SMALLWOOD - Members of the Finksburg Senior Center unofficially call their small group a social club, but the woman they elected "Senior of the Year" says hard work keeps the place going.

"If you want a center and you want it bad enough, you're going to have to work to make the center succeed," said Elsie Cornwell, 85. "You can have a good time, but you've got to put some work into it, too."

Cornwell enjoys a good card game as much as anyone. But after an hour of playing, she said, she starts feeling she ought to do something more productive.

She and other seniors alternate setting up and serving the noon meal three days a week at the center. Two of her favorite activities are crocheting and participating in the plays the center puts on for other groups.

"She's always making an afghan for some baby," said Suzanne Santalucia, manager of the Finksburg Senior Center.

"Elsie is the kind of person who really understands what a senior center is all about," Santalucia said of Cornwell's willingness to pitch in.

While others grumble about the food every now and then, Santalucia said, Cornwell never does.

Cornwell, the second-oldest of 17 children growing up in Amherst County, Va., and her siblings learned to eat what was put in front of them, she always tells Santalucia.

"Elsie is an inspiration," said MarCelia Somerville of Gamber, another regular at the center. "She has wisdom and stories; it's unreal. She's the drawing card here. She's held this place together. Her favorite saying is 'There are other people who are worse off than we are.'

"Sometimes she's a fussy old ...," Somerville said, smiling. "She keeps us straight."

Cornwell and other members said they wish more area seniors would come to the center Tuesday through Thursday, when they have activities and lunch between 10 a.m. and noon. Santalucia acknowledged, however, that lack of transportation and poor health prevent some from attending.

Only 2 years old, the center is in its second location, in rented quarters at Deer Park United Methodist Church's education building. Santalucia said it confuses some that the Finksburg Senior Center is actually in Smallwood and has a Westminster mailing address.

Cornwell said she hopes the Department of Aging eventually builds a center just for Finksburg, near the Sandymount School.

"I want us to have a center. I've lived a lot of years, I've buried two husbands. After I lost my second husband, if it weren't for the Westminster Senior Center, well, I don't know what would have happened to me," Cornwell said.

"That's my great need -- to be with people," she said.

Her life has been a combination of the same hard work and joy she puts into the senior center.

She worked hard cleaning, cooking, changing diapers and milking cows as a child, and as a teen went to be a live-in baby sitter for a nearby family. Cornwell was 18 when she married her first husband, Edwin Rucker, who was 44. She met Rucker on one of her visits back to her parents' home.

"I fell for the blue eyes and blond hair," Cornwell said. "We ran away and got married. My mother didn't think there was a man born good enough to marry her daughters."

They had six children, who gave them 13 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

Rucker, a U.S. Army officer, moved with his assignments. The couple moved to Maryland in 1925, then to a base in Savannah, Ill., from 1929 to 1934, before moving back to Carroll County.

They bought a small farm in Finksburg on Deer Park Road. Cornwell still lives on that road, but in a different house.

When Rucker died in 1958, Cornwell still had two young boys at home, ages 10 and 12. She had never worked outside her home, except for baby-sitting, but set out to find a job to support her family.

"I knew I was a hard worker," she said.

She got a job in the kitchen of the Forest Inn, and in a few years added a part-time job managing the Reisterstown Elementary School cafeteria from 1963 until 1969.

After she had been at the Forest Inn a few years, a new chef named John Cornwell came to work there. He was recently divorced.

"He was the most bitter person I had ever seen in my life. I hated him with a passion," she said.

In the next few months, John Cornwell's youngest child died. Elsie tried to comfort him, and he seemed to appreciate it, although he said little back, she said.

"A month went by, and he asked me to go out with him," she said. "I said, 'I'm 17 years older than you are.' He looked at me and said, 'Who the hell said anything about your age.' We used to laugh about that later."

They dated for a year until 1966, when she married him at age 62. They continued to work together at the Forest Inn, until the now-defunct Country Fare Restaurant on Route 140 came on the market. They bought it and ran it from 1967 until 1973, when her husband began to suffer from heart ailments. He died while undergoing heart surgery in 1975.

She still has fond memories of him, and every spring, the iris bulbs he gave her to plant more than 20 years ago still emerge in huge blooms of 12 different colors. Cornwell brings them into the senior center.

Of all the hard times she's endured, she said the hardest was the unexpected death of her 46-year-old granddaughter, Joyce Biglen of Baltimore, a year ago from an aneurysm.

Cornwell recounted with vivid detail how three cars drove up to her house that afternoon, with family members coming in person to tell her, "We lost Joyce this morning."

Cornwell couldn't believe her ears, she said.

"And to this day, it's hard for me to accept the fact that she's gone."

Even with her long line of descendants, Cornwell said she still gets excited by the birth of a new baby.

"Every one of them was a big deal to me," she said, including the year-old triplet great-grandsons she hasn't seen yet. Their father is stationed in Germany. But she recently got a videotape in which the triplets are depicted from birth to their first birthday.

Cornwell laughed as she described the early part of the tape, when her grandson keeps mixing up the three newborns and has to be corrected by his wife.

At home, her loyal dog, Shady, waits at the window for her to pull in every afternoon from a day at the senior center. Shady, a Bichon Frise, has figured out what time Cornwell gets home.

"She's smart as a whip. I put a hassock next to the window. She sits there waiting for me to get home," Cornwell said.

Except for some mild cataract trouble that keeps her from driving at night, Cornwell is in good health and hardly ever misses a day at the senior center, her friends said. Since she drives, she picks up other members.

She said her health is better now than when she was younger, as long as she keeps a positive attitude.

"Everything goes to my stomach," she said.

Still, she sometimes worries that the Department of Aging will close the Finksburg Senior Center if more people don't show up. The department closed centers in Union Bridge and a satellite center in Westminster this summer because of low attendance.

"I let a couple things upset me," she said. "I can't do that. I just have to let them go by like the wind, blow away."

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