One in 5 million: Glen Ellyn woman celebrates 110th birthday

  • Charlessa Wiggins plans to celebrate her 110th birthday Saturday with family and friends at The Meadows in Glen Ellyn.

    Charlessa Wiggins plans to celebrate her 110th birthday Saturday with family and friends at The Meadows in Glen Ellyn. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • During her life spanning three centuries, Charlessa Wiggins has lived with optimism, always looking to the future.

    During her life spanning three centuries, Charlessa Wiggins has lived with optimism, always looking to the future. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

Published: 2/8/2008 12:37 PM

When Charlessa Wiggins celebrates her 110th birthday Saturday, she will be surrounded by family, friends, caregivers and reminders of a beautiful life.

This birthday also makes her one in five million: Those are the odds against living to be 110.

Living to 100 has become somewhat common; 1 in 10,000 see the century mark, according to L. Stephen Coles, a visiting scholar at UCLA who maintains the list of the world's oldest people for the Gerontology Research Group.

His list of supercentenarians, those 110 or older, includes only 76 people worldwide. Of those, 32 are in the United States and none are in Illinois.

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The Gerontology Research Group has validated Wiggins' birthday. Researchers believe there is another Illinois woman who is a few weeks older than Wiggins. However, that woman's information has not yet been verified.

Her secret for longevity is simple.

"I fell heir to it, in a way. My mother was 101 when she died," said Wiggins, who lives at the Meadows, an assisted living facility in Glen Ellyn.

That's backed up by Coles' research, which indicates that people like Wiggins tend to escape things like cancer or heart disease that claim most of the population.

"These are not good role models in terms of the advice I give to my patients to extend their own lives - exercise, take vitamins, live stress-free," Coles said.

"They smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and do all the things that are normally considered bad for you. And they live long in spite of that.

"They have good genes. The secret is in their DNA."

Wiggins believes a healthy diet also helps. "I don't like sweets at all. I'd rather have a steak."

What makes Wiggins so special is not just her age - her lifetime has bridged three centuries - but her outlook, sense of optimism and hope for the future.

"She's a treasure," said Judy Peterson, assistant living director for the Meadows, where Charlessa has been living for several months.

"She is an inspiration to other residents. She has such a positive outlook on life."

Wiggins wears dresses every day and takes pride in her meticulous appearance. She loves working crossword puzzles and reading books.

"My mother is an avid reader, aware of what's happening all over the world," said her son, Peter Wiggins of St. Charles.

"I do keep up with the times," Charlessa said. "I read Time magazine and U.S. News and World Report. I like to read romance, history. I like any book that's well-written."

Her life story could read like one of those history books she loves.

Named after her father, Charles, Charlessa Bristol Stark was born in Duluth, Minn., Feb. 9, 1898. She moved with her family to Minneapolis in 1912.

Shortly after World War I, she fell in love with John David Wiggins, a Marine who served on the front lines of France and Germany.

"I met him when he was still in uniform, " she recalled.

They married in 1928. During the Great Depression, she remembers the men who would knock on her door and ask for food.

"The men would travel by freight train from one town to another. They'd mark a cross on the steps - we didn't know about that at the time - showing that our house was a place where you could get a meal. Many of them would come to the back door. I would feed them in return for them digging in the garden or something like that."

Along with raising sons David and Peter, she was also an activist for women's rights, belonged to several study groups, traveled extensively and volunteered all her adult life.

Volunteering for the University of Minnesota International Department in the '50s in conjunction with the State Department in Washington D.C., she and others would play host to visitors from faraway places.

"Some very important people would come, some for business and some for pleasure. I met many, many interesting people," she recalled.

Also during the '50s, while she was working as a volunteer for St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, she made an important discovery when she found some books and records in the basement of the diocese. They were going to be thrown out.

The items turned out to be very significant and valuable historical records of Bishop Henry B. Whipple, who was elected the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota in 1859.

Contained in this cache of documents were records dealing with the Indians, diaries, accounts, baptismal registries and other important records.

"I had charge of them for about 10 years," she said, proud of her stewardship of the documents, many of which are now in place at the National Episcopal Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Charlessa's husband, John, died in 1971. She lived in Minneapolis until 2004 when she moved to Wisconsin to be closer to family. When her son David passed away in May, she came to The Meadows in Glen Ellyn to be closer to Peter, who lives in St. Charles with his wife, Patricia.

Now her family includes two grandchildren, Peter Wiggins Jr. and Sheryl Adkins, as well as three great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

The Wiggins matriarch likes to look back, but it pleases her to look forward as well. In fact, she has plans to travel when the weather gets warmer.

"We have friends in Door County," she said. "I'm hoping to go there this summer."

She would also like to head back to Duluth where she was born.

"We try to get up there every year," she said, laughing as she described a visit to Duluth some years ago when she decided on a whim to revisit her childhood home.

"We rang the doorbell and told them I was born there," she said.

The man who answered was taken by surprise. "He looked at me and at my gray hair and said, 'I didn't realize this house was that old.' "

Oldest Americans

The Gerontology Research Group keeps track of supercentenarians, those who are at least 110 years old. These are the oldest people in the United States.

114 years old:

• Edna Parker, Indiana

113 years old

•Arbella Ewing, Texas

•Gertrude Baines, California

• Catherine Hagel, Minnesota

112 years old

• Beatrice Farve, Georgia

• Elizabeth Stefan, Connecticut

• Mary J. Ray, New Hampshire

• Olivia P. Thomas, New York

• Neva Morris, Iowa

• Maggie Renfro, Louisiana

111 years old

• C. Letitia Lawson, Iowa

• George Francis, California

• Helen Johnson, Oregon

• Eunice Sanborn, Texas

• Florence Busch, Wisconsin

• Besse Cooper, Georgia

• Berta Rosenberg, New York

• Walter Breuning, Montana

• Walter Seward, New Jersey

• Nellie Jones, Michigan

• Beatrice Cooper, Michigan

110 years old

• Hattie Lafayette, Michigan

• Mississippi Wynn, Louisiana

• Dina Manfredini, Iowa

• Viola Koch, California

• M. Chrissie Martenstein, California

• Mary Gentry, Alabama

• Ella Schuler, Kansas

• Ethel Johnson, Ohio

• Noemi Anderson, California

• Ruth M. Lincoln, Arkansas

• Harvey Hite, Indiana

* Researches will have to validate Charlessa Wiggins' date of birth before she can be added to this list.