fishing," she recalled, and "we got sick. Might as well tell the truth!"
"We got seasick," he nodded, carefully taking a tissue from a box, reaching over and handing it to her. "We had to lay down inside the boat until we got home."
The Hills worked in Toledo, Ohio, until retiring at age 60, he from the federal government, she from her job selling properties. After retirement, said daughter Sue Reed, 67, they moved to Leisure World, a senior community in Silver Spring, and in 2002, to Vantage House, in Columbia.
Her parents didn't retreat from life once they stopped drawing paychecks, Reed said. At Leisure World, they regularly attended services at an interfaith chapel and her father played golf regularly until the 1980s. "And they went on at least one cruise a year," Reed added.
Centenarians more numerous
There are more centenarians around than at any time in U.S. history, although they are still not common. According to the Census Bureau's 2010 head count, there were 53,364 people in the United States who were at least 100 years old, including 9,162 men.
How many of those 100-year-olds are married to fellow centenarians is unknown.
Dr. Peter Beilenson, Howard County's health officer, said he did not know the Hills and had only heard of one other instance where both married partners had reached 100.
"It's certainly not common," he said. However, he added it will become more common as more and more people kick smoking, lose weight and exercise more. Medical care has also improved dramatically, he noted, with gerontology "becoming a burgeoning field."
Another important predictor of longevity, Beilenson believes, centers on having stable relationships. "Having companionship and a good, long-term marriage clearly benefits both mental and physical health," Beilenson said.
Reed, who spends much of her time behind the wheel of her van driving her parents to doctor appointments — her dad had cataract surgery just last month — said that overall, their health is stable.
Yet while she believes that genetics play a role in determining life span, Reed, like Beilenson, also believes there is a larger, more mysterious force at work here. "It is my theory that their love for each other has kept them alive," she declared.
Then, turning to her mom, she asked, "Don't you think your love for each other kept you going?"
"Why, sure," Ruby answered, as if that goes without saying. "We take care of each other to this day. At night, I keep an eye open. 'Is he going to fall?' "
On this weekday morning at Vantage House, the conversation inevitably returned to a retro mode — snippets peppered with news of childhood, adolescence and war.
"I'm from Perry, Arkansas," John Hill said. "There were 600 people in town. Eight or 10 kids that graduated in my class. Life was great. My daddy was a lawyer. He drove a horse and buggy to his office every morning. There were no automobiles."
"We were farmers," Ruby followed. "Mostly it was corn. Later, we got into tobacco. I graduated in 1930. There were three of us in our graduating class. I was in the debating group. One time, we rode horseback, 14 miles in the wintertime to debate. Can you imagine that?"
At one point during the morning, the couple was visited by Allyson Stanton, a social worker consultant at Vantage House. She took one look at the Hills and her face lit up.
Stanton was there to evaluate the couple's cognitive skills.
First, she ticked off three names — sock, blue and bed — and asked Ruby to repeat them.
"Sock, blue and bed," Ruby echoed.
"Excellent!" Stanton said.
"Ruby, what year is it right now?"
"2012," came the answer in a composed and confident manner.
"And the month?"
"June," came the response.
"And the day of the week?"
"Uh, I guess it's Friday."
"Wednesday," John corrected her.
All in all, a stellar performance.
"We love John and Ruby," Stanton said. "They're like family to the staff and residents. We moved them over from an independent living apartment to needing more care, and they adjusted beautifully. They are together. They get ill together. They're a complete pair."
As the morning sun streamed into their bedroom, Ruby observed that she has always taken a straight-ahead view of life. "I can't recall being afraid of anything or anybody or any decision I have had to make," she said proudly. "Things were always clear to me. I always had a positive life, and I didn't look back."
"We've had a pretty darn good life," John said, adding that after they retired at age 60, they set sail on a total of 35 cruises around the world.
"We went out to see what was out there," he said, his voice deep and reassuring, "and there is a helluva lot out there. It's a helluva big world."