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Centenarians share secrets to a long life

The secret to a long life? Stay connected, and drink lots of coffee.

As a young girl, Downing Jett Kay danced to music played on a Victrola and watched Model T's drive through the streets of Baltimore.

She wore her hair in a flapper's bob as a member of Forest Park High School's Class of 1926, conducted interviews during the Depression for the Gallup Poll and listened to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats on the radio.

Kay, who turns 107 next month, attributes her longevity to two factors: drinking lots of coffee and maintaining strong social ties.

"I'm always interested in other people," she said. "I think that makes a difference."

Kay joined nine fellow centenarian residents of Pickersgill Retirement Community in Towson for a celebration this week. The group has collectively born witness to more than 1,000 years of life.

Some relied on wheelchairs or walkers, but several walked without assistance. They rested gnarled hands on the arms of friends and staffers, savored crustless sandwiches and lemon bars, and regaled visitors with memories of dancing with the Rockettes and caring for scarlet fever patients.

"These people have lived through experiences and events most people have only read or learned about in school," said Jean Lillquist, a member of the Pickersgill board of directors, which organized the party. Board members mingled with the residents, bringing them cups of tea and punch.

Waldron Sennott, 105, spoke of the pleasures of growing up in a small village in Vermont in the 1910s.

"We roamed around a lot. We went fishing in brooks and ponds and skated on the ponds in the winter," he said.

When he was a college student, Sennott spent his summers working at a camp. There he met his now-104-year-old wife, Adelaide, some 80 summers ago.

"I was fortunate to work in the summer camp year after year. I saw a lot of girls," said Waldron Sennott, a retired radiologist. "Addie was the prettiest. She had very pretty auburn hair."

Her hair now a cloud of white curls, Addie Sennott laughed, blue eyes beaming behind wire-rimmed glasses.

Waldron Sennott said that he and a friend would be allowed to borrow the camp car to pick up guest speakers. He asked Addie, a counselor at a YWCA camp for girls, to join them one evening.

"I was a little surprised she accepted my invitation," he said.

The couple celebrated their 76th anniversary this summer, which means their marriage is rapidly approaching the average life span for men in this country, 77.4 years.

Addie Sennott said the secret to a long marriage is to keep finding new things to learn about the other person.

"You have to still be interested in each other," she said.

Her husband put it this way: "We like one another."

The couple moved from Staten Island, N.Y., to Baltimore when Waldron Sennott became chief of radiology for the old U.S. Public Health Service Hospital at Wyman Park.

The Sennotts settled in Hillendale, where they lived until they were 102 and 101. At the prompting of their son, they moved to an independent living apartment at Pickersgill after Addie Sennott fell and broke her hip.

The couple believe good genes are largely responsible for their long lives. Waldron Sennott added that he had always gotten a lot of exercise and avoided heavy drinking.

"I didn't party an awful lot," he said. "I drank very little, even in college."

All of the centenarians at the gathering Thursday remain as active as possible. Ruth Gore, who turns 100 in a couple of weeks, keeps in touch with neighbors from the Anneslie home where she lived for 71 years. Mae Adams, 102, makes a daily round of visits at the retirement community, checking in on friends and favorite staffers.

Emma Lou Taylor plays bridge with a group of friends who come to visit her at Pickersgill. And each Tuesday, she joins other Pickersgill residents for cocktails and live music.

"I don't feel old at all," said Taylor, who, at 101, does not wear glasses and takes hardly any medications. "As long as I can yak and laugh, I'm happy."

Taylor recalled sneaking into a New York speakeasy with her brothers during Prohibition. They hoisted her up to a bathroom window, she jumped through a transom and then let them in through a back door.

At 17, the Connecticut native joined the Rockettes.

"I had beautiful red-blonde hair in those days and the perfect figure," said Taylor, demonstrating a kick for her daughter-in-law, Vallie Larson, who accompanied her to the event.

Later, after moving to Monkton and marrying, Taylor took art classes and became a painter.

"When modern art came in, I would do these great big paintings," she said. Her art was displayed in a movie theater lobby and the dining room of the old Hutzler's department store restaurant, she said.

Kay, who at 106 is Pickersgill's oldest resident, was interviewed by Amy Schumer in the spring for Schumer's Comedy Central show. Schumer, like Kay, is a Towson University alum, although it was called Towson Normal School when Kay attended.

When her younger child started school at what is now called The Wilkes School at Grace and St. Peter's in Mount Vernon, Kay became a kindergarten teacher, and, eventually, head of the preschool, a position she held for 20 years. She has fond memories of walking her students to survey the city from the top of the Washington Monument.

Kay looked elegant in a ruffled green jacket, her nails a shiny shade of coral as she greeted visitors Thursdays. As she walked up to cut a birthday cake for the centenarians, it was hard to believe she was nearly blind and hard of hearing.

Her granddaughter, Jenna Grifo of Severna Park, said that Kay makes a round of calls to her relatives each evening.

"She touches base with everyone on the phone," said Grifo, who escorted her grandmother to the event. "Just checking in, keeping up with everything."

"I have wonderful friends and a wonderful granddaughter," said Kay. "I am very blessed."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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