/ Modified may 13, 2013 6:04 a.m.

Tucson Celebrates Centenarians

Recent event the largest gathering of people over 100 in US


May is Older Americans Month. Around the country, groups are taking the opportunity to celebrate the elderly in their community.

In Tucson, the Pima Council on Aging puts on an annual special event to honor the area's centenarians.

This year, 39 people over the age of 99 gathered in a conference room at Tucson Medical Center.

Centenarian crowd Honorees and their families watch the presentation at the 26th Salute to Centenarians. (PHOTO: Zac Ziegler)

It is the largest yearly gathering of people in their hundreds in the United States.

“This event is one of our favorites," said L'Don Sawyer with TMC. "What makes it so special is watching the centenarians come in. They’re with their family members, and it’s fabulous to see generations of families coming in to celebrate with us.”

There was a reading of City of Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild’s recent proclamation declaring May Older Americans Month in the city, speeches, a poem by one of the group’s newest members, and a musical tribute by Tucson Barbershop Experience.

After the event, each honoree had their portrait taken and then sat down to lunch.

“I think they do a very good job; I enjoy it. And I never thought I was going to be this old,” said 104-year-old Una Burrows. She is the second-oldest centenarian at the event.

Una Burrows 104-year-old Una Burrows is the second-oldest of the honorees at the Salute to Centenarians. (PHOTO: Zac Ziegler)

She can remember when Arizona went from being a territory to a state.

Geneva Patterson attended the event for the second time. She’ll be 101 in September. She first came to Tucson in 1937.

“My sister and I came out for her health, and we fell in love with Tucson," said Geneva. "We said as soon as the first one of us could manage, they’d come back to Tucson and establish a home.”

Less than 35,000 people live in Tucson at the time of Geneva’s first trip. When she returned for good in 1966, the city had just under a quarter-million people.

As she put it, she had her roots firmly planted in Tucson for the many amazing events she has seen .

“Oh heavens, so many of them, but the most remarkable had to be the landing on the moon.”

Cassius Sargent is a 99-year-old real-estate-agent-turned-poet. He’s the one who read a poem he wrote special for the event at the opening.

He shared one of his favorite original poems.

“Levity and Brevity are very much akin/ The fewer words to get it said, the sooner sinks it in.”

He said the poem shares the message he hopes people learn from life.

“I write very brief stuff," said Cassius. "I don’t waste any words.”

Cassius Sargent 99-year-old poet Cassius Sargent opened the Salute to Centenarians with an original poem written for the event. (PHOTO: Zac Ziegler)

Some of the centenarians share reminders of what their generation has seen.

Elzi Hauer moved to the United States from Hungary in the late 1990s.

She’s of Jewish descent, and says she survived the Holocaust only because Allied intervention stopped the Axis Powers just shy of her home in western Hungary.

Her son translates her story into English.

“Her first husband was a horse doctor, a veterinarian. They told him to go to a small town in western Hungary, and she went with him.”

“However, my grandmother, her mother, told her to go back to Budapest. And when in 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary, right away they cleaned out [the Jews] in the rural areas. So her husband died in the Holocaust.”

“However, she was able to survive in Budapest because Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill told the Hungarian leader that if you touch those Jews over there in Budapest, then after the World War we will hang you.”

Those who put on the annual event say the honorees seem to get more youthful each year.

“We have seen people that you don’t think they’re going to be a centenarian as they approach you, but then they say, ‘hi, I’m here being honored for being 100,’" said L'Don Sawyer. "You may mistake them for a 70-year-old. We’re seeing people who are really the model of healthy aging.”

Sawyer and Adina Wingate with the Pima Council on aging shared their favorite tips from centenarians on healthy aging.

“I like the one about the woman who has a Corona every day,” said Sawyer.

Wingate tells her favorite, “I think I like the one that the woman spoke to Oil of Olay being a great beauty product and eating hot dogs because hot dogs have preservatives”

As many of the centenarians leave the conference room at T-M-C, they share one sentiment with each other, 'see you next year.'

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